The UK's pre-war quality phone cables mean most struggle to get close to advertised broadband speeds. But even if you're miles from the local exchange, there are lots of tricks to give your broadband a FREE speed boost.
This is a guide to getting the best from your existing broadband connection. See the Cheap Broadband guide for the latest bargain broadband deals.
In this guide
1. Check your broadband speed
Chances are, if you're reading this, you think your connection's slower than it should be. But just how slow is it? Do a free speed test* for a good indication of your download (taking data from the web) and upload (requesting or sending data) speeds.
As it'll only record the speeds you recieve at the actual time of doing the test, it's worth taking a few speed test results at different points of the day and night.
If you find that speeds are massively faster at night it's a good indication your ISP's struggling during the day, and perhaps even resorting to traffic shaping measures (where certain types of connection are prioritised) to manage bandwidth.
Compare your average speed to what you're paying for. If your ISP advertised "up to 16Mb ", yet you're struggling to get 3Mb, there's clearly work to be done.
Got a usage limit?
If you've a monthly download and upload allowance it's important to install a usage checker (try tbbMeter or Netlimiter) to keep on top of it. Going over can cost in speed as well as money, as some ISPs will put the brakes on your connection if you exceed your limit.
2. Be a nosey neighbour
The distance between your house and the nearest phone exchange is likely to have the biggest impact on what speed you can achieve, as broadband signals degrade as they travel down BT's aged copper lines.
To get an inkling of what speeds are possible in your immediate area, use uSwitch's StreetStats* tool, which allows you to play nosey neighbour (no curtain twitching is necessary). Just tap in your postcode and its Google map will show you where the nearest exchange is, and what speeds locals are getting with which ISPs.
If the exchange is a long way off, and your neighbours are experiencing similarly slow speeds, the tips below will help you make the most of what you've got.
3. Time to switch?
If you find your neighbours are achieving much faster speeds, give your ISP a call and ask what can be done about yours.
If you're in contract, it ought to at least allow you to downgrade to a cheaper package, or send you better equipment to boost speeds.
If you're out of contract it might be time to ditch and switch. You need only ask for your MAC code, and there are currently some cracking broadband deals available.
For full switching info and all the current top deals, see the full Cheap Broadband guide.
4. Clear up your signal
To get the best out of your phone line you need to ensure the clearest signal possible. Unfortunately there's little that can be done about the quality of the line once it's outside of your house (short of loads of digging and lawsuits), but there are ways to improve clarity indoors:
Check your microfilters. Your ISP should provide you with adapters that split your voice and broadband signals up. It's imperative these are plugged into every socket you use, not just the one you use for broadband.
If after plugging the filter in you find your regular phone line becomes noisier, try plugging another filter into the first, or invest in better quality filters (c.£5 each online).
Find the best socket. While the distance between your router and computer(s) should be kept to a minimum ideally, it's worth trying multiple phone sockets to see if you can achieve a better result.
And stay close to it. Your modem/router should be as close to the phone socket as possible, as poor quality supplied phone wires can throttle speeds. If you must have a longer wire, invest in the best-quality cabling you can find, but still keep it as short as possible.
Get an iPlate. BT's iPlate is a bit of plastic which cuts off an unnecessary-yet-interference-prone wire in older phone sockets. They can be bought for £4 each at BroadbandBuyer, or BT customers should be able to get one free by simply phoning and asking.
An iPlate won't work for newer "Openreach" branded sockets, and must go in the divided-across-the-middle master socket (pictured)
If you don't mind fiddling about with sockets yourself (at your own risk!) it's possible to achieve the same effect without the plate, just by removing the offending wire (tutorial).
5. Fine tune your wi-fi
Using a wireless router to connect to the web is increasingly the rule rather than exception. Most ISPs provide them "free" when you sign a contract.
Though wireless routers are far more convenient, they're not as efficient as ever-tangling ethernet cables . If you use one, here are some things to watch out for:
Needy neighbours. Failing to encrypt and password-protect your wireless network makes it available to anybody nearby, so don't be surprised if they take up the offer and use up some of your precious bandwidth, slowing you down in the process.
