Nick | Edited by Steve N
Updated 9 May 2016
Broadband providers only need to give 10% of customers the advertised speed. But even if you're miles from the local exchange, there are lots of tricks to give your broadband connection a FREE speed boost.
This is a guide to getting the best from your broadband. See Checking Broadband Speeds for the four tests you need to take and your rights if speeds just aren't up to sctatch, and our Cheap Broadband guide for the latest bargain deals.
Do a 2-min broadband speed test
If you're reading this guide, you probably think your connection's slower than it should be. But just how slow is it? Do a free speed test for an indication of your download (taking data from the web) and upload (sending data) speeds.
Broadbandchoices' Speed Tester* is tried and tested, plus forumites love Ookla's Speedtest.net. Others to try are uSwitch's Broadband Speed Test* and MoneySupermarket's Broadband Speedtest*. If you can, try a few to get a range of results and record speeds at different times of the day to get a full picture.
If speeds are faster at night, it's a sign your provider's busy during the day, and possibly resorting to traffic-shaping (where some connections are prioritised) to manage bandwidth.
Check your average speed against what you're paying for. If your provider advertised "up to 17Mb", yet you're struggling to get 3Mb, there's clearly work to be done.
Remember advertised speeds are just that though – "advertised".
A provider only needs a paltry 10% of its customers to receive a certain speed before it can advertise that as its fastest. However, many providers have signed up to Ofcom's Code of Practice (you can check yours via the link).
This code states that customers must be informed of estimated broadband speeds before purchase. All providers signed up to the code include a postcode checker on their site, allowing you to see what broadband speed you're going to get in your area.
Got a usage limit?
If you've a monthly download and upload allowance, install a usage checker (try tbbMeter) to keep on top of it. Going over can cost in speed as well as money, as some providers will put the brakes on your connection if you exceed your limit or charge per extra GB you use.
Spy on your neighbours' broadband speed
The distance between your home 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. It lets you to play nosey neighbour (no curtain-twitching necessary). Just tap in your postcode and its map shows you where the nearest exchange is, and what speeds locals get.
If the exchange is far away and your neighbours are getting similarly slow speeds, the tips below help you make the most of what you've got. But if your neighbours get faster speeds, give your provider a call armed with the info and ask what can be done about yours.
The regulator has also recently released its own tool showing what the line to your property (or any other one for that matter) is capable of, though it won't show you what you'll actually get in your house, so it's best used for a rough indication of performance. For more on this see 60-seconds on checking broadband speeds.
If the speed tests give results much lower than advertised, consider switching (if out of contract). Do a postcode check on providers' sites to see what speed is available first.
If you're in contract, your provider may allow you to downgrade or send better equipment to boost speed. Also try the quick fixes below to see if this helps. For full switching info and all the current top deals, see the Cheap Broadband guide.
To maximise your phone line, you need to ensure you have the clearest connection possible. Sadly there's little that can be done about the quality of the line once it's outside your home (short of loads of digging and lawsuits), but there are ways to improve clarity indoors.
Here's what you should look at:
Check your microfilters. Your provider should give you adapters that split your voice and broadband signals. 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 your regular phone line becomes noisier, try plugging in a second filter, or invest in better quality filters (you can find them available online for as little as £2).
Find the best socket. While the distance between your router and PC(s) should be kept to a minimum, it's worth trying multiple phone sockets to see if you can achieve a better result.
Keep your router close to the phone socket. Your modem/router should be as close to the phone socket as possible, as poor-quality phone wires supplied with your equipment can seriously impact speeds. If you must have a longer wire, invest in the best quality cabling you can, but keep it as short as possible.
When using Wi-Fi, obviously the nearer you are to the router, the better your signal will be, and therefore the faster your broadband. Because Wi-Fi signals can't travel through big objects/thick walls, it's also crucial you have a clear path for the signals to travel to your laptop.
So where you place your router can make a massive difference to the speeds you get. Choose a central point to help the wireless signal reach all areas of your home (or the places where you are mostly likely to want to connect from).
Ideally, position it high up in the room, with no immediate obstacles around it. And, although they're not the best looking gadgets, don't be tempted to hide your router away in a cupboard.
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Get a special widget to cut interference
BT's i-Plate is a bit of plastic which cuts off an unnecessary-yet-interference-prone wire in older phone sockets. i-Plates cost about £4 each at BroadbandBuyer, or BT customers should get one free just by phoning and asking.
An i-Plate will work for most BT-based landlines (whether with Sky, TalkTalk or BT), but it won't work for newer Openreach-branded sockets, or Virgin Media lines.
