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
Always be careful to check any software you put on your computer is suitable and compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any individual problems caused by acting upon the information given.
1. 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 (requesting or sending data) speeds.
Broadbandchoice's Speed Tester is tried and tested, plus forumites love Ookla's Speedtest.net. Others to try are uSwitch's Broadband Speed Test and Cnet'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 perhaps 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 16Mb ", 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.
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.
2. Spy on your neighbour's broadband speed
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. 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 are getting faster speeds, give your provider a call armed with the info and ask what can be done about yours.
3. Ditch & switch to a speedier provider
If the speed tests are giving you results that are a much lower than your advertised speed, consider ditching and switching (provided you're out of contract). Do a postcode check on providers sites to see what speed is available to you, before you sign up.
For full switching info and all the current top deals, see the full Cheap Broadband guide.
If you're in contract, your provider may allow you to downgrade to a cheaper package, or send you better equipment to boost speeds. Also try the quick fixes below to see if this helps speed things up.
4. Quick tips to boost your line's power
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 of your house (short of loads of digging and lawsuits), but there are ways to improve clarity indoors:
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 another filter into the first, or invest in better quality filters (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.
5. Reposition your router
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 receive. Make sure you 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.
Additionally, if your computer is on another floor or in a different room, invest in a power line networking kit. This gives you special adapters to plug into your power sockets and sends your broadband connection through your home wiring.
However, starter kits cost around £30, and additional adapters £20 each, making it an expensive option if you need quite a few plugs.
6. Get a special widget to cut interference
BT's iPlate is a bit of plastic which cuts off an unnecessary-yet-interference-prone wire in older phone sockets. iPlates cost about £4 each at BroadbandBuyer, or BT customers should get one free just by phoning and asking.
An iPlate 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 iPlate. There's an online tutorial on how to do this, but do your research first.
7. 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, slowing you down in the process, not to mention the security issues with this.
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 house 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, N.
If you're not sure which type of router you have your provider can tell you or check the specification.
8. Opt for wires, not wi-fi
Not an immediately appealing option, but reverting to cables should boost your broadband speed. Even if you don't want to switch permanently, compare speed test results between a wired (ethernet) and wireless connection to see 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.
9. Give your PC a spring clean
You may be surprised at the effect of 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, 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.
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, then 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.
10. Stop background PC apps in their tracks
If you use downloaded apps, such as Dropbox or Spotify, check your settings to make sure they're not automatically running 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 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).
11. 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.
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.