Internet Connection Types (in the UK)
This article will discuss the various technologies used to deliver your internet connection. I have appended (in the UK) as this article will mainly focus on the UK. The most cutting-edge development is now in the field of mobile communications, this is an area where the UK is falling behind other Countries.
Types of Connection
There are five main categories of connection: wired, hybrid fibre, full fibre, mobile broadband (LTE) and satellite. Each have different advantages and disadvantages, the bottom chart will compare these features.
Wired Connections: Dialup, ISDN, ADSL and ADSL2+
Wired connections are the oldest. Wire (mostly copper) but sometimes a combination of copper and aluminium create a line between the exchange and your home. The length of the line will reduce available speed, shorter lines will be the fastest. Dialup connections still exist they use a modem to connect at speeds up to 64kbps. ISDN was introduced after dialup, mainly aimed at business customers and could be configured as two 64k data streams with an extra 16k data link. For faster connections, ADSL and ADSL2 can deliver speeds up to 8Mbps for ADSL and up to 24Mbps for ADSL2+. The connection is delivered from the telephone exchange and they work on cable; usually a mix of copper and aluminium. The speed is dependant on the distance from the exchange, longer lines are subject to temperature effects, around 1% per km for every 10C change in temperature. They work at radio frequencies, and can be affected by electrical interference. Faulty overhead cables can also re-radiate interference, causing interference at medium and short wave frequencies. The telephone exchange, left hand side sends the signal all the way to your home right hand side. The cabling is often a combination of underground and overhead lines.
Hybrid Fibre: FTTC
Hybrid Fibre (known as DSL in some parts of the world) is a combination of fibre and wire. The green street cabinet, has a fibre connection to your ISP, the signal is then converted to an analogue signal and sent over cable to the modem in your home. Because your modem is connected to the street cabinet, the overall distance is much shorter and higher speeds can be achieved. FTTC is available in three speeds 40/10, 55/10 and 80/20. Because the connection to your home is on wire, overall speed depends on the distance from the cabinet to your home and type of cable. Note that there is also a 5% overhead on all connections, speeds are always advertised as up to and line profiles are set up in software. The faster speeds are better suited to short lines and can be affected by electrical interference.
In the UK, Fibre is available in two forms, hybrid fibre and 'full fibre'. With Hybrid fibre, speeds are variable because the line to your house is a copper line, with Full Fibre the connection from the street cabinet is a fibre direct to your home. Most fibre companies, Virgin, City Fibre use underground connections but there is now a new overhead fibre connection. A Full Fibre connection has no loss to your home router. Note that there are still losses if you use Wi-Fi and the connection is only guaranteed to your router, not to your device (laptop, mobile phone, TV etc).
Mobile Broadband 4G 5G LTE
Mobile broadband more commonly known as 4G/5G LTE (Long Term Evolution) uses radio and a signal is transmitted from the aerial mast, direct to your home router. 4G refers to the fourth generation of mobile networks, download speeds up to 300Mbps and upload speeds up to 150Mbps. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks, and speeds are up to 10Gbps download and 1Gbps upload. The major difference of 4G and 5G over the previous mobile networks (2G/3G) is that multiple bands (sometimes four or five bands) are used. Depending on the mobile broadband company four or five bands may be used. This has a huge advantage, if one band cannot be received due to interference, the other bands can usually get through. There are reserved parts of the radio spectrum dedicated for mobile broadband. The radio signal from the transmitter is modulated to carry the data signal. Recent advances in mobile technology now use a modulation technique known as 256QAM. In simple terms this can deliver four times as much data than older modulation types such as 64QAM. Both transmitter and mobile router must use 256QAM. The speed on 4G/5G depends on signal strength to your router. Signal strength is dependent on the distance to the transmitter, height, direction and number of obstacles in the way. A mobile 4G router does not require wires, (only a power supply), there is no set-up, no engineer and no waiting. Also, if you need to move home, you can take simply take it with you, assuming your new home is in range of a 4G/5G transmitter.
