Fibre, cable, ADSL, bandwidth, contention, speed, wireless, bundles… If you’re looking to upgrade your home broadband or perhaps considering broadband for the first time, there’s a whole world of buzzwords and jargon that make the process seem incredibly complicated. It can be hard to compare broadband from different suppliers because they are not all offering the same thing.
The purpose of this guide is to demystify the world of broadband and help you to find the best broadband deals appropriate to your needs.
Types of broadband
First of all, it’s important to understand that ‘broadband’ covers a wide range of products. In order to compare broadband effectively, you need to understand the different types. The most common is ADSL which is short for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line. This was the first type of broadband to become widely available in the UK.
Basically, ADSL splits your existing phone line in two, keeping voice and data separate. In contrast with the old dial-up internet, you can still make and receive phone calls while surfing the Net. An ADSL setup will need a microfilter (a little box with phone and data sockets) plugged into each telephone socket in the house to prevent interference between voice and data.
With cable broadband from suppliers such as Virgin broadband, the supplier has their own cable running into your home, separate from the BT / Openreach phone line. This allows cable suppliers to offer faster speeds because they are not reliant on the telephone network.
If you need broadband when you are out and about or if you live in an area where landline speeds are not good, then you might consider mobile broadband. This delivers data over the cellular phone network. It’s generally slower and more expensive than fixed-line options but that’s set to change with the faster 5G (fifth generation) network now starting to roll out across the UK.
You will no doubt have been bombarded with adverts from suppliers who are keen to sell you ‘superfast’ fibre broadband. This uses fibre optic cables to deliver the internet signal, however, it comes in two flavours so as you compare broadband, it’s important to understand the difference.
What BT broadband and most other suppliers call ‘fibre’ is actually FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet). This means that the fibre optic cable terminates at the green box at the end of your street and the signal continues to your home via the normal copper phone cables. If you have fibre, the supplier will change the faceplate on your main phone socket to split the phone and data signals, so there’s no longer any need for microfilters.
It’s important to note that with FTTC and ADSL, you are effectively sharing the connection from the cabinet to the exchange with other people in the street – this creates an issue known as contention. Different suppliers have different contention ratios, the higher the ratio, the greater the likelihood that your connection will be a little slower at busy times, such as in the evening when everyone is streaming movies, because your neighbours are sharing the available bandwidth.
If you live in a city, or you are in a location covered by the right cable supplier, then you may be able to get FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) which is sometimes called ‘full fibre’. Here, the fibre comes directly to your home. FTTP allows for far higher speeds because no copper cable is involved but it is, of course, more expensive.
Which is best?
There’s no easy answer to this question, it will depend on where you live and your requirements. ADSL broadband is available across most of the UK, although speeds will vary according to your location. FTTC is available to 94 per cent of the country as of 2019, and most suppliers will have a tool on their website to give you an idea as to the broadband speed you can get in your area.
It’s important to note that with ADSL and FTTC, all suppliers, whether you opt for BT, TalkTalk, PlusNet, Sky or one of the smaller suppliers, are delivering the service via the Openreach network. This means that the speed you are able to get won’t vary much between suppliers. The factors that come into play here are how far you are from the exchange and how far you are from the nearest street cabinet.
The further you are from the cabinet, the more copper cable is involved and the lower your speed will be. On average, ADSL speeds are around 10Mbps (megabits per second) (Not megabytes, see the difference explained here) in urban areas and 6.9Mbps in rural areas. FTTC connections, in contrast, should be able to deliver speeds of up to 50Mbps or more. Remember that these are averages; you can use a broadband speed test to see what speeds you are actually getting in your area.
You will probably want to look at the bigger picture, deciding whether you need combined broadband and phone deals, for example. These often come with benefits including free evening and weekend calls. Also look at what else the supplier is offering. Is there a limit on the amount of data you can use? Do you get a free wireless router? Is the deal bundled with a TV package? What is the contention level? All of these are important considerations as you compare broadband offers.
How to choose
So, now you understand more about the technology and the differences between broadband deals, we can look at how you select the best option. The key factor is how you intend to use your broadband. If you just want to send and receive emails, visit a few websites and download the odd ebook to your Kindle then you will probably be quite happy with ADSL.
If you are a gamer, or if you want to stream movies from Netflix or Amazon Prime, then the extra speed and bandwidth of a fibre connection will be worthwhile. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate this: a single music track is around 5MB in size and will take around 5 seconds to download on an 8Mbps ADSL connection, but only 0.8 of a second on a 50Mbps fibre link. An HD movie, typically around 50MB will take 25 minutes and 4 minutes respectively.
If the contract you are looking at places limits on the amount of data you can use each month, then look carefully at your likely usage. Exceeding your data allowance will lead to additional charges and these might wipe out any savings gained from going for a cheap broadband package in the first place. It’s often better to pay a little more for a higher allowance or unlimited data. Note though that ‘unlimited’ packages are usually still subject to ‘fair use’ restrictions.
You also need to look at what bundles the supplier is offering. If you are looking for cheap broadband then a basic service that offers only broadband may seem attractive – but beware of introductory offers where the price goes up after a few months. Check the length of the contract too; for how long are you committed before you can change supplier?
Most suppliers offer some form of bundled deal. This might involve landline calls either free or at a discounted rate, or a TV package for movies or sports. These bundles may look attractive but it’s pointless paying for something you aren’t going to use. Some suppliers might also offer you a better deal on other related services, for example, if you also opt to have a mobile phone from them.
Armed with all of this information, you should now be in a position to compare broadband and find the best option for your specific needs. Use a broadband checker to see what speeds you can get in your area and make sure that you consider your usage requirements as well as the price of any deals you are offered. Take your time and shop around and you will find the right deal.
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