Posted on 2020-01-17 18:43 in Features
"Alexa, tell me what's been the hottest gadget of the last few years."
The Amazon Echo range of smart speakers have been a smash hit. They're helping to usher in the next generation of consumer tech, where we can chat to our devices instead of being glued to their screens.
One of the things that makes them so popular is how easy to use they are. They're good to go straight out of the box. Yet even so, there's still a few tweaks you can make if you want to improve an Echo's security and your privacy.
1. Set up a PIN to prevent voice purchases
Alexa makes it easy to shop on Amazon. Maybe too easy. If you'd like to control who can purchase things on your Echo, or put an obstacle in the way of your impulse buys, you can. Sign in at alexa.amazon.co.uk and set up a four digit PIN.
To enter your PIN on an Amazon Echo you have to speak it out loud, so it's not exactly an uncrackable security system. Think of it more as a way to prevent accidental purchases. Alternatively, you can disable voice purchasing entirely. You'll still be able to add things to your cart, but you need to complete the purchase on your phone or laptop.
2. Change the wake word
The Echo leaps into action the moment it hears its name. It's mostly pretty great, but isn't ideal if you've got more than one of the devices in your house, and could become outright annoying if you happen to live with someone called Alexa.
Fortunately, you can change the wake word if you need to, via the app. You don't get to set it to literally any word you want, you have to pick it from an approved list. Your options include things like "Echo", "Amazon" or "Computer".
3. Delete your voice recordings from time to time
If you're concerned about the privacy implications of smart speakers, you can allay some of your fears by clearing out your Voice History from time to time. You can do this on either the app or the website, where you'll see transcripts of all the voice commands you've given to your Alexa device. By default, they'll remain on Amazon's servers forever, so it's a good idea to find and remove any that you don't want to keep (or just get rid of them all).
4. Protect your privacy
Here's a bonus tip for the tinfoil hat brigade. Your Echo only starts recording when you say the wake word, but it is listening all the time. If you aren't comfortable with that you can turn off voice activation entirely by pressing the microphone button. It'll stay off until you press it again (although it can be hard to tell if it's off). If you've got an Echo with a built-in camera, you might want to use the cover supplied to ensure there's no risk of surreptitious filming, too.
And to complete your privacy upgrade, head over to the Echo settings and deactivate the "Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features" option. This prevents any of your recordings being accessible to Amazon workers for research purposes.
5. Don't overuse Alexa Skills
Alexa Skills are little apps you can install to upgrade the functionality of your Amazon Echo. You can use them to control your thermostat, give you a workout, book an Uber, and much more. But whenever third party apps are involved there's a slight security risk.
We'd recommend giving the privacy policies of your chosen Skills a quick once over to make sure they aren't going to snaffle your data; try to stick to popular, well-rated Skills; and uninstall any that you no longer use.
6. Beef up your router's security
Finally, whenever you connect up a new device that's accessible to the outside world, it's a good idea to double check that your router's security is as sound as it could be. Take a look at our guide on how to secure your router for the full lowdown on keeping your home network safe.
Posted on 2020-01-10 18:42 in News Virgin Media
Are you a Virgin Media customer who joined before 1st December 2019 on one of their 54Mbps M50 packages? If so, the chances are you're eligible for a free upgrade to the M100 package, with average speeds of 108Mbps! This means that over half a million customers can expect to see their average downloads speeds double, and some may even see their speeds increase up to 5 times more! These upgrades are automatically rolling out now, no need for you to do anything to take advantage of it. You'll be emailed when the upgrade is complete, and you can enjoy your new, zippier download speeds.
What does this speed increase mean in practical terms? Well, you won't really see a big difference for simple, every day tasks such as browsing the internet, watching cat videos on YouTube and streaming music; these are all things you can do on a standard broadband connection. Where it will have a big impact is if you stream TV and films in UHD (4K), especially if several members of your household want to watch different things at the same time. 50Mbps is enough to stream a UHD film for one person, but more than that and your connection may start to struggle.
