Glossary: broadband technical terms explained
3G broadband: 3G broadband is how most of us access the internet via our phones or laptops, using a mobile signal from a mobile internet service provider. 3G, so called because it was the 'third generation' of mobile technology, has recently been improved by HSPA technology (see below). Most of the UK is now covered by 3G network signals from all the leading suppliers.
4G broadband: 4G broadband is set to gradually supersede 3G, offering far superior connection speeds on a par with home broadband. While coverage is limited right now, it is hoped that the eventual rollout of 4G broadband will give consumers better speeds and also ease congestion across mobile broadband networks. This could mean an end to, or at last a reduction, in the way services are affected at peak usage times.
ADSL: This is an abbreviation of the rather snappily titled 'asymmetric digital subscriber line'. It is a form of DSL which allows for better transfer of data across the old copper telephone lines the majority of the UK currently has (if you're not on cable, that is): all you do is put a 'splitter' (this will normally be provided by your broadband provider) into your telephone wall socket, and you can run both your telephone and your broadband connection simultaneously. Any ADSL line will allow for a broadband connection of 'up to' 8Mb, however ADSL2+ is now widely available throughout the UK: this improves data transfer speeds, allowing for broadband speeds over copper wire of 'up to' 24Mb (though typically not faster than 16Mb in practice).
ADSL2+: See ADSL, above.
Anti-spam: This term refers to computer software that helps protect your email inbox from unwanted 'spam' - the digital equivalent of junk mail. Some internet service providers may give you anti-spam software free as part of their broadband deals, but remember - it is only useful if you use an email client (such as Microsoft Outlook) that downloads your messages directly to your computer. If you use webmail, such as Hotmail or Google Mail, they will have anti-spam software built in. It's also worth looking into free anti-spam programs (such as Mailwasher Free) and checking that your anti-virus protection doesn't do the job for you already.
Anti-virus: This is software that attempts to protect your computer from malicious internet-transferred malware (malicious software normally designed to be intrusive or damaging such as computer viruses, Trojan horses and worms). Malware can damage your computer, steal your personal information or just be annoying, but whatever it does - you don't want it! Some kind of anti-virus software is essential on a broadband-enabled computer, and some internet service providers will give you one of the paid versions (such as Norton or McAfee) for free. However, many people rely on free services such as Avast, AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials.
Anti-spyware: Spyware can implant itself on your PC via your broadband connection and is used to collect information without the owner's consent, such as details of sites visited. It can also do other nasty things such as slow your machine down and alter programs and settings. Some internet service providers include good quality anti-spyware in their broadband packages, but there are other alternatives. For example, Microsoft now lets users of Vista, XP (Service Pack 2 or later), Windows 7 and Windows 8 to download its own software, Windows Defender, for free. Also, many anti-virus packages include anti-spyware.
Bandwidth contention ratio: Your bandwidth contention ratio tells you the potential maximum demand on your broadband connection from yourself and other customers. Once your broadband signal leaves your home it joins a pipe connecting your neighbours and others to the web; so the more people using it at once, the slower it can become. This is often why people see their broadband connection slow down during peak usage times. A higher broadband contention ratio means more users potentially sharing your connection.
Bonding: Broadband bonding is a way in which you can speed up your broadband connection beyond that which would normally be available in your area. Becoming popular especially with business users, bonding sees a third party company take control of several lines going from your local exchange to your premises and combining them, giving you more bandwidth in the process. It works at router level, therefore giving greater speeds, but also works as a good back up - if you're downloading and one of your connections goes down, things will slow down but the download will continue.
Broadband contention ratio: See 'bandwidth contention ratio' above.
Capping: Capping is a term you often hear in the world of broadband, and can be used in two different contexts. Firstly, there can be a cap on how much you are allowed to download on a certain contract - if you exceed this cap, you may have to pay an excess charge or be punished through other means, such as throttling (see below). Secondly, the term is used when discussing throttling - you speed may be artificially capped at a certain rate, either as a punishment for downloading too much data or as a way for your provider to manage data traffic in busy peak-time periods.
Download speed: This term describes how fast your broadband connection can receive data to your computer. A download can be anything from your emails or a web page to live, streaming television or entire computer programs. Anything that comes across the internet to your computer is considered to be 'downloaded'. Similarly, anything going the other way is being 'uploaded' (such as sending your photos to an online website or portal).
Fair usage policy: When is unlimited not unlimited? Fair usage has become an increasingly controversial term when it comes to broadband. Many internet service providers sell what they describe as 'unlimited' broadband packages, where you can (in theory) download as much as you like. However, they are often also constrained in the small print by a fair use policy. This means that while the package says unlimited, implying you can download to your heart's content, the truth is that very high levels of downloading could incur a penalty. This could take the shape of 'throttling' (see below) or capping your usage if you repeatedly 'offend'. In fairness to the providers, they have put this in place to protect the other people sharing your connection (see bandwidth contention, above), but that doesn't excuse the 'unlimited' tag they're giving their packages. If you do need to download a lot of data, try to do it outside of peak times - this may keep you off your provider's naughty radar!
