Wireless Broadband Guide

Confused about the term 'wireless broadband' used in some marketing blurbs? Then read on...

When you hear broadband providers or your colleagues and friends talking about "wireless" they could actually be talking about two separate things; having a wires-free network in your home or having access to wireless hotspots when out of the home.

Let's take a look at each in turn.

Get started with Wireless Broadband

The days of trailing long wires from your phone outlet to you PC are long gone. Every broadband provider now offers you wireless networking as standard, enabling you to get your Wi-Fi enabled laptop, phone and tablet online from anywhere in your house. In this guide we’ll take a look at what you need to know about wireless broadband in the home, as well as how you can use it in public. What do the technical terms mean, how secure is it, and how do you identify the features you need? Read on to find out.

What is wireless broadband?

Wireless broadband — or Wi-Fi, as it is frequently called — is a fast internet connection that you can use without network cables.

It works in a very straightforward way. You attach a small box called a wireless router to your phone line; the router receives internet data via the phone (or fibre) cables, and converts them into radio signals; and any gadget with Wi-Fi capabilities can then pick up these signals to access the internet.

The main advantage of Wi-Fi is convenience. It doesn’t require you to install extra cabling throughout your home, and also doesn’t limit you to using it in a specific spot. So long as you stay within range of the router — typically around 30 metres — then you can connect, whether you’re in the living room, bedroom or even the garden.

All your Wi-Fi devices can connect simultaneously, as well. It’s the easiest way to get your laptop or tablet, console, or eReader online.

Is it secure?

Home Wi-Fi is very secure. All routers have security features installed, and they should already be set up and ready to use.

There are several security standards used by different brands of router, but they work in broadly similar ways. Each one encrypts the data transmitted between your devices and the router, preventing anyone from intercepting it. They also password-protect access to the network. Nobody can connect their devices to your router, and use your internet connection, without knowing the password.

Wireless router jargon buster

You don’t have to understand router tech to use it. But if you want to know exactly what you’re getting there are a few important terms you should know.

  • 802.11: This is the name for a set of specifications that dictate how a wireless network performs. For the consumer, it mostly indicates the maximum speed. The two standards you’ll encounter most are 802.11ac, with a theoretical top speed of 1.3Gb, or the older 802.11n, with a maximum speed of 450Mb. Older routers and devices may use the slower 802.11g standard. Newer routers remain compatible with older standards. If your devices use different standards, the speed will be set to the slowest one.
  • Frequency: The wireless frequencies used by routers are 2.4GHz and 5GHz. 2.4GHz has longer range but is shared with household devices like microwaves and cordless phones, so is crowded and highly susceptible to interference. 5GHz has a shorter range, but is a much cleaner frequency with vastly superior performance. 5GHz is preferable for bandwidth-heavy tasks such as video streaming. Many routers are dual band, i.e. they support both frequencies, but not all can use both concurrently.
  • Channel: Routers are able to broadcast on several different channels. Channels can easily become congested when there are many nearby routers using the same one, and this adversely affects performance. Switching to a different channel can improve the strength and speed of your network connection. Some routers will automatically select a channel, picking the one that is least congested.

Is wireless better than wired?

The main benefit to wireless is its convenience. There’s no clutter from wires and it’s easier to connect multiple devices simultaneously. You can connect different types of devices too, including smartphones, Kindles and handheld gaming devices like the 3DS.

The main downside to Wi-Fi is that speeds decrease the further you are from the router. Physical obstructions such as thick walls also reduce the signal strength. You’ll often achieve markedly slower speeds in the farthest rooms in your house than you would sat right next to the router. If the distance and/or the effect of physical obstacles becomes too great you might even encounter dead spots, where there’s no Wi-Fi signal at all.

A wired internet connection delivers more consistent speeds over the full length of the network. For general use the difference may be minimal, but for things that require consistent speeds and performance — like online gaming — wired may be a better choice.

