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What is broadband and how does it work?

Broadband is a type of high-speed internet connection that has surpassed dial-up as the standard way to connect to the internet.
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Broadband is by far the most popular way to get internet in your home, and almost every household in the country uses it to get online.

It used to mean the opposite of ‘narrowband’, which was the technology behind dial-up connections. But after it surpassed dial-up as the standard way to connect to the internet in the 2000s, broadband has taken on many different forms, and now refers to most types of internet connection.

Nowadays, it could mean anything from fixed-line connections like fibre-optic, to 4G and 5G mobile broadband, or even satellite broadband.

In the days of dial-up, you had to hang up the phone to use the internet. But with broadband, the frequencies on a telephone line could be split into channels, so you can use the phone on one channel and the internet on another.

For most of the last 20 years, UK broadband has mainly relied on BT phone lines, either fully or partially on fibre-to-the-cabinet connections. But recently, there has been significant growth in other types too, such as full fibre broadband connections and 4G and 5G mobile broadband.

Read on to learn all about the basics of broadband.

How can I get broadband?

If you haven’t had a broadband connection before, the process of getting one is quite straightforward. But before deciding amongst the many options out there, you need to know:

  • What kind of broadband is available at your home

  • What kind of broadband you need

  • What your budget is

Firstly, it’s important to make sure whether the home you’re living in already has a broadband connection installed. Luckily, if you already have a landline installed at your home, it will be very easy to start getting broadband too.

Most broadband connections use a landline to get to our homes. So getting online could just be a case of contacting your home phone provider, and asking them to upgrade you to a broadband and home phone plan.

If you don’t have a landline installed at your property, or you’d like to explore different providers to your landline supplier, our list of broadband providers will show you a range of options and prices to choose from. Just keep in mind that it takes at least two weeks for a brand-new broadband connection to be installed, because an engineer would have to come in and set it up and give you your wireless router.

man connecting to a wireless router on his phone

What is a wireless router?

When you’re searching, make sure any provider you look into is available at your property first — you can do this by putting your address in the search box when you click on a provider.

You also need to consider what kind of broadband is best for your household. If you live alone or just with a partner, and you don’t expect to be using the internet much, a slower (and cheaper) deal would suit. But if you have multiple people all wanting to connect at the same time, a slightly faster connection might be needed.

Our ‘What broadband speed do I need?’ guide details what speed you should go for, depending on your household size, internet use and budget.

What do I get with a broadband connection?

When you purchase a broadband deal, you will enter a contract with the provider that supplies the connection, often for a fixed term period. This period usually lasts between 12 months and 24 months, but some contracts are monthly rolling too.

By signing up for a  contract, you agree to pay the monthly amount that would have been displayed when you chose your broadband offer. However, it’s worth noting that the price often increases once the fixed term ends. So make sure to keep note of your contract end date, so you know to find a new one before your monthly rate goes up.

When your broadband arrives, whether an engineer installs it or not, you will need to set up a wireless router. This plugs into both a mains socket and your broadband receiver, and will help you access the internet on all of your devices that have a Wi-Fi connection. This includes devices like smartphones, tablets and computers. All you need to do is find the router’s name on your device, and then put in the password displayed on the router to get online.

Make sure to keep your router in an open, central part of the home so you can make the most of its signal. Objects, especially metal ones, can block the Wi-Fi, so it’s best to avoid hiding it away in a cupboard or behind the TV.

Think you’re ready for broadband? Take a look at our more detailed guide on how to get a broadband deal.

Now we’ve shown you how to get broadband, read on to learn more about what broadband is, and find out the different ways it can get to your home.

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When did broadband start?

Broadband first started rolling out at the turn of the millennium. Once we reached the year 2000, internet service providers had figured out a way to ‘split’ the connection on your landline between the internet and your home phone.

By creating multiple channels for data to pass through all at once, a single cable could transmit separate data at the same time. This meant that people no longer had to rely on a dial-up internet connection, where you couldn’t use your home phone if you were connected to the internet, and vice-versa. So broadband allowed households to use both services simultaneously.

This said, it took quite a while for broadband to roll out across the whole country, so dial-up connections were still very much in use until the end of the 2000s. We’re seeing a similar pattern nowadays with full fibre broadband, which does away with the need for a landline completely and offers much faster internet speeds.

For a full timeline of the internet, from when it started right to modern day, read our history of the internet guide.

How does a broadband connection work?

Technically, a broadband connection is what plugs into your home router. And then the connection from your router to all of your devices is usually a wireless one via Wi-Fi. But if we’re strictly talking about how the internet gets to your home, here’s a quick rundown.

  • It all starts with internet data — essential information for devices to do anything online, which could be in the form of a website, a movie, a video call, a video game, etc.