Fibre-optic: Fibre-optic cable will one day replace the older copper cable that has been used on telephone lines for years. Copper cable wasn't introduced with data in mind and as anyone living far away from their BT exchange will testify, a long copper wire from the exchange to the home can heavily hamper ADSL broadband speeds. However, the UK is starting to go fibre-optic and because of the way fibre-optic cable works, there is much less deterioration in speed over distance. Both Virgin (through its cable service) and BT (with Infinity) now offer much faster speeds thanks to fibre broadband, but the areas its available are still relatively restriced.
Firewall: A firewall is used as part of a computer system to stop unwanted traffic arriving on your computer via the internet. The firewall will evaluate everything that arrives at your machine, and if it doesn't meet the settings allocated to it the data will be stopped. A good firewall is pretty much essential to anyone with a broadband-connected computer, and some are included as free as part of an internet service provider's package deal. However, they are often also included in anti-virus software bundles (see above), and there also some very good free options available (including one built into Microsoft Windows and another popular one called Zone Alarm). Also, remember that a firewall alone is not sufficient to keep your computer safe - you'll still need anti-spyware and anti-virus cover, and perhaps anti-spam software (see above). This is because malicious data can sometimes get around a firewall's restrictions.
Fixed-line: Fixed-line broadband is a term used to describe either cable or ADSL internet connections that come into your home via either Virgin Media's cables or a BT telephone line. The term is mostly used to differentiate fixed-line broadband from mobile broadband, as the latter is wireless and uses a mobile signal network.
Free email: Some internet service providers sweeten their deals by offering customers a number of 'free' email addresses. These are normally easy to set up, as the instructions are often included in the start-up CD for your broadband, and will be covered by your provider's tech support. They will also often be used to send out important information about your account, such as price or terms and conditions changes. However, there's a downside: if you switch provider you will lose the email address, and changing email addresses can be a real pain. Also, getting a 'free' email address isn't much to write home about - millions of people now use web-based email (see 'webmail' below) such as Gmail (Google Mail), Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, all of which are free anyway (while having the added bonus of built-in spam filters and anti-virus checkers for your received messages, as well as being able to access your email from any internet-enabled computer, not just your own).
Gb (or gigabit): Gb is short for gigabit, which is a unit used to describe the speed at which data travels across an internet connection (also sometimes seem written as Gbps, or gigabits per second). Current broadband connections are measured in Mb (megabits per second) - there are 1024Mb in 1Gb.
GB (or gigabyte): GB is short for gigabyte, which is often used to describe the size of computer files and memory storage capacity. There are 1024 bytes in a kilobyte (KB), 1024 kilobytes in a megabyte (MB), and 1024 megabytes in a gigabyte. To give a better idea of usage, a small text file could be measured in bytes, a basic Word document in kilobytes, a music file in megabytes and a DVD quality film in gigabytes.
HSDPA: High Speed Downlink Packet Access is a super-powered 3G mobile data standard supporting much faster mobile broadband speeds, currently rated up to 42Mb with further upgrades to the standard planned. In the UK some networks have begun rolling out HSDPA, giving a faster connection to compatible smartphones, tablets and dongles at no extra charge, sometimes coming close to rivalling the new 4G mobile broadband services in performance.
IM: IM is the abbreviation for instant messaging or instant messenger. These terms refer to computer software that lets people chat (via typing on a keyboard) to each other instantaneously. These are often connected to web-based email accounts (such as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail) and social networking sites (such as Facebook and MySpace), but there are also popular dedicated programs such as eBuddy, Skype and ICQ.
IP address: An Internet Protocol address is a string of numbers which acts as a unique identifier for every computer connected to the internet.
ISP:ISP stands for internet service provider - basically, the company responsible for billing you for your internet connection. So, if you get your broadband down a BT line but you pay your bills to O2, O2 is your internet service provider.
Kb (or kilobit): Kb is an abbreviation of kilobit, which is a term used to describe internet speeds - you may also so it written as Kbps, or kilobits per second. This was commonly used to measure dial-up internet speeds (dial-up has largely now been replaced by broadband in the UK) and still crops up with slower mobile broadband connections and slow uploads and downloads of internet files. There are 1024Kb in a Mb.
KB (or kilobyte): KB is short for kilobyte, which is a term used to describe the size of computer files and storage capacity. See 'GB' above for more details.
Landline: Your landline is a telephone coming into your home from either Virgin Media or BT (although you may be billed by someone else). In most instances a landline is required to get broadband, if you cannot for some reason get a landline, you may have to opt for mobile broadband.
LLU: LLU, or local loop unbundling, is a technology that allows BT to open up parts of its telephone exchanges to other ISPs. These providers can then install their own equipment on the lines to improve speed, currently allowing ADSL (up to 8Mb) to be improved to ADSL2+, allowing speeds of 'up to' 24Mb. Not all of BT's exchanges are equipped with LLU. However, BT has started to roll-out ADSL2+ to its exchanges anyway.