Fortunately, you needn’t choose between one or the other. Wireless routers have at least a couple of Ethernet ports on the back that you can use to create a cabled connection to your laptop or console.

Do I need to provide my own router?

Most internet service providers supply you with a wireless router, or hub as they often call them, as standard. It is pre-configured to work right out of the box.

Providers who will supply you with a wireless router will state as much on their product pages. On some services, including Sky Broadband and Virgin Media, you cannot use your own router even if you want to (although you can still use an extender if you have performance issues). On others, including BT and TalkTalk, you have the option to replace their hub with your own specialist kit, although this does require a certain level of technical knowledge to configure.

What should I look for in a hub or router?

The hubs and routers supplied by internet service providers are not all the same, and can have very different levels of performance.

Each provider should give you a router that can handle the maximum speed of the connection with a range that will reach all the rooms of a typical home. However, many will also keep their best routers for their fastest fibre products. Standard broadband users can often get previous generation devices that use the 802.11n standard and may only work on the 2.4GHz band.

In practice this may not matter, since N-rated routers should still be faster than standard broadband speeds. But if you’re looking for a fibre connection you should check that the supplied router will be fast enough.

Some providers, including Virgin Media, use the same, fast premium router for all their products.

While it’s useful to know the specs of the router you’re getting, they only take you so far. There are numerous other factors that affect a router’s performance, including the quality and layout of components such as the internal antennas.

You can find detailed tests of all the routers bundled by the major broadband providers on many hardware review sites. These will give you a better indication of real world performance over a range of distances, so you can determine how that relates to your home, where you’ll position the router and where you’ll use the internet.

Reviews can help you decide between different providers, and are especially useful for those providers that won’t allow you to use your own router.

How can I improve Wi-Fi performance and fix dead spots?

You can maximise the range of your Wi-Fi network by placing the router in the best possible position.

Ideally, it would have a central position in your house, be raised off the floor, and not enclosed by walls. In practice you might not be able to do all this, but you should at least try to minimise the number of obstructions. Experiment with different locations if you can.

If you still have problems with slowdown or dead spots, hardware add-ons can fix them.

A Wi-Fi extender (also known as a booster, repeater or access point) is another small box that picks up the signal from your router and re-broadcasts it to effectively extend the range of your network. So, if your router is set up on the ground floor, you could install an extender by the stairs or on the upstairs landing to ensure that the bedrooms are fully covered.

An alternative is a Powerline adapter, also called a HomePlug. These transmit data using the standard electrical wiring in your home. You connect one adapter to your router and plug it into a power outlet nearby, and a second adapter into a power outlet in the room where your Wi-Fi’s signal is subpar. The second adapter becomes an entry point to the network, to which you connect your laptop, console or any other gadget. Adapters can provide either a wired or wireless connection, depending on the type you choose.

Powerline adapters are an easy way of extending your network, and are literally plug and play. For best results you need to ensure you plug them directly into the wall, and should use power sockets that are connected to the same circuit (share the same fuse box switch).

Other types of wireless broadband

Wireless broadband can also refer to a different method of supplying broadband connectivity to your home, or a set of public hotspots that you can use to get online when you’re out of the home.

What is fixed wireless broadband?

Fixed wireless broadband (FWB) brings fast internet access to rural areas that lack the necessary infrastructure for standard broadband services.

FWB is offered by smaller, often local providers, and coverage is quite patchy. There are numerous complications that affect the rollout and access to the services.

To provide fixed wireless broadband, the provider needs to install masts in the town or village, which demands a certain level of interest from local residents. Each individual household also needs to have a receiver installed on their property, which adds to the price. Furthermore, there needs to be line of sight access between the receiver and mast. Even properties in areas of good coverage are not guaranteed a connection for precisely this reason.

The speeds it can deliver vary wildly. Some services are able to rival the speeds of standard broadband, but in the most remote areas they can be considerably slower. We would usually only recommend fixed wireless broadband where there are no other options.