If you don't mind fiddling about with sockets yourself (at your own risk!) it's possible to achieve the same effect without the i-Plate. There's an online tutorial on how to do this, but do your research first.
Fine tune your Wi-Fi signal
Using a wireless router to connect to the web is increasingly the rule rather than exception. Most providers give 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. Not only will this slow your connection, there's also the security issues to think of.
Electrical interference. Like all wireless devices, routers are prone to interference, so placement is important. Nearby electrical equipment is the first thing to sort. Try switching everything bar the router off, then do another speed test to see if it makes a difference.
Cordless phones, baby monitors, home security equipment and even microwaves can interfere, so try to place these away from your router.
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. Your router's manual or a quick search online should show you how to do it.
Get a better antenna on your router. If your computer's situated some distance away from your router, or you've an old home with thick walls, it might be worth considering adding a better antenna to your router to boost signal range.
Get a better router. Since most routers are given away with contracts, you can bet they aren't the best quality. If yours is a few years old it's worth considering a new one, preferably with the fastest current standard, which is named 'AC'.
Opt for wires, not Wi-Fi
It may not be an immediately appealing option, but if you're desperate, reverting to good old-fashioned cables should boost your speed. An ethernet cable is able to transfer data at a faster rate than Wi-Fi can because it doesn't encrypt data as wireless routers do.
Other benefits include much less interference, so you don't have to worry what frequency your neighbour is on, and a more reliable connection for devices such as games consoles or PCs which don't need to be moved around the room.
Use your home's electrics to extend your router's range
If you want to avoid lengthy cables being strewn across your home, you can buy a special 'powerline adapter' kit to use your electric wiring to send the router signal to other parts of your home.
The kit uses your existing electrical wiring to transfer data (alternatively you could try a wireless booster, see below).
It works by:
Connecting your router to the nearest plug socket using a special device.
That can then send the router signal to another point in your home via the electrical wiring.
- In that other part of your home you need to plug the other half of the kit into a socket and you can then send the router signal to your computer or other device either by Ethernet cable or wifi. Cable kits tend to be cheaper, eg, the TP-Link PA411KIT, is currently £22.39 on Amazon*. Wi-Fi kits typically start around the £45 price mark.
Before you buy, check the adapters are fully compatible with your router – if they're not, they may not significantly boost your speed. For a starting point try PC Advisor's best 18 powerline adapters.
Try a wireless booster
Wireless boosters are designed for folks with big homes or those with signal blackspots where the signal isn’t strong enough.
However the gadget just extends the wireless signal – it won't improve your broadband speed or bandwidth. Here's how to grab one if you're a Sky, BT or Virgin Media customer:
Sky. Follow this Sky booster link and select 'add'. You need to be a Sky broadband customer. It costs £20, and standard delivery is free. If you're a new customer, your broadband must be activated before you can apply.
BT. If you're a BT customer you can purchase a booster here*. It's a bit pricier than the Sky booster at £49.99 (£2.97 p&p) but it does more – both extending your wireless signal and providing a wired connection for nearby devices with an ethernet port.
This booster also works with any provider, so you don't necessarily have to be a BT customer to use it.
Give your PC a spring clean
You may be surprised at the effect changing settings and having a spring clean can have. Things to check:
Is your antivirus up-to-date? 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 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.
Do you have the latest 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. Try upgrading your Internet Explorer, or installing a different one for free: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Safari.
Have you cleared your 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 PC has to delete files to make space for new ones, and this can slow things.
To empty it, use your web browser's options menu (often in the 'advanced' tab).
Stop automatic software updates. Some automatic program updates can also steal bandwidth without asking, and some (ahem, Apple's) 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), leave them switched on.
Rather than choose between saving bandwith or security, you could turn off automatic updates and then manually update the ones you need to, at a time to suit you.
- Check which programs are set to run at startup. Too many will make the computer slow – to find the offenders, the process depends on whether you're using Windows 7, Vista, or XP, or Windows 8 or 10 (see the Microsoft website to check which you're on).
How-to Geek has a good article explaining how to check what's set to launch at startup and how to stop it. It's important to only deselect the programs you recognise, though.
Stop background PC apps in their tracks
If you use downloaded apps, such as Dropbox or Spotify, check your settings to ensure they don't automatically run in the background. This can have a big impact on your connection speeds.
By default, some will use your bandwidth to send content to other users, even when not switched on. The BBC's iPlayer used to do this, but now works a different way (and tends to be a slower for it).
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 the US, it can be slower.
How to complain about your broadband provider
The broadband industry doesn't have the best customer service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include installation dates not being met, limited service or slow speeds, incorrect billing and more. It’s always worth trying to call your provider first, but if not then…
Free tool if you’re having a problem
This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It’s totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.
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