Beginners' guide to broadband

Learn the basic information you need on broadband, including how it works and the options available to you.

Getting online has never been quicker or easier thanks to broadband, but understanding how it works and what options are available to you are key to finding the right deal.

Beginners' guide to broadband

What is broadband?

Broadband is a fast, permanent internet connection. It's sometimes referred to as 'always on', meaning that once you've switched on your computer you're connected.

Most homes in the UK now access the internet through broadband - in 2013 dial-up had almost completely disappeared with less than 1% of housholds using it, according to the Office for National Statistics report on internet access. In August 2013 BT turned off its dial-up service completely, due to the tiny number of people using it.

According to the same report, DSL (Digital Subsriber Line) broadband was used by 45% of homes, while fibre optic or cable broadband (see below) was how 42% of the population connected to the internet, following increased investment into fibre optic infrastructure. It's accepted that most homes now choose to use their broadband wirelessly.

Some of the reasons why broadband has displaced dial-up include:

  • It's significantly faster than a dial-up connection. This is because it uses a higher bandwidth than dial-up, meaning more data can be carried at a faster speed. Dial-up uses the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to establish a connection to an internet service provider (ISP) via telephone lines
  • Unlike a dial-up connection a broadband connection doesn't tie up your phone line, so you're free to make and receive calls while online
  • Broadband can carry video, voice and data at the same time, meaning you can enjoy a full range of internet services. With a broadband connection you can download music, video and TV programmes, play online games, share photos and much more

How does broadband work?

There are five main types of broadband connection available: ADSL, cable, fibre optic, satellite and mobile.

You can read about wireless broadband, speed, bundles, security and much more in our broadband guides

ADSL broadband

ADSL (a type of DSL) broadband uses the existing telephone network. A phone socket filter, also known as a microfilter, converts the phone line into two separate signals, one for telephone and one for internet access.

This means that you can make and receive telephone calls while you're online. ADSL broadband is widely available in the UK, with coverage available to more than 99% of the population.

Cable broadband

Cable broadband transfers data using a system of fibre-optic cables laid underground. These also support cable television and landline telephone calls.

Fibre optic broadband

Fibre optic broadband delivers a connection through cables made up of thousands of fibres as thin as human hair. Such cables can provide consistent, superfast speeds, no matter how far you are from a telephone exchange.

Satellite broadband

Satellite broadband is an alternative to ADSL and cable broadband. It's predominantly used in rural areas where there's no ADSL or cable broadband service available.


The internet feed is beamed from a satellite to a dish installed at the subscriber's home. It can be expensive to set up and the signal can be affected by weather conditions.

Mobile broadband

Mobile broadband uses the mobile phone network to connect to the internet - but you don't need a mobile phone to use it. Instead, you use a data card or a USB dongle, which plugs into a USB port on your computer.

This option can be ideal for those who don't want a fixed landline and/or those who want access to broadband on the go - perhaps students, people travelling to business meetings, or journalists and others who regularly work at external locations.

When thinking about this option, consider the growth in free wi-fi networks. In some circumstances relying on such networks might suit your needs, but others may find the back-up of mobile broadband invaluable.

Mobile broadband availability in your area depends on network coverage and signal strength. If the aerials have not been upgraded to 3G (and now 4G in some cities) then speed and connectivity can suffer significantly.

What sort of broadband should I choose?

Your choice of broadband connection will be partly decided by where you live and what’s available in your area. In addition, you should think about speed and cost, with faster connections likely to be more expensive.

The speed you need depends on how you use the internet and your level of usage. Once you've considered these factors, finding the right broadband package for you should be simple. You can read more about broadband speed and usage in our dedicated article.

What are broadband bundles?

Many providers now offer broadband bundles, which means that other services (usually telephone and digital TV) are tied in with your broadband connection for one set monthly fee.


The main attraction of bundled products tends to be their cost and convenience. Bundling telephone calls and digital TV in with your broadband service should prove cost effective when compared to sourcing each service separately.

This is because providers offer savings in the belief that those who bundle are more likely to stay loyal to them for longer. Bundling can also be convenient because it means that you should only deal with one company rather than several.

To decide whether bundles are right for you, consider:

  • The broadband download speed and cap. Are they sufficient for your needs?
  • Would it cost more to pay for each service separately? Look at the true cost over the first year as this will take into account any introductory rates or discounts as well as any charges
  • Is line rental included in the price? If not, how much will it cost you?
  • What calling package is on offer and does it suit your needs? For example, if it offers free daytime calls but you're only home in the evenings, you won’t benefit
  • What are the charges for exceeding your calling allowance or download cap?

Compare broadband

When you compare broadband with you'll be asked your postcode and given a choice of deals for your home, based on whether you want a bundled service and on the speed of internet connection.

Remember, the cheapest deal isn't necessarily the best, so assess your usage to determine what package is right for you.

By Emily Bater