There are many providers of fixed wireless broadband. These include AB Internet, which covers parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern England, WiSpire, which has installed masts on church spires to bring internet access to some Norfolk villages, and hebrides.net, which covers the Outer Hebrides.

How you can use public Wi-Fi hotspots (and where to find them)

Wi-Fi isn’t limited to the home. An increasing number of shops and businesses are offering Wi-Fi access to their customers, and some of the UK’s largest broadband providers have tens of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots their subscribers can use for free.

BT Wi-Fi is the largest network with over five million hotspots. It is free to BT Broadband and BT Mobile users, and bundled on some EE and Vodafone pay monthly deals. Anyone else can access it through pay as you go or pre-pay tariffs.

BT Wi-Fi is primarily provided by utilising a secure segment of home users' broadband connections, allowing their network to range into millions of residential locations. It’s also available in premium business locations including Starbucks, John Lewis and Hilton Hotels. Click here to find more hotspots in your region.

Sky’s service, The Cloud, is free to Sky Broadband customers. Pricing for non-customers is set on a venue by venue basis, and is often free if the venue chooses to pick up the tab. The Cloud hotspots can be found at Marks and Spencer stores and Wetherspoons pubs among other locations. Use The Cloud hotspot map to find nearby locations.

O2 Wi-Fi is free for everyone — just register and sign in. Hotspots are found in places such as McDonalds, Costa Coffee and Debenhams. O2 customers get the O2 Wi-Fi Extra app that automatically signs you in to hotspots without the need to register every time. You can find O2 hotspots here.

Virgin Media also runs its own smaller Wi-Fi network. It’s most significant for bringing Wi-Fi to 150 London Underground stations, which customers of EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three can also access for free.

Is public Wi-Fi secure?

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are a lot less secure than your home Wi-Fi, because they don’t use encryption.

In order to keep the hotspots open and accessible they are not password-protected, so anyone can connect to the network. This means the data you send and receive is unencrypted, leaving it open to being intercepted and read by anyone connected to the same hotspot.

Some websites use their own encrypted connections when you need to enter sensitive information — look for a padlock icon in your browser, or https:// in the address bar. However, many sites will only use this when asking you to enter a password or other login details, before reverting back to an unencrypted service.

For this reason you should only use public Wi-Fi for general web use, not for things like banking or shopping.

If using the hotspot in your local coffee shop is part of your daily routine there are steps you can take to increase your security levels. A VPN (virtual private network) client is an app that encrypts all of the data traffic that passes between your computer and the internet. Hotspot Shield is a good example of a VPN client, and has free versions for Windows and Mac computers, plus iOS and Android mobile devices.

Wi-Fi in hotels is more likely to be secured, and therefore safer to use. In short, if you need a password to connect to the network then it has some level of security in place. If you can connect without one, then there’s no protection. A form asking for your email address before you can connect is not a guarantee of security.

How to create your own portable hotspot

If you need to access the internet on your laptop but there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot nearby, you can create your own portable hotspot with your smartphone or mobile broadband device. This is called tethering.

Using the Personal Hotspot feature on an iPhone and the Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot feature on Android, you can turn your phone into a wireless router. You connect your laptop to it in the same way as you would connect to any other hotspot, and access the internet via your phone’s data connection.

Not all mobile networks allow tethering. The larger ones generally do, but not on all contract types and often with usage limits.

If you need to use mobile Wi-Fi heavily, then look for mobile broadband deals with a portable hotspot device. This is a small wireless router with integrated SIM card — your internet access comes via a mobile network rather than home broadband. Devices come in different form factors from easily pocketable compact models to those designed to work in your car. Many support the latest network standards including double speed 4G from EE. Popular brands include MiFi, from Three, and Osprey, from EE.

Remember, though, that mobile data is a lot more expensive and the allowances are smaller. Unless you have no other option these should be for occasional or business use when out of the home, not as a replacement for a proper broadband service.