All about cable TV

Cable TV icon

There are lots of ways to get your telly in the UK - we’ve got satellite dishes, internet-based TV, and the good old TV aerials. And then there’s cable TV.

What is cable TV?

It's exactly what it sounds like: a television service that is delivered via cables. Specifically, 'cable TV' usually refers to TV that comes through coaxial cables - super-powered copper cables.

In contrast, Freeview and YouView are provided through TV aerials and sometimes the internet; and you get Sky TV via satellite.

Cable TV in the UK actually goes back as far as 1936, when Piped TV was introduced - it provided service to owners of those brand new television thingies who were struggling to pick up broadcast signals. Needless to say, the technology has come a long way since then.

These days, 'cable TV' generally means premium telly from Virgin Media, which gets you up to 250 channels or so on the biggest package. Virgin Media also delivers its broadband through the very same coaxial cable, so the TiVo box you get with a TV package also has access to content like catch-up TV, apps, and box sets.

Cable TV providers


Virgin Media

Virgin Media is by and large the biggest cable TV provider in the country, covering somewhere between 50% and 60% of the population. Its network used to belong to a few cable providers - namely NTL, Telewest, and Smallworld Cable - but now they've all been consolidated into the single, ever-expanding network that we now know as Virgin Media.

A telly package will get you anywhere from 70 channels all the way up to nearly 250, plus a load of box sets, catch-up services, apps, and enough space to record up to 500 hours of TV thanks to its TiVo box.

Best buy deals
  • Mix TV Bundle
    V6 TiVo Box
    • Average speed* 108Mbps
    • Weekend calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £47.00 per month
    12 month contract
  • Player TV Bundle
    V6 TiVo Box
    • Average speed* 54Mbps
    • Weekend calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £32.00 per month
    12 month contract
  • Full House TV Bundle
    V6 TiVo Box
    • Average speed* 108Mbps
    • Weekend calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £57.00 per month
    12 month contract
  • Full House Sports TV Bundle
    All BT Sport channels in HD
    • Average speed* 108Mbps
    • Weekend calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £77.00 per month
    12 month contract
  • VIP TV Bundle + Talk More Anytime
    Two V6 TiVo Boxes
    • Average speed* 362Mbps
    • Anytime calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £89.00 per month
    12 month contract

*Average speeds are based on the download speeds of at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm to 10pm). Speed can be affected by a range of technical and environmental factors. The speed you receive where you live may be lower than that listed above. You can check the estimated speed to your property prior to purchasing.

Regional cable TV

Virgin Media is the only real national cable TV provider, but scattered around the country you'll also find smaller, regional ones - like WightFibre on the Isle of Wight.

IPTV

Some people describe BT TV and TalkTalk TV as 'cable TV', because most of the services are delivered through a cable. In this case, however, that cable is an ethernet one that connects the set-top box to your home broadband - there's no coaxial cable in sight. Instead it's known as IPTV, or internet protocol television.

Couple watching TV on the sofa

How to get cable TV

Getting cable TV is easy. Pop your postcode into our TV comparison tool, and see if you can get Virgin Media in your area. If so, you're in luck - take a look at what packages you can get, and just click through to sign up. You may need a visit from an engineer if you've never had the provider's services on your property before, but besides that, Virgin Media will give you everything you need to get set up at home quickly. Bear in mind you'll also need to subscribe to Virgin Media's phone services too, and possibly broadband as well.

No dice? Don't worry - there are plenty of other options for getting lots of TV. There's satellite telly from Sky, for instance, which is available almost everywhere and can give you over 300 channels.

Or, if you just want the key extras like BT Sport, Sky One, Discovery, kids' TV, and whatnot, take a look at TV from BT, TalkTalk, or Now TV.

Virgin Media V6 Box

Pros and cons of cable TV


Pros

  • Lots and lots of channels available, around 250 including up to 45 in HD and most Sky channels (though not Sky Atlantic)
  • Less interference and loss of reception
  • Virgin Media provides tons of features, like a TiVo box, premium channels, box sets, and more
  • Can get it bundled with broadband and home phone

Cons

  • Not nearly as widely available as other kinds of TV - Virgin Media covers about 60% of UK homes, whereas Freeview covers 98.5%
  • Can't get quite as many channels as you can from Sky TV
  • More complicated to install than Freeview or YouView
  • It's one of the most expensive TV options
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