What is broadband?

Broadband is the ‘always-on’ way of connecting a computer to the internet using a copper, cable, fibre or wireless connection.

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Although there is no universally accepted definition of different types of broadband, it is often defined by its download speed ie the speed at which a device can receive information (data) from the internet. A broadband connection’s upload speed ie the rate at which data, such as your photographs or videos is sent to the internet, is also a vital component of ensuring a high-quality online experience. The speed at which data is downloaded or uploaded is measured in megabits per second often abbreviated to either Mbit/s or Mbps.

The Government and Ofcom use the following terms to define a connection’s speed:

• decent – download speeds up to 10 Mbps (upload speeds of up to 1Mbps)
• superfast – download speeds up to 30 Mbps (with upload speeds of up to 10 Mbps)
• ultrafast – download speeds of up to 300 Mbps (upload speeds between 5 Mbps – 21 Mbps according to the broadband package chosen)
• full-fibre – download speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s (with similar upload speeds).

 Broadband that offers faster download than upload speeds is often referred to as an asymmetric connection. Asymmetrical connections are caused either by limitations in the capacity of the digital infrastructure or because the internet service provider (defined later) limits upload speeds.

Broadband services delivered over copper telephone lines often suffer from lower than advertised headline speeds because the signal degrades with distance. Full fibre connections, where the fibre optic cable extends all the way to the customer premises do not suffer from the same problems. Hence full fibre connections are capable of delivering very high speed, symmetric services, often of 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps), irrespective of location, urban or rural.

Wireless broadband services come in two types – fixed and mobile. Fixed Wireless Access services connect to an antenna usually sited on the customer premises. Mobile broadband uses the mobile phone network to deliver services.
 

What you can do with different types of broadband

The broadband and mobile infrastructure that supplies a connection can be compared to water pipes; just as there’s a maximum amount of water you can get through a water pipe of a particular size, there’s a maximum amount of data you can get through a broadband connection. The faster your broadband connection, the more things you can do at the same time.

This has raised consumers’ expectations for connectivity. In an ‘always on’ society, people expect to be connected everywhere through a plethora of devices.

1 Mbps - web browsing and music streaming
10 Mbps - High definition video call
30 Mbps - One person streaming Ultra HD video
300 Mbps - Multiple people streaming Ultra HD video

What can a family do with different download speeds at home
While a decent broadband or a 3G mobile connection will enable basic web browsing, if a family wants to enjoy increasingly high definition videos such as 4K (Ultra HD) via demand services such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer, they will need a faster connection, especially if several people in a family are using different services at the same time.

What can a business do with different download speeds
For any business, internet connectivity is essential. With superfast broadband, businesses can communicate with customers and colleagues using video conference platforms and run e-commerce operations. But the more employees a business has, the faster its connection needs to be. Symmetric connections, where download is as fast as upload speed are especially important for businesses. With an ultrafast symmetric connection uploading files to a cloud service is as quick as storing them on a local hard disk. This is extremely useful for small businesses and home workers who are increasingly moving to cloud services for resilience, security and convenience. Fast upload speeds also facilitate video communications for both social and business interaction.

The broadband marketplace

The broadband marketplace comprises many different companies which supply a range of services to businesses, consumers, or other broadband providers. It can be complex and hard for consumers to understand.

There are three types of broadband provider.

Digital infrastructure providers - those that only build broadband infrastructure and do not deal with consumers directly
Openreach is the biggest digital infrastructure provider in the UK. It is a separate division of BT and is responsible for installing and maintaining the UK’s main telecoms network infrastructure. Openreach sells wholesale products to over 620 retail providers. Recently CityFibre has emerged as a competitor to Openreach building new full fibre networks in cities, operated on a wholesale basis.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - those that only supply a broadband retail service to consumers and do not build infrastructure
ISPs such as Sky, BT and many others, use Openreach’s and CityFibre’s infrastructure to sell broadband retail services to residents. In areas where Openreach has built broadband infrastructure, consumers can often have hundreds of broadband providers to choose from, often including well-known consumer brands such as John Lewis or the Post Office. These providers all use the same Openreach infrastructure.

When a consumer using a broadband retail service provided by one of these ISPs has a problem with their connection, they often have to wait for the infrastructure provider (rather than the ISP they are contracted to) to repair it.

Those that build broadband infrastructure and use it to supply a broadband retail service to consumers
Virgin Media, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear are three of the largest broadband providers who build their own infrastructure and supply the broadband service over the top. Virgin Media and Hyperoptic are ‘vertically integrated’ in that they offer access only to their own package of services. Gigaclear is moving to a wholesale model where customers will have a choice of ISP services. Other providers are expected to do the same over time.

Many of the independent providers are listed by their trade association INCA and can be found online.

It is recommended that consumers shop around to understand who supplies broadband in their areas and at what price, where there is competition. Price comparison websites are often the best way to do this. Ofcom also offer a broadband checker app which allows you to find out which services are available in specific locations, such as your home or workplace.

The Parliament website has an interactive map and database of connectivity speeds broken down by each constituency.