  • Internet data is hosted and shared by a batch of huge servers at one of many locations around the country.

  • A number of broadband providers host networks that allow the data to travel to our homes. This is usually through fixed-line cables, but it can be via mobile internet data (such as 4G or 5G) or even satellite signal.

  • The connection in our homes plugs into a wireless router, which we can connect to with our devices and access the data, such as websites, apps, movies, video calls or online games.

Types of broadband connection

There are a few ways in which broadband is delivered to our homes in the UK:

Copper ADSL

Phone lines, split into multiple different ‘channels’ to allow for both landline andbroadband use, connecting straight from the broadband exchange to your home. Available to 99% of the UK. Average internet speeds of 10Mbps.

Fibre-to-the-cabinet

Fibre-optic cables use pulses of light to transmit data, connecting to a local cabinet on your street, with copper phone lines making the rest of the journey to your home. Available to 96% of the UK. Internet speeds range from 30-70Mbps.

Cable broadband (Virgin Media)

Fibre-optic cables connecting to a local cabinet on your street, with Virgin Media’s coaxial cables making the rest of the journey to your home. Currently available to 52% of the UK, but growing. Internet speeds range from 100Mbps-1Gbps.

Full fibre (fibre-to-the-premises)

Fibre-optic cables connecting straight from the broadband exchange to your home. Currently available to 33% of the UK, but growing. Internet speeds range from 50Mbps to beyond 1Gbps.

Mobile broadband

A special router with a SIM card that connects to 4G or 5G signals in the area and sends that to your devices in the form of Wi-Fi. Average 4G internet speeds are 24Mbps, 5G speeds range from 100-300Mbps.

Satellite broadband

Satellites beam an internet signal to a dish installed at your property, which is plugged into a router in your home. Starlink satellite internet speeds often reach around 300Mbps.

Read our more detailed guide on the different types of broadband connection in the UK.

Wi-Fi vs wired broadband

The final part of your broadband connection is achieved by connecting your devices to your router. This can be done either through Wi-Fi, or with a wired connection.

Wi-Fi is by far the most popular way to connect your devices to the web at home. It simply describes wireless internet, so the majority of your devices — be them smartphones, laptops, smart TVs or streaming sticks — will use Wi-Fi to get online. If your device is Wi-Fi compatible, you can get online by searching for your router’s name on your device’s list of available connections, and then putting in your router’s password.

Most routers alone can provide Wi-Fi signal for the whole property. But make sure you place yours in a clear, central part of the home to make the most of it. If you’re still struggling to connect in certain rooms, you might need a Wi-Fi extender.

Wired internet connections are much simpler to set up. All you need to do is plug one end of an ethernet cable into your router, and the other end into your compatible device. However, they’re only practical for one or two of your devices at most. They supply faster and more reliable internet speeds than Wi-Fi, but only if you’re willing to run a cable all the way to it. That’s why they’re only suitable for large, fixed devices like desktop PCs or games consoles.

Nowadays, it’s likely that you and the rest of your household use multiple internet-connected devices at the same time. And even if you don’t use that many devices, it’s rare that many of them will have a wired internet port either. So in these cases, it’s far easier and more convenient to rely on Wi-Fi connections to your router rather than wired ethernet ones.

What's the difference between fibre broadband and copper broadband?

The main difference between standard ADSL broadband and fibre broadband is the internet speed it provides. Fibre-optic cables transmit much more data in a given time period than the older, copper-based phone lines used for ADSL broadband.

Most ADSL broadband services will offer average download speeds of around 10Mbps — though due to the dated infrastructure it works on and other variables it can be quite inconsistent.

Whether it's the particular line you're connected to, how far you are from your street cabinet or how many people in your neighbourhood are using the internet all at once, many factors can have an effect on the ADSL speed you receive. So in reality, you could receive anything from around 16Mbps to less than 1Mbps, depending on your circumstances.

Most fibre home broadband services, on the other hand, start at around 30Mbps — some three times faster. They also use more robust technology that allows for a more consistent connection that doesn't change speed so unexpectedly.

It's also worth noting that fibre broadband packages at their lowest speeds are often the same price, sometimes even cheaper, than many ADSL prices nowadays — especially if you're currently outside your initial fixed-term contract. So that means you could get a much faster Uswitch broadband deal for even less money.

Fibre broadband deals are offered at a range of speeds up to and beyond 1Gbps (that's 1000Mbps), depending on the type of fibre connection you can get. That's about 100 times faster than copper-based broadband, and it would future-proof your home for decades.

We call fibre broadband 'faster' because downloads complete in a much quicker time. That means that webpages, images and videos load a lot sooner as a result.

But it also means the quality of what you do online significantly improves, because it allows for more detail in the things you watch and listen to online. 4K video, for example, is made possible with superfast fibre speeds.

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