Satellite broadband has been around since 1990 and is not new, however back in the 1990's a landline was required to send your data to an up-link station. The up-link station transmitted a high power signal back to space. Since 2015 a landline is no longer required as electronics and radio receivers are much more sensitive and a signal from a home satellite dish can be transmitted direct to the space satellite. Starlink broadband is one company that sell satellite broadband. The satellites in space can reach any location in Western Europe. Satellite broadband uses multiple transponder frequencies and can cope with all types of weather. Download speeds of over 100Mbps and upload over 10Mbps have been reported with latencies of only 40ms.
How much Speed (or Bandwidth) do I need?
Typical internet services may be advertised as 40/10 or just an average download speed. Internet services are generally sold as a package with speeds quoted in megabits per second (Mbps). The speeds are asymmetric, because most of the activities you do online, use your downstream more than your upstream. Your downstream is used when watching videos, on-demand and catch TV and downloads. Upstream is used when you send an email, upload a picture or content to social media, or talk to google, or an Alexa device.
The speed of your connection usually has a 5% overhead, so for example a speed advertised as 40Mbps will allow you to use 38Mbps (less the 5% overhead). The download speed is also known as the bandwidth of your connection, it will only provide full bandwidth for one device, multiple devices will be shared accordingly.
So the question of how much speed you need now depends on the number of devices connected simultaneously. So, if for example you had a 30Mbps connection and three computers were in use at the same time, they would each get a one third share of the bandwidth or about 10 Mbps each. Some typical requirements are shown below:
|Device||Typical Download Usage|
|Watching Standard Definition TV||600 to 1Mbps|
|Watching HD TV||3 to 4Mbps|
|Listening to Streaming Radio||32 to 256kbps|
|Reading Email and Newsgroups||1 to 2Mbps|
|IoT Devices||1 to 256kbps|
|Using Internet (per device)||10Mbps|
|Using Torrents or Peer-Peer||Unlimited|
Please note that these figures are typical and not exact. Streaming TV has a variable usage, because the content (both video and sound) are compressed. Compression rates are also variable because, for example a night scene or scene of similar colours can be compressed more heavily. Iot (Internet of Things) are usually devices or sensors connected to your home router that may measure temperature at various intervals or could be a device used to turn a light on and on from your phone. These use tiny amounts of data because mostly they are nor sending or receiving. Most sites on the internet are restricted and will not use the full capacity of your internet. The last entry of using torrents or peer to peer will set-up multiple simultaneous connections and use your connections full capacity.
So how much speed do you need? The UK Government recommend a minimum speed of 10Mbps. This is fine for watching two HD TV streams about (4Mbps each) and a little left over for reading emails and using the internet. If however you have four TV's, and plan to watch HD at the same time (about 16MBps of bandwidth) then you will benefit from a faster connection.
Network Load Balancing
Your broadband connection to your router is balanced out between the devices (computers, TV's tablets, phones, etc) using it. This is done automatically and known as network load balancing. It also stops devices from taking all the speed. As an example, suppose the download connection is 20Mbps and a TV is streaming HD TV. This could use up to 4Mbps and therefore 16Mbps will be left for the other devices on the home network. Also, suppose that the same connection is used for streaming HD TV and four laptops. The remainder of 16Mbps will be shared between the four laptops, giving them about 4Mbps each. If two of the laptops are reading an internet page of news, then they will not need any more data until they change to a different page or site.
