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 testing your broadband and getting the best from it. See our Cheap Broadband Deals guide for all the latest deals if you want to do the double and boost performance while slashing your bills.
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 speed - the rate at which you get data from the web - and upload speed - the rate at which you can send data to the web.
Broadbandchoices' broadband speed tester* is tried and tested, while forumites love Ookla's Speedtest.net. Others to try are uSwitch's Broadband Speed Test* and MoneySupermarket's broadband speed test*. Try a couple to get a range of results and perform tests at different times of the day to get an idea of how speeds fluctuate.
If speeds are faster during the day, it's a sign a lot of people in your area with the same provider are online, and possibly means your provider is using traffic management or traffic prioritisation, which is when certain types of traffic, such as heavy downloading and uploading, is restricted to ensure everyone on the network gets a decent speed at busy times.
Check your average speed against what you're paying for. If your provider advertised your package at 'up to 17Mb', yet you're struggling to get 3Mb, there's clearly work to be done.
A provider only needs a paltry 10% of its customers to receive a certain speed before it can advertise that as its fastest (though this could change to 50% soon). However, many providers have signed up to Ofcom's Code of Practice - you can check if yours has on Ofcom's website.
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 so you can see what broadband speed you'd 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. It won't boost your broadband speed, but it will save you money as most providers will upgrade you to a pricier package if you continually exceed your limit, or charge you for the extra 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 get, as broadband signals degrade as they travel down the line to your home.
To get an inkling of what speeds are possible in your immediate area, use uSwitch's Broadband StreetStats* tool. It lets you to play nosey neighbour (no curtain-twitching necessary). Just enter your postcode, click 'Update Map' and it will show you where the nearest exchange is and what speeds people in your area get.
If the exchange is far away and your neighbours are getting similarly slow speeds, the tips below will 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 from the tool and ask what can be done about your speed.
Communications regulator Ofcom has also released its own app showing what speed 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 home, so it's best used for a rough indication of performance.
If the speed test results are much lower than the advertised speed, consider switching if you're out of contract.
Our brand-new Broadband Unbundled tool compares all the deals from major providers, plus deals we've hand picked, including our own blagged deals and exclusive deals from other sites. It's personal to you as it searches your postcode and even checks if using two or even three different providers is cheaper. Find full switching info in our Cheap Broadband Deals guide.
If you're in contract and can't switch without penalty, your provider may allow you to downgrade or send better equipment to boost your speed. Try the quick fixes below too to see if they help.
To maximise the broadband speed your phone line offers, 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 phone 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 investing in a better quality filter (you can find theme 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 get better speeds.
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 and 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 large objects such as thick walls, it's crucial you have a clear path for the signal to travel to your laptop, tablet oir smartphone.
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 at least the places where you are mostly likely to want to connect to the internet.
Ideally, position it high up with no obstacles around it - while they're not the best-looking gadgets, don't be tempted to hide your router away in a cupboard or drawer.
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Get a special widget to cut interference
An iPlate is a bit of plastic which cuts off an unnecessary-yet-interference-prone wire in older phone sockets. At the time of writing, iPlates cost about £10 each from Amazon*. BT customers can get one free just by phoning their provider.
It'll work with most BT-based landlines, whether you're with Sky, TalkTalk or BT, but won't work for newer Openreach-branded sockets or Virgin Media lines.
If you don't mind fiddling about with sockets yourself (although you do so 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.
Fine tune your Wi-Fi signal
Using a wireless router to connect to the web is increasingly the rule rather than exception. Most providers supply them 'free' when you sign a contract.
Though wireless routers are far more convenient than being connected via ethernet cables, they're not as efficient or reliable. If you use Wi-Fi, 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 to use, so don't be surprised if they take up the offer. Not only will this slow your connection, there are 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. Most older Wi-Fi routers operate on the 2.4Ghz frequency spectrum, which itself is split into smaller channels,
As they use the same channel by default, it's worth switching to another if your Wi-Fi is patchy or slow. Your router's manual should show you how to do it, or you can try this Tech Advisor guide.
Get a better antenna for your router. If your computer's situated some distance away from your router, or you've an older 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 and PCs, which don't need to be moved around the room.
Use your home 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). It works by:
Connecting your router to the nearest plug socket using a special device.
This then sends the router signal to another point in your home via the electrical wiring.
- In another part of your home, plug the other half of the kit into a socket to send the router signal to your laptop or another device either by ethernet cable or Wi-Fi. Cable kits tend to be cheaper, eg, the Technomate 200 Mbps Powerline starter kit (two pack) is £14.99 from Amazon* at the time of writing.
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 Tech Advisor's 10 best 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. A decent cheap option is this Netgear booster* available from Amazon for £14.99.
A more beefed up BT-branded booster* is available for £49.99 and Virgin recommends the Netgear Powerline WiFi 1000 at £51 (+£7 p&p). These can trasmit signal at a faster speed (though again, this won't help if your broadband's slow to start with), and provide a wired connection to nearby devices with an ethernet port.
These boosters also work with any provider, so you don't have to be a BT or Virgin customer to use them.
Give your PC a spring clean
You may be surprised by the effect changing settings and having a spring clean has. The things to check are:
Is your antivirus up-to-date? Some viruses, adware, spyware 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 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, more secure and totally free. Try upgrading Internet Explorer or installing a different one for free, such as 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 - it's often found in the 'advanced' tab.
Stop automatic software updates. Some automatic program updates 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, eg, with web browsers and antivirus, leave them enabled.
Rather than choose between bandwith and security, you could turn off automatic updates and then manually update programs when you need to at a time that suits you.
- Check which programs are set to run at startup. Too many will make the computer slow – how to find the offenders depends on which version of Windows you're using.
How-to Geek has a good article explaining how to check what's set to launch at startup and how to stop it. 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 - BBC iPlayer used to do this, but now works differently (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 actually be slower.
How to complain about your broadband provider
The broadband industry doesn't have the best reputation for customer service and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include installation dates being missed, limited service, incorrect billing and, indeed, slow speeds.
It's always worth trying to call your provider first, but if that doesn't do the trick…
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 that we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.
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