How does broadband actually work?

Exploring the broadband considerations for those working flexibly.

For some of us the past can seem like another country – and in terms of the internet, these days of yore are shores best left behind. Pages which took an age to load, fragile net connections and recalcitrant modems; it was far from the relatively seamless experience we take for granted today.

In fact the past barely seems like the same planet as some of the latest developments in internet delivery. In Japan, Sony has just launched what is billed as the world’s fastest internet connection. With download speeds claimed to be 2 Gbps, this is many times faster than what we can receive in the UK. In fact it’s more than typical hardware can handle, so it may be difficult to justify this level of service, based on current needs.

Dial me up

Back in the old days, the best you could hope for would be a dial-up connection using your phone line. Bad luck if someone was already making a call; the system was only capable of doing one or the other.

This system simply wouldn’t provide a usable service today. With the proliferation of wireless laptops, tablets and smartphones in many households and businesses, flexible working practices becoming more and more common, and more people running small businesses from their homes, having a fast, reliable internet connection is increasingly important.

Wires and fibres

Thankfully there are better options for most of us. The two main options for home broadband are ADSL and cable, or optical fibre.

ADSL (or asymmetric digital subscriber line) is effectively broadband delivered down a phone line. Where it differs from a dial-up connection is that it uses a different frequency from your voice calls – this means you can make voice calls while using the internet and performance is faster than the old system. In a physical sense, ADSL uses copper wire fed into your home, where a socket on the wall gives phone and internet connection, using a micro filter to separate your phone line from your broadband.

Broadband delivered by cable is a totally different proposition. Rather than using copper cables to bring the data into your living room, cable broadband is delivered down an optical fibre cable. This has several advantages: speeds are faster, as the composition of the wires means that the signal degrades less – and the single cable can handle landline phone and TV signal as well, meaning everything can be delivered down one pipe. 

Cable does not cover all areas of the UK yet, so this may not be an option for you.

So what’s wireless?

Regardless of how your broadband is delivered to your front door, you need to get it through to your laptop and other devices. This is done by feeding the internet signal through a router – which converts it into a radio signal, which can then be picked up by your WiFi-enabled devices.

Invest in copper – or get more fibre in your diet?

The truth is that unless you are in a household of particularly heavy internet users – who are wanting to get busy online at the same time – then a standard ADSL connection broadband may well be enough. There shouldn’t be a problem with basic web surfing or emailing: simple downloading of files, such as music, is likely to be no problem.

However, if you regularly work from home and rely on your internet connection to get things done – especially if you are downloading and uploading large files – then cable broadband may be a better solution. This is particularly important if you are in a household with several internet users who are using the internet to do different things – for example, streaming HD TV, or using Skype. It can also be helpful if you live a long way from the telephone exchange, as cable is less affected by distance.

Ultimately, think hard about what you really need the internet for. Upload speeds are usually much lower than download speeds – perhaps just a tenth as fast. This may not be a problem for most people, who tend to be doing a majority of downloading. But if you work from home and rely on being able to exchange large files with others, having a strong upload speed may be a big factor, and means you should consider cable.

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc (previous owner of before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the...

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