How to improve your broadband speed at home
Lockdown has taught Lisa Ingram the value of superfast broadband at home. She and her husband, Philip, run a small business, Little Leaf Organic Cotton, from their Surrey home near Frensham Pond. During lockdown, all four of their children were at home: two were studying for university exams online, one was doing A-levels using Microsoft Teams and her youngest was virtual learning with Google Meet. They did this all on lowly broadband speeds of 5-8 Mbps, for which they pay £29 a month with John Lewis — the average broadband speed for Britain is 46 Mbps, according to Think Broadband, an independent broadband guide.
“It was tough,” Ingram says. “There were numerous times when the children suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs and shouted, ‘Have you got any internet?’ One half of the house gets the best reception, particularly our spare room, which caused a lot of arguments of who got to use it. I set up a desk for my youngest daughter in the bathroom, as it has good access, and I told her to avoid the loo being in the shot during video calls with her teacher, so she had the towels behind her. My husband didn’t like that as we weren’t allowed to use our own bathroom.”
With the arrival of full-fibre broadband in their area, which will give them speeds of 900 Mbps, the Ingrams are contemplating an upgrade. “I wish we had upgraded before lockdown,” says Ingram, who got frustrated by the constant buffering icon on her screen. “I began to call it the wheel of death.” Not that full fibre is always a guarantee of smooth streaming. Kelly Newton, 49, also runs a small business, BP3 Underwear, from her home in Croydon and has superfast fibre broadband from Virgin with download speeds of 350 Mbps. But she was having to reboot the broadband a couple of times a day during lockdown — although, to be fair, that may be because she has a family of eight. “I run my own business from home. My husband is training to be a train driver, which he has to do a lot of over Zoom, can you believe. Our eldest son is training to be a policeman and was learning from home. Our youngest son got home from boarding school in March and has been here on Playstation ever since. We have four teenage daughters who are constantly streaming TV programmes or on their phones using TikTok; one of them is mad about K-pop. One day I was on a Zoom call giving a talk for an industry conference and the screen froze. It took me 30 minutes to get back on. It was a bit of a disaster.”
Perhaps Newton needs an upgrade: Ofcom defines anything at or above 30 Mbps as superfast and speeds above 300 Mbps as ultrafast. Now there is “hyperfast”. “There is no real definition for hyperfast, it is more a marketing term,” says Dana Tobak, chief executive of Hyperoptic, a fibre-to-the-premises broadband company that offers speeds of up to a whopping 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps), which costs from £45 a month and is now available across 43 UK towns and cities.
But what on earth do you need speeds of 1,000 Mbps for? For a start, you would be able to download an episode of a TV show in three seconds and upload 300 Mb of photos in two seconds. “The benefit is you can do multiple things at once,” explains Tobak, who has 70 devices or appliances connected to the internet in her west London home, often used by five people (including her husband, two daughters and au pair) at the same time. “I have smart light switches and a smart dishwasher, dryer and oven. We have Alexas in all the bedrooms and the kitchen, smart TVs in the games room, cinema room, living room and kitchen, plus a smart music system, and five iPads. Then there are our phones and laptops.”
Hyperoptic ran research this year that showed that fast broadband is now the “fourth utility”, on a par with water, gas and electricity in terms of importance to the public; 64 per cent said they would be put off buying a home with slow wifi (slow speeds reduce house prices by as much as 24 per cent, according to a 2019 study by the online agency Housesimple). Yet one in five of us are still using ADSL — old-fashioned copper phone lines with maximum speeds of 22 Mbps, whose signal weakens the further you are from the phone exchange and the more users you are competing with. You can check how fast your internet is at thinkbroadband.com/speedtest.
So what are your options if you find a dream house that has terrible broadband?
FIBRE TO THE CABINET (FTTC) Some 53 per cent of households in the UK use this. A fibreoptic cable travels from a telephone exchange to a street cabinet. From the cabinet, an old-fashioned copper ADSL phone line travels to your property, but the signal weakens the further away from a cabinet you are. Maximum speeds are generally 76 Mbps if you are close to the cabinet; 3km away your speed might drop to near zero. From £23 a month. Companies: BT, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk etc.
