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Beginners' guide to broadband

Here's what you need to know about broadband, including how it works, the options available to you and whether you should choose a broadband bundle.

Key points

  • Broadband is a permanent online connection delivering fast internet
  • Broadband bundles can help you save on internet, digital TV and phone bills
  • The cheapest broadband package may not provide you with the data usage you need

Broadband is an essential part of modern-day life, but understanding how it works and the options available are key to finding a great deal.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 86% of British households had internet access in 2015 and 78% of adults accessed the internet every day or almost every day.

What is broadband?

Broadband is a fast, permanent internet connection used by the vast majority of UK households.

It's sometimes referred to as 'always on', meaning that once you've switched on your computer or mobile device, which includes tablets, laptops and smartphones, you're connected and can access the internet at all times of the day.

Previously, the internet was accessed by households using a dial-up connection, but this has become largely redundant.

Here's why broadband beats dial-up connections hands down:

  • 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

Types of broadband 


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

ADSL broadband

ADSL (a type of digital subscriber line) 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.

Remember that it's highly likely that you'll be required to pay a line rental which could be on top of your broadband charge.

There'll also be factors affecting the speed of your broadband, including the time of day you're using it and distance from the telephone exchange, so be aware that you may not get the speed advertised.

Fibre-optic cable broadband

Cable broadband transfers data using a system of fibre-optic cables laid underground, which means that they're able to deliver faster broadband than phone line cables, which tend to be made of copper. 

These type of cables also support cable television and landline telephone calls, which means that there'll be package deals available offering all three services, known as bundles.

Satellite broadband

Satellite broadband is an alternative to ADSL and cable broadband which is 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. 

Note that you probably won't have access to any unlimited packages with satellite broadband, so there will be a cap on your data usage.

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 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 wi-fi networks might suit your needs, but others may find the back-up of mobile broadband invaluable.

However, if you decide to use public wi-fi it's important to make sure that your device is safe from potential viruses and spyware that could be transferred.

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

3G (short for third generation) allows mobile devices, including smartphones and dongles, to receive broadband speed internet on-the-go and complete a number of different tasks.

4G (short for fourth generation) is super-fast broadband technology which can keep up with the demands from top-of-the-range smartphones, including streaming films and uploading pictures to social media.  

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 (but this isn't always the case, so make sure you shop around).

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 have to 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?

Internet usage

Although you may want to plump for the cheapest option available, it's important to make sure that the deal you choose offers the level and speed of broadband that you need.

If you're constantly exceeding your usage limits regularly, you'll be whacked with some pretty hefty charges.

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.

By Emily Bater