More than 20 years since the launch of the world wide web, over 17 million people in the UK have broadband access via a network of providers that covers around 99% of the population.
The Government has announced its ambition to deliver speeds of at least 2Mb to every home in the country by 2015 - pushing availability to 100%.
A variety of different technologies are used to deliver broadband to cities and rural areas, ranging from just 512Kb - which is insufficient for most of us in the modern world - to speeds of over 100Mb.
ADSL broadband is delivered via the BT copper wire network used for telephone lines. However, you don't have to take BT Broadband's (www.BT.com) internet or home phone services to get an ADSL broadband connection.
The majority of broadband providers use ADSL technology to deliver broadband to your home, but unlike its predecessor dial-up, which also uses phone lines to access the internet, broadband gives you always-on, high-speed access to the internet while keeping your home phone free to make and receive calls.
Upgraded ADSL2+ technology now allows ADSL providers to offer headline speeds up to 19Mb.
ADSL broadband is available to virtually the whole of the UK, though the speed that you receive varies depending on how far you are from your local exchange, and many connections are significantly slower than the headline speeds advertised.
Local loop unbundled broadband
While local loop unbundled(LLU) broadband still uses ADSL technology and telephone lines to deliver your broadband, many providers like TalkTalk Broadband (www.Talktalk.co.uk) and Sky Broadband (www.Sky.com) have installed their own technology in the local BT telephone exchange allowing them to make savings that they can then pass on to customers through their own competitively priced broadband packages and bundles.
Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) uses its superfast cable network to deliver speeds of up to 100Mb - the UK's fastest, commercially available broadband package, now matched by BT Infinity's 100Mb package.
Virgin Media also offers two other packages over its cable network, at speeds of up to 30Mb and 60Mb.
Virgin Media's cable network is currently available to approximately half of the UK population, and further expansion project are planned for 2013.
BT is expanding its fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) network, which uses fibre optic cables - designed for superfast data transfer - to cover the distance between the telephone exchange and the cabinet on your street. BT aims to make its fibre broadband service available to two-thirds of the population by 2014. BT Infinity offers speeds of up to 38Mb and up to 76Mb.
Mobile broadband allows you to get online almost anywhere in the UK, without the constraints of wires or landlines as the signal is carried over the airwaves. Higher speed 3G mobile broadband services can, in theory, reach 14.4Mb, however Ofcom speed tests in December 2010 found that the average speed achieved by mobile broadband consumers was significantly slower at 1.5Mb.
In good 3G coverage areas, Ofcom found that average mobile broadband speeds were 2.1Mb. Vodafone mobile broadband (www.Vodafone.co.uk) and O2 mobile broadband (www.O2.co.uk) came out top in the mobile broadband speed survey with average speeds of around 2.5Mb and 2.5-3Mb respectively.
Mobile broadband services are available to more than 97% of the country and customers can get online wherever they can get a mobile phone signal, since mobile phone operators use their networks to deliver broadband to laptops via small, portable USB modem sticks andmobile broadband dongles.
The arrival of 4G mobile connections in 2012 has shifted mobile broadband into a new ball park offering speeds which can match and outpace many fixed line connections - however at present EE (www.EE.co.uk) is the only UK provider offering a 4G service. EE estimates that 98% of the population will have 4G coverage by the end of 2014.
This technology is still rarely used by home internet users because costs can be very high. However, satellite broadband options are occasionally the only choice in the few areas where ADSL, cable or mobile broadband availability is poor or non-existent, and providers like Tariam Satellite Broadband are slowly bringing costs down. Some rural communities living in broadband "not-spots" have even banded together to set up their own networks.
Free, or paid for, wireless hotspots allow users to get online using a public Wi-Fi connection. There are a number of hotspot providers including BT, Sky's The Cloud (www.thecloud.net), T-Mobile Broadband (www.T-Mobile.co.uk) and O2 Mobile Broadband (www.O2.co.uk), each with thousands of hotspots throughout the UK and abroad. You can also find wireless hotspot access in coffee shops, hotels, bars and even on the underground.
Finding a broadband provider
Finding a broadband provider in your area is simple. Use our free UK broadband comparison service and type in your postcode - it will give you a list of the top suppliers in your area, ranked by first year cost and highlighting any catches or extra benefits such as a fair usage policy or free internet security.
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