CABLE One in five households in the UK use cable, which is mostly available in urban areas. Speeds range from 500 Mbps to 1,100 Mbps (the fastest in the UK). This involves the same kind of cable that brings us cable TV. It also runs from a street cabinet, but distance does not affect performance, although speeds can dip in busy periods, according to Andrew Ferguson, the editor of Think Broadband. Prices range from £28-£64. Company: Virgin
FIXED WIRELESS ACCESS (FWA) A great solution for villages in rural areas with poor coverage from BT’s Openreach network. You don’t need a phone line. Transmission masts beam a radio signal to homes. Homeowners have a 20cm pole, a lunchbox-sized device or a 15-60cm dish fitted to their roof. Usually requires a clear line of sight from a mast to the house — no trees or buildings in between. Speeds of up to 100 Mbps; £25-£40 a month. “FWA is a stopgap until your community can get full fibre, which is better,” says Ferguson, who adds that FWA is ideal in a place where the geography is tricky, ie on the other side of the river from a fibre network. Companies: Airband, Bigblu, Voneus, Wurzel, Wessex, VFast
FIBRE TO THE PREMISES (FTTP) Generally considered the best option for speed and performance, with costs from £25-£75. The pure fibre-optic cable travels directly to your property, rather than stopping at a street cabinet. If you have had no luck with the Openreach network, private companies such as Gigaclear lay their own fibre networks — they are now available in more than 22 counties, mostly in southern England. “Gigaclear is expanding throughout the Cotswolds and I regularly hear that the internet is better out here than it is in London,” says Harry Gladwin, partner at the Buying Solution.
If you want full fibre in your community — it is available in 16 per cent of the UK — register interest on the Gigaclear website (or another full-fibre network). “If you live in a town of 1,000 houses and one in three are interested it may be in the company’s economic interest to come to you,” says Ferguson.
If it is not in their interest, and your area has speeds of less than 30 Mbps, you and your neighbours can apply for the Rural Gigabit Voucher scheme. The government will offer each property up to £3,500 towards the cost of installing a network. Companies: Gigaclear, Truespeed, B4rn, Bridge Fibre, VFast, Wightfibre, Wessex
SATELLITE Putting a satellite dish on your roof is a last resort, Ferguson says, as it is not always reliable or fast (speeds of 10-20 Mbps). You might have one-second delays in Zoom calls and gaming is difficult, but it may be your only choice if you live on a remote Scottish island. It costs £40-£50 a month. Ferguson predicts speeds will improve up to 50-100 Mbps in the next couple of years thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. Companies: Bigblu, Broadband Everywhere
4G ROUTER If you have a good 4G phone signal in your area you can get broadband using it — a better option than satellite for people who have speeds of less than 10 Mbps or don’t have the option of fixed wireless access, Ferguson says. Speeds tend to vary between 25-40 Mbps, but in some cases can go up to 200 Mbps.
You buy a 4G router for £50-£100. If your 4G signal is patchy inside your house, an external antenna can boost it. Monthly costs range from £25-£45, but it also can depend on how much data you use — some providers have usage caps (300-400 Gb), so not ideal for Netflix watching. Companies: EE, Vodafone, Three
4G MAST An extreme solution for the super-rich. David Forbes, chairman of Savills Private Office, once had a wealthy client in a remote location who had no phone reception or broadband, so put in his own 4G mast for £120,000. Savills has an entire telecoms team to provide solutions for homes in broadband cold spots. The team’s director, David Williamson-Jones, says: “Remote Scotland and Wales have the biggest problems, but we can put a signal anywhere in the UK.”
BROADBAND HOME HACKS
● Get a second broadband line in your house, which will allow you to be immune from streaming kids. If one connection breaks, you have a backup. For added safety, get them from different providers in case one crashes.
● To prevent the signal dropping out add a mesh network such as a BT Whole Home Wi-Fi range extender, £200.
Article by Hugh Graham - Sunday Times