Broadband basics guide

Make sense of the bits and bytes.
 
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03.Choosing a plan

Your location will influence the amount of choice you have when deciding which type of broadband connection you want. If you’re in a remote area, satellite may be your only option, but even in a major town you could be limited to the slower ADSL speeds if your local telephone exchange hasn’t been upgraded to handle ADSL 2 or 2+.

Broadband is sold in plans, which usually give you a certain capacity per month and lock you into a contract price and period. They are difficult to compare because they often include other things such as fixed line or mobile phone usage and pay TV. The following features relate to the broadband part only.

Speed

ISPs will use their theoretical maximum speeds as an advertising lure, but you should consider it in the context of how you normally use the internet at home.

If you’re mainly into email and occasional web browsing, a slower speed is probably fine. As you increase the frequency and size of the data you download the more convenient a faster speed becomes. Your experience of broadband at work may help if there is one.

Broadband speed is measured by the number of bits of data that flow up and down from your computer to the internet in a second. The number of bits can be very large, so it’s common to refer to them as kilobits or megabits per second (see Glossary for more detail).

Sending data (uploading) is often significantly slower than receiving (downloading). If you regularly send large files (image files, for instance) this may be an issue, but for many it’s a minor inconvenience.

Pre-paid usage

The plans not only limit the speed at which data comes and goes, but also how much data you’re allowed per month. These data limits are usually measured in megabytes or gigabytes (see Glossary for more on the difference between bits and bytes). You need to carefully consider these limits because some plans carry severe penalties for downloading more than your allocation.

These penalties are usually up to about 15c per megabyte. This may not look like much, but a five-minute movie trailer can be about 30 megabytes. Add a few program updates, maybe some music, and things can get quite expensive.

Many plans offer an alternative system called 'shaping'. With these plans, reaching your limit doesn’t incur a financial penalty. Instead, downloading and uploading speeds return to something similar to a dial-up connection. This is a much safer option if you’re unsure how many megabytes you’ll need.

Some ISPs count both sending and receiving when calculating usage. Most only measure downloads from the internet to your computer. Obviously, the latter is a better deal at equivalent overall cost and speed.

In some plans the size of emails is limited and they may only be stored for a set period. If you regularly send or receive big files (such as images) you should check these limits.

Setting up

Check that your computer and its operating system are up to the job. If you’re going to connect via cable, wireless or satellite, then a phone line isn’t necessary for your internet. It is for all versions of ADSL.

Typically, ISPs charge a one-off set-up fee that covers its costs in putting you on the system or transferring you from your existing ISP. A CD with automated set-up software is usually supplied, but you may need to modify some settings to suit your circumstances.

ADSL connections require a special modem and filters, which attach to existing telephone connections on the wall — most ISPs will have a list of preferred models. You can usually purchase these as part of the set-up fee, but look around because they may be cheaper in your local computer or electronics shop.

Installing both the modem and filters is just a matter of plugging them in the right way — your ISP should provide clear instructions on how to do this yourself.

If you’re connecting via wireless, you’ll need a special wireless modem which the ISP provides, at a cost. It’ll need power, but doesn’t require a connection to the phone line. An alternative is a modem card which plugs into your computer’s USB slot. This is useful for laptops and provides mobility, but reduces your computer’s battery life.

Cable and satellite installations require a qualified tradesman. The former uses the same cable as is used for Pay TV and the latter has a satellite dish that has to be pointed at the satellite. Installation may be arranged through your ISP and costs may vary depending on your location, as well as the length and nature of your plan.

 

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