So you've just upgraded your broadband to a package that's advertised as the fastest. You may notice that there does not seem to be much difference on Ebay or BBC or facebook... and you are correct. All large commercial sites may get millions of visitors. They do have infinite capacity to deliver the fastest connection and use a mechanism to ensure that all connections to their site gets an equal share. This mechanism is called "Network load balancing". The exception to this rule is when you download torrents or use peer-to-peer networks. These site will provide multiple simultaneous connections and utilise the full available speed of your connection. Load balancing is better explained with something tangible. See the image below:
So, how does network load balancing work? Imagine you have four people for lunch and are serving an apple pie. You'll cut the pie evenly so everyone gets a share. Now imagine,
that one person is really hungry and wants to eat half of the pie. This would mean there is less pie for everyone else (or you'd need a bigger pie to start with).
So now lets imagine that the pie represents the bandwidth of a website e.g. BBC and the people represent the network connections. At any time (day or night), the BBC may get viewed by 100 million simultaneous connections. To give a reasonable performance the site will need to govern the speed to about 10Mbps per connection. Now that's a lot of pie (or bandwidth). Now lets suppose that some of the people viewing have upgraded their internet connection to a fast fibre connection. Will they be able to view any faster? No, because the site has only a limited bandwidth to start with. (Giving faster connections more speed is like letting someone eat half the pie.) To allow faster sites (is the equivalent of buying a larger pie) and could cost millions of pounds to upgrade. Load balancing ensures that a faster connection does not take all of the sites bandwidth, so that slower connections can still connect. (The exception to this rule is torrent sites or peer to peer networks, where multiple simultaneous connections are made, utilising full capacity of your broadband.)
Sometimes you may hear the term "overhead". Every connection has some type of overhead. In simple terms the overhead is a reserved portion of the network that you cannot use. According to PC Magazine, overhead is the amount of processing or transmitting time used by the system software, database manager or network protocols that transmits additional codes in order to control and manage the data transfer over the network (PC Magazine). In practical terms, overhead reduces your connection speed between 5 and 20%.
Tables of Features
Below is a table of connection types showing the maximum download and upload speeds, whether the connection can be affected by temperature (mostly applies to long copper lines on ADSL/ADSL2) and whether installation requires an engineer, and if it can be moved to a different room or location.
|Connection Type||Max Download Speed||Max Upload Speed||Affected by Temperature||Affected by Interference||Requires Engineer||Easy to Setup||Can be Moved|
Some notes about the above table. This table shows the current fastest speeds for each product, but over time some of these speeds will change (most notably the advanced changes in Fibre, 4G and 5G technology and satellite broadband). Temperature can affect long copper lines on ADSL and ADSL2 technologies as the copper heats up, the connection will slow down slightly. As ADSL and ADSL2 work at radio frequencies, they can be affected by strong sources of local noise. FTTC generally is less affected as it works at higher radio frequencies. Being able to move your service from room to room, or take it with you on holiday is a great advantage to anyone using mobile 4G or 5G technology.
Long Lines and Remote locations
If you live in a remote location or are a long way from nearest town or city then you will have a long line. Service can be very erratic for long lines. Satellite broadband is available everywhere so is one possible solution. Another idea is to locate the direction of the mobile 4G/5G mast. External 4G/5G antennas can be bought which may improve your mobile connection.
I've Just upgraded but it doesn't seem any faster?
If you've upgraded your internet to a faster product, then you may not see any difference in speed on sites like the BBC, Amazon, Ebay and Facebook. Speed is largely academic (meaning that if a site limits its bandwidth so that everyone can use it) then you won't see any difference. If however, you use torrents, or peer to peer networks, then you should see an improvement. If you have lots of connected devices then upgrading to a faster connection may also help.
Conclusion. What should I choose?
The answer will always come down to cost and availability. Sometimes you may also want to trade a slower connection for a better price.
Satellite broadband is available to any location in Western Europe and coverage around the world by Starlink.
Mobile broadband 4G and 5G is excellent and cheaper than most other products, if available where you live. Speeds can be as fast as full fibre, over short distances.
Hybrid Fibre is available, but relatively expensive, and works better on shorter lines.
Full fibre or cable are very reliable but quite expensive, and may not be available everywhere.
The bottom line is all are good systems, the end choice is ultimately yours.