LTE: LTE (Long Term Evolution) is a next-generation 4G mobile data standard. While there has been some confusion over whether LTE counts as 4G or is simply a faster type of 3G, it has been widely adopted and marketed as such by networks across the world, including in the UK where it is used by EE for their 4G service.
MAC: A Migration Authorisation Code is used to ease the process of switching ISPs. When you want to change providers your existing company should supply the MAC, which you then pass to the new ISP. Since 2007 it has been compulsory for ISPs to supply a MAC without charge, within five working days after the customer requests it; the code is valid for 30 days. When switching using this method you should not experience more than a few hours downtime during the switchover.
Mb (or Mbps, or megabit): Mb is an abbreviation of Megabit. You may also see it written as Mbps, which stands for megabits per second, as Mb is currently the term most often linked with the measurement of internet speeds. A Mb is 1024Kb, while there are 1024Mb in a Gb.
MB (or megabyte): MB is short for megabyte, which is a term used to describe the size of computer files and storage capacity. See 'GB' above for more details.
Modem: A modem (modulator-demodulator) is an electronic device that decodes data coming to and from computers, changing computer code into sounds that can be sent from one machine to another via either telephone lines or radio waves. This means modems can be wired, wireless or both.
MP3: There are several formats available for digitising music so that it can be stored and played from a computer, but MP3 is the most popular and common. An MP3 is essentially a digitised version of a song that can be played via an MP3 player and stored on a hard drive.
Phorm: Phorm is a company that has generated an online advertising program it calls Webwise. The system has come under heavy criticism as it tracks your internet usage habits (called 'behavioural targeting') to enable targetted advertising, which many allege breaches customer privacy. While ISPs BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk all expressed initial interested in Phorm, none have taken it on. If an ISP does link up with Phorm, and you do not opt out, your personal browsing habits can essentially be farmed out to a third party company.
Throttling: This term refers to internet service providers deliberately slowing down (or throttling) internet connections to certain customers and/or at certain times. It is also referred to as 'traffic management' or 'traffic shaping'. It is most commonly employed during peak broadband usage times and against customers deemed to have overstepped their usage cap or fair usage policy terms. These measures are often temporary and used as a deterrent against those downloading large amounts of data.
Traffic management: See 'throttling' (above).
Traffic shaping: See 'throttling' (above).
Upload speed: This term describes how fast your broadband connection can send data from your computer. A good example of uploading is sending your photos to an online website or portal, or sending emails. Anything that goes across the internet from your computer is considered to be 'uploaded'. Similarly, anything coming in the other way is being 'downloaded' (anything from getting your emails or a web page to live, streaming television or entire computer programs).
Usage allowance: See 'fair usage policy' above.
VOIP: Voice Over IP is a technology for making phone calls using an internet connection, with the advantage that computer-computer calls are free, and calls to standard telephone numbers are often charged at a much lower rate than the phone company. All you need to make a VOIP call is an internet connected device with a microphone and some VOIP software. Skype is currently the most popular VOIP application in the world.
Webmail: Webmail refers to services that store a customer's emails online, instead of downloading them to their machine via a program such as Outlook. The most common webmail services in the UK are Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail, but there are many around - most of them free. They are often seen as preferable to more static, ISP-based forms of email (known commonly as POP3) due to their flexibility - you can keep your email address when you change provider and can access your email from any internet connected computer. Webmail can also be set up to receive emails from POP3 email accounts, and often has built in anti-spam and anti-virus software.
Webspace: Some broadband providers will add a certain amount of free webspace to their packages to encourage customers to sign up. Webspace refers to a certain amount of storage that you can use for files, or setting up your own website. However, there are so many ways to get online for free - blogs, message boards etc - that it isn't really much of an incentive nowadays. Also, if you change ISP, you will also need to move your files or worse, your website - this can be a major headache. While it is still a nice freebie when you're looking for a broadband package, certainly don't look for it as a deal maker.
Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi refers to products that have been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance as working in tandem with other Wi-Fi products. However, in common usage it is taken by most to mean electronic items that work wirelessly over a Wi-Fi network (which should correctly be referred to as WLAN, not that many of us do!). In broadband terms, the most common usage is when referring to wireless routers/modems. These devices connect to the internet via a fixed-line telephone socket and then transmit the data through the ether over a local Wi-Fi network, so that you don't have to run separate wires to your PC, laptop, games console etc. Wi-Fi is now commonly available in places such as hotels, airports and cafes too, offering the internet in public areas (often known as hotspots) - this can either for free or charged.
WiMAX: This term is short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access - a new broadband technology that claims to offer a wireless broadband alternative without the need for cables. Like LTE (see above) WiMAX is being touted as a next generation of mobile broadband, but could be a serious long-term threat to fixed-line broadband too.
WLAN: WLAN is the abbreviation for wireless local area network, and is more commonly known as Wi-Fi. For more details, see Wi-Fi (above).