Electrical interference. Like all wireless devices, routers are prone to interference, so placement is important. Nearby electrical equipment is the first thing to watch out for. Try switching everything except the router off then doing another speed test to see if it makes a difference.
Frequency disruption. Wi-fi routers operate on the 2.4Ghz frequency spectrum, which itself is split into smaller channels.
As many routers use the same default channel, it's worth switching to another if there are lots of networks in the vicinity (free Windows program InSSIDer will tell you what channels others are using - thanks to forumite AHAR for the suggestion). Your router's manual or a quick search online should show you how to do it.
Unfortunately, other networks aren't the only thing you need to watch for interference from. Cordless phones, baby monitors, home security equipment and even microwaves can interfere, so try to place these away from your router.
Range. If your computer's situated some distance away from your router, or you've an old house with thick walls, it might be worth considering adding a better antenna to your router to boost signal range.
A new router. Since most routers are given away with contracts, you can bet they aren't the best quality available. If yours is a few years old it's worth considering a new one, preferably with the fastest current standard, N.
6. Get wired?
Not an immediately appealing option, but reverting back to cables should give your broadband a boost. Even if you don't want to switch permanently, comparing speed test results between a wired (ethernet) and wireless connection will show you exactly how effective your wireless connection is.
Using an ethernet cable is faster both because it offers a faster rate of data transfer, and importantly, because there's no need for it to encrypt the data being sent like wireless routers do.
Another alternative to wireless is power line networking, whereby you plug special adaptors into your power sockets and send the network signals through your home wiring. However, starter kits cost around £35, and additional adaptors around £25 each, making it expensive compared to ethernet cables.
7. Get your computer in shape
If your computer can't take advantage of speedy broadband there's no point paying for it. You might be surprised at the difference changing a few settings and having a bit of a spring clean can make. Things to check:
Antivirus. Some viruses, ad and spyware programs and other nasties can use your broadband connection to report back to their masters in cyberspace, taking up precious bandwidth even as they gather information on you and slow down your computer - the cheek!
It's therefore important to check you've got decent antivirus protection switched on, and to do a full system scan each week.
You needn't pay for it either; check out the Free Antivirus & Safety Software guide.
Browser. If you're still using the web browsing software that came with your computer years ago, switching is a must.
The newest generation of browsers are faster, way more secure, and totally free. Find one that suits in the Best Web Browsers note.
Cache. Your computer's cache stores images and web page info from recently visited sites, which makes them load quicker when you return. Yet when it becomes full, your machine will need to delete files to make space for new ones, and this can slow things down. To empty it, use your web browser's options menu (it's often in the 'advanced' tab).
Bandwidth suckers. If you use the download version of 4oD, or another video streaming program check your settings.
By default, some will use your bandwidth to send content to other users, even when it isn't switched on. The BBC's iPlayer used to do this too, but now it works a different way (and tends to be a little slower for it).
Since video uses a lot of data this can have a big impact on your connection speeds.
Updates/Startup programs. It's not only video content you should be careful of, some automatic program updates can also steal bandwidth without asking, and some (ahem, Apple) can be massive.
You can switch off automatic updates in most programs' settings, but where there's a security risk (ie, with web browsers or antivirus), it's worth leaving them switched on.
Also check which programs are set to run at startup, as too many will make the computer slow. To find the offenders you'll need to get a bit techie. In Windows XP, go to Start > Run, type msconfig.exe and press enter. Now click on the 'startup' tab to see what's running and uncheck the boxes for any you'd like to remove. Only delete those you recognise though.
8. Consider a software boost
If your connection's so slow that even simple browsing takes forever, it might be worth considering a software solution.
First off, free web browser Opera sports a 'turbo mode', which compresses content before it gets to your computer, using less data and hopefully making it faster in the process. Unfortunately, since the info has to travel to Opera's servers in America, sometimes it can be slower.
If you don't mind paying, a year's subscription to OnSpeed costs £24.99. It works in a similar way to Opera's turbo mode, but as it's dedicated it tends to achieve better results. It still won't speed up downloading or watching videos though.
Nonetheless, there's a 14-day money back guarantee, so it might be worth a go if you're really struggling.