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Beginners guide: what is broadband?

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What is broadband?

Broadband is a high-speed internet connection that allows you to enjoy everything the online world has to offer.

Before broadband, internet access was achieved with dial-up connections that were very slow by today’s standards. Technology has moved on. Broadband is now much quicker and allows us to do a lot more.

How fast is broadband?

What makes a connection fast enough to be called “broadband”? There’s no standard definition, and what qualifies as a broadband service is different worldwide.

In the UK, we have access to a wide variety of services with different levels of performance. Almost every home and business can get high-speed internet access of 30Mb+, but many homes now have access to ultrafast speeds faster than 1Gb!

If you’re not sure what speed you need, or you want to know what you’re currently getting, our easy guide to broadband speeds can help.

How does broadband work?

An internet service provider (ISP) supplies the service and equipment to get your home or business online.

Some ISPs operate their own infrastructure, but this is complex and expensive, so most pay for wholesale access to a network.

Most of the home broadband services you’ll find on Broadband Genie come into your home via a fixed line to a modem and/or router. Your internet will likely be provided by the BT Openreach phone lines or a Virgin Media network connection, though there are also independent, alternative fibre optic networks (known as 'Altnets').

Broadband doesn't always need a line. For example, mobile broadband uses mobile phone networks, satellite internet connects to orbiting relays, and wireless broadband providers using long-range Wi-Fi transmissions.

  • What is Openreach?

    Openreach is the company that maintains the former British Telecom Network used for the majority of broadband and phone services. If a repair or installation is required, it’s Openreach who will send an engineer, not your provider.

    More than 650 service providers using the Openreach network. That’s the majority of the UK’s broadband providers. This includes Sky, TalkTalk and BT. The exception to this is Virgin Media - it uses its own, separate cable network.

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What can I do with broadband internet?

A broadband connection provides you with access to everything you want from the internet. You’ll be able to send and receive email, surf the web, stream music and video, plus a lot more. Basically, anything you want the internet for, you can do with broadband.

What do I need to use broadband?

All you need to use broadband is a device that can connect to the internet and has software for accessing online services. This could be a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone, games console, or any other device capable of connecting over wired or wireless networking.

You’ll also need a bit of hardware to actually have the internet in your home. This could be your phone if you’re using it as a hotspot. But more likely this will be a Wi-Fi router. Your provider will usually send this for free and may be able to help you set it up if need be. Fortunately, the process is pretty simple and all you have to do is plug it into your phone or broadband line and switch it on.

How do I get broadband?

The first step to getting broadband is to check what providers and types of broadband are available to you. Then you can compare prices and deals right here on Broadband Genie, before selecting a provider and signing up.

When you click out to a provider, you’ll be taken through the full process of joining. This will include providing necessary details and paying for any up-front fees.

Remember that for most top broadband providers, it’s also necessary to pass a credit check.

The internet service provider will arrange for the service to be enabled. This may include an engineer visit if work is required. You may also be sent out a Wi-Fi router and any other equipment. On the day your broadband is enabled, you simply need to power up the router and connect it to the broadband.

You’re then ready to begin using high-speed internet in your home.

How can I find out what broadband is available in my area?

Enter your address or postcode below for details of what is available in your home.

Broadband Genie deals checker

There’s something of a postcode lottery for broadband. Even homes on the same street don't always have the same choices. Luckily, our deals checker is clever enough to only show you the broadband options available at your exact address. Give it a go!

Different types of broadband connections

ADSL

ADSL aka 'Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line', is a form of broadband that uses copper phone wires to provide you with the internet. The speeds it can deliver are pretty limited, but the coverage means that the vast majority of people can access the internet through it.

We don’t recommend ADSL services for most people. It tends to be cheaper, but you can get fibre services that are much faster for a similar price.

By the end of January 2027, the copper telephone lines that are used for ADSL connections are due to be switched off.

Fibre optic

Fibre is a type of broadband that allows for much faster speeds. Rather than only using copper wires, it use fibre cables. 

These fibre cables allow data to travel faster, which means the speeds that you’ll access will be quicker too.

Under the fibre banner, you’ll find two different forms of broadband. FTTC ('fibre to the cabinet') and FTTP ('fibre to the premises'). FTTP is also commonly referred to as 'full fibre'.

You can get fibre broadband through the BT Openreach phone lines, from Virgin Media, or through independent providers such as Hyperoptic and Community Fibre that operate their own networks.

  • What’s the difference between ‘FTTC' and 'FTTP' fibre broadband?

    Full Fibre broadband is also known as ‘Fibre To The Premises’, ‘Fibre To The Home’. This is often shortened to FTTP or FTTH. They’re all the same thing!

    Instead of copper telephone wire making up the final part of the journey from that green cabinet on the street, fibre optic cables are installed right up to your home.

    It’s amazing the difference in speed this small data journey can have. With full-fibre broadband you can expect to receive speeds of 1Gb+.

    The downside is full-fibre is only available to a small percentage of homes in the UK, and it’s taking a good while to get everyone up to speed.

Satellite

We don’t recommend satellite broadband unless you’re in a rural area with very limited access to any other form of broadband. It tends to be more expensive than some of the other broadband providers, but it does provide you with decent speeds in places that other providers can’t reach.