Types of broadband infrastructure

‘Decent’ broadband is delivered using a technology called ADSL via copper cables used by the telephone network. The majority of copper infrastructure across the UK is owned by Openreach with a small enclave around the Hull City Region owned by K-Com.

Cable is faster and uses the same sort of coaxial cables that are used to deliver cable TV direct to people’s houses. It’s only available in the UK from Virgin Media, usually in a package with TV and phone services. It is only available where Virgin Media have installed their infrastructure.

There are two types of fibre broadband, both of which use clusters of fibre optic cables, each one thinner than a human hair.

Most fibre connections in the UK are ‘fibre-to-the-cabinet’ (FTTC), with fibre optic cables running from the telephone exchange (the centralised location housing telecommunications and broadband equipment in each area) to street cabinets before using standard copper telephone wires to connect to nearby premises. As with ADSL lots of different providers offer services using the infrastructure owned by Openreach.

Fibre-to-the-premises broadband (FTTP), as the name suggests, involves fibre optic cables running directly to a home or business. This can offer better than an ‘ultrafast’ connection, with download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gbps (ie 1,000 Mbps), but there are only a few companies offering the service and only in a few parts of the country. The Government wants 15 million homes to be connected by 2025 with coverage across the whole country by 2033. This will be essential to take advantage of new and developing technologies, but according to figures from Ofcom in 2018 only about seven per cent of premises were connected.

There are two options for connecting very remote properties where it’s very expensive to lay a cable or fibre. Some ISPs offer fixed wireless broadband using a variety of different technologies, including 4G mobile phone networks (defined later). Satellite Broadband is another option.

The current broadband connectivity context

In 2018, the Government set targets to help the market roll out fibre-to-the-premises connections to 15 million premises by 2025 and nationwide by 2033. At present, figures from the Ofcom’s Communications Market Report show:

• more than nine in ten homes and businesses have access to ‘superfast broadband coverage’
• full-fibre broadband (using fibre cables all the way from the exchange to people’s homes) is now available to seven per cent of UK properties
• 91 per cent of the UK’s landmass has access to good 4G mobile coverage from at least one operator, while 66 per cent has coverage from all four mobile network operators.

Troubleshooting a poor broadband connection

There are lots of reasons why people’s broadband might not work as well as they expect it to. It can be caused by too many people trying to use it at the same time. Using the water pipe analogy: just as in a house, if someone tries to run a hot tap in the kitchen while someone else is having a shower both will get lukewarm water, if one person in a family tries to watch a movie while several other people stream music in different rooms both the movie and the music will possibly stutter.

Clearly, the faster your broadband connection, the more things you can do at the same time. An ultrafast connection will allow a household to stream several movies, listen to music and catch-up on TV all at a once.

Similarly, factors outside the home can also have an impact. In the same way that the National Grid used to prepare for half-time in the FA Cup final because there would be a power surge as millions of people went to put their kettle on, if most of a street or village connected to the same network goes online at the same time, then there’s a chance everyone’s broadband will slow down. This is called the ‘contention ratio.’

There may be other problems. Inside the home a wifi router might need an upgrade, or it might be poorly configured, or it might be picking up interference because of where it is placed. Also, the distance of people’s homes from the street cabinet or the exchange can affect their broadband connection.

Ofcom has an app which enables you to see if your home wifi is likely to be slowing down your broadband connection. They also have a troubleshooting guide on how to solve problems with people’s phone or broadband.

But not everyone is connected, there are still large parts of the UK that are poorly served by communications services:

• around two per cent of UK premises cannot access a decent fixed broadband service

• around half the homes and businesses who have access to superfast, or better, broadband don’t subscribe to these services.

Regulation of broadband speed

Better broadband speeds information - voluntary codes of practice One of the ways Ofcom regulates the broadband market is through its voluntary code of conduct which is designed to incentivise ISPs to compete fairly, giving consumers and businesses realistic information on the download and upload speeds they are likely to receive, to enable them to make an informed choice between different services.

The four main areas of the code sign up providers to provide:

• speed estimates that reflect peak time speeds ie the times at which internet use in your area is at its highest (contention ratio) and thus your speed is likely to be lower

• a minimum guaranteed download speed should be provided at the point of sale and the standards apply to all bundled services

• the right to exit a contract should be easy if it doesn’t provide the speeds it promises.

The code applies to all broadband technologies. However, not all ISPs have signed up to the code. It can be useful to refer to this code when complaining about the speed of your internet connection to a broadband provider.

Broadband advertising

Broadband advertising is covered by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committees of Advertising Practice. They have published guidance that outlines that any numerical speed claim in a broadband advertisement should represent the download speed available to at least 50 per cent of customers at peak time (8.00 pm-10.00 pm) and described in ads as ‘average’.

Some of the terminology used by broadband providers can also be confusing to customers. For instance, the term ‘fibre’ is used to market both ‘full fibre’ services and those that are ‘part fibre’ where the fibre optic cable runs to a street cabinet and then connected to the customer premises using a copper telephone cable.