If you get satellite broadband, then your broadband uses a modem and a satellite dish to provide your internet. The modem is connected to the dish by wires, and a satellite bounces internet signals back to your home.

Since you have to have a dish installed, you’ll need to wait on installation if you’re interested. But if you’re in a rural area and need strong broadband? It could definitely be worth it.

4G & 5G (mobile broadband)

4G and 5G can be used to get broadband without a phone line.

This uses the same signal as you’d get on mobile phones, but you’ll be provided with a router, or maybe a dongle, that allows you to connect to the internet without any wires.

Like with satellite broadband, this can be an option if you’re in rural areas. It’s also useful if you’re only staying somewhere for a short amount of time, or you don’t want or can’t get a phone or internet line installed. This type of internet access can be pretty fast, especially if you have access to a 5G connection.

4G and 5G Home Broadband is an excellent option if you're keen to get online but don't have, or can't get a fixed line installed. You're also more likely to find flexible, one-month deals available.

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What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that means devices can connect to the internet without being plugged in. The majority of us access the internet solely through Wi-Fi these days. Both at home from our router, out and about on public networks, or at work and around friends’ houses.

It’s very useful and easy to use, but if you want to access the fastest speeds on the most stable connection, you should connect devices to your router through a wired connection. But that’s not always possible due to location or simply just because too many users need to be connected at once.

Fortunately, the existence of Wi-Fi means that we can connect to the internet in so many locations, whatever we need it for.

We’ve got lots more information about Wi-Fi. A good starting point is our guide to Wi-Fi and wireless broadband.

How do I compare broadband?

There’s a wide range of broadband deals out there. But don't worry – Broadband Genie's job is to guide you through them and make finding the perfect deal for you simple. Here’s what to look out for as you compare deals:

Monthly price: This is how much you have to pay each month for the duration of the contract. Sometimes the monthly fee may be discounted for a set period.

Setup fee: A one-off charge for installation. There may also be an additional cost if you do not currently have an active phone or internet line. There are broadband deals with free setup, but this isn’t for every provider. On top of that, sometimes the free set-up is part of a limited-time deal. Free set-up may also not apply if you need a new line.

Speed: One of the most common sales pitches for broadband is speed. Generally speaking, as the speed goes up, so does the price. Almost everyone in the UK will be able to get standard fibre with speeds of at least 30Mb+. Just remember that the speeds being advertised are not necessarily what you’ll get. When you sign up, you'll be given an accurate estimate.

Data limit: Most broadband packages are unlimited, though sometimes the cheapest Wi-Fi broadband deals have a monthly limit. But we don’t recommend these types of deals as they’re not the best value, and that’s why you won’t usually find them on our comparison tables. Not sure what you should get? Our guide to unlimited broadband can point you in the right direction.

Extras: Extras can include free routers, free gifts like shopping vouchers, gadgets, and even cases of wine! Sometimes these are essential, or just provide a nice little bonus to the deal. We have a little tab for all of the broadband deals we advertise that will let you know the effective monthly cost after any money-off deals or reward costs.

Broadband bundles: Bundles can see you save money by ordering telephone and TV deals alongside broadband. You can find Wi-Fi only deals, but bundled packages often work out better value.

How can I check my broadband speed?

If you already have a broadband internet connection, but you're worried about your connection speed, you can check it with our broadband speed test.

To build an accurate picture of your upload and download speed, we recommend you switch off or disconnect all other devices. You should also connect to the router with a network cable if you can. If you don’t have a cable, then make sure you put your computer right next to the router, as that’s where the connection will always be strongest.

You should then run several tests at different times of the day throughout the week to get an average figure.

What if superfast broadband isn’t available in my area?

Superfast broadband isn’t available in every home. If you’re in a rural area, you might have very limited options. If you want fast speeds, then you’ll need to look at other forms of broadband. This might be satellite, or mobile broadband.

If even those aren’t available, there are ways to improve the speed of your broadband.

You can buy Wi-Fi boosters for your router that will improve the speed of Wi-Fi throughout your house. These will be separate devices that you will often need to pay for. You can sometimes get them from your provider or buy them separately, just make sure you check that they’re compatible with your router.

My broadband isn't working, what can I do to fix it?

If you want to troubleshoot your broadband connection, you've come to the right site! If you're specifically having trouble with your wireless connection, head over to our wireless set-up guide for more help.

We realise you may need to speak to your ISP directly about a problem. We've included some handy contact details for all the major ISPs in our guide to customer and technical support. You can find details of all the ISPs listed on Broadband Genie on our customer reviews page.

If you've come to the end of your tether with a failing broadband connection, or simply want to move on to a cheaper, faster or in any way better deal, you should check out the Broadband Genie's guide to switching provider.

Expert Summary

Broadband is the term we use for the high-speed internet that we all want access to these days. It’s a lot better than the narrowband internet that we were stuck with when we had dial-up. ADSL is most common, but we can also now get fibre, satellite, and mobile broadband.

We recommend that you go for fibre broadband if it’s available, especially if it’s full fibre as that’ll be the fastest you can get. The best providers for fibre tend to be those like Virgin Media and Community Fibre. These can be pricier, and you’re limited in where you can get them. Make use of our deals checker to see if fibre is available in your area.

Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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