This speed upgrade will also benefit gamers, who frequently download games, large updates and patches, and these can take quite a while to grab. The average game is between 30GB to 50GB in size (and they keep getting bigger, with the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2 hitting around 150GB). A 30GB game takes nearly 90 minutes to download on a 50Mbps connection, whereas it would take just over 40 minutes with a 100Mbps. So the faster your download speed, the faster you'll be playing your games.
If you're not one of the lucky ones to get your speed doubled, you may still be able to get a better speed from your provider without paying any extra! Our newly updated Upgrades Guide tells you what you need to know.
Posted on 2019-12-24 15:59 in Features
Passwords. Ugh! You use dozens of them every day, but do you really give any thought to how good they are? Are they actually keeping your accounts safe, or are they as secure as leaving a key under the doormat?
Online security can seem both complicated and boring, a lethal combination that means we don't take it as seriously as we should. Yet it doesn't have to be. With just a few simple steps you can lock down all your accounts in no time.
Don't re-use passwords on important accounts...
It's hard enough to remember five passwords, let along 50 or 500. That's why we all get lured into creating one decent password and using it over and over again. You've been told this before: it's a really bad idea.
Here's the problem. Online services get hacked all the time; they get infected with malware; sometimes they just go wrong. And it usually results in a data breach that exposes their users' info.
And is isn't just limited to small or obscure websites. Brands of all sizes and all kinds get hit - from TalkTalk to Teletext Holidays to Marriot Hotels. They've all leaked data at one time or another.
Very often it's email addresses and passwords that get exposed. They get posted (or sold) online where anyone can see them, for whatever reason. If your password happens to be among them, and you've re-used it on other sites, all your accounts on those sites are at risk.
You can check if your email address is associated with any data breaches at haveibeenpwned.com. If it has, make sure you didn't re-use the password associated with the breached account. And if you did, change them now, and make sure they're not on the list of most commonly used passwords.
...but you can on unimportant accounts
All that said, there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to re-use passwords, though we'd recommend tweaking them a little bit to include the initials of the site or service just to add an extra bit of security while still being easy to remember.
While you'll obviously want to lock down accounts that contain your personal or financial details, most of us use countless services and sites where security doesn't matter at all. We're thinking online forums, and other random services that you log into once to maybe ask a question or read an article, and then forget about.
For those that don't contain any kind of personal or finiancial information, and you wouldn't care if you lost access to them tomorrow, feel free to use and re-use simple passwords as much as you like. But you do need to be sure that these accounts don't have access to anything else, such as social media accounts, or display any information you don't want public, such as your email address.
Managing your online security is a hassle. By cutting the number of important passwords you need to track, you can make it just a little easier.
Try using a single sign in on unimportant sites
Chances are you have a Facebook and/or Google account. Both of these should be locked down with very secure passwords as they contain a lot of personal and probably financial details - you don't want anyone getting into them. Many sites allow you to create accounts that are essentially tied to your Facebook or Google account, which means you can securely sign in with those credentials without having to create a whole new account and generate yet another secure password. If your Facebook and Google accounts are secure, they should be, too, and in the event that they do get hacked, changing your Facebook and Google passwords means those other accounts are covered as well.
Think passphrase instead of password
wgW7!@G%^45P. That's what a secure password looks like. It mixes uppercase and lowercase, numbers and special characters, and is pretty well uncrackable. It's also impossible to remember (and incredibly annoying to type).
An easy to remember password is, by definition, a bad password. But there is a neat compromise. When it comes to passwords, it turns out that length can actually be more important than complexity. So instead of coming up with short but complex passwords, try using a passphrase instead.
What is a passphrase? It's a much longer, more memorable alternative. Just pick four or five random words - they need to be genuinely random, don't use song titles or a line from a book - and string them together. You'll find it a whole lot easier to remember, yet the length gives it its security.
Want a bit of extra security? Use some special characters between words. Not all sites allow this, but where they do, take advantage of it. 'ThisRandomPassphrase' can be harder to crack if it's changed to 'This&Random&Passphrase'. If you can remember something slightly more complicated, you can also switch out letters with numbers and symbols that resemble them. For example, replace 'a' with '@' or 'e' with '3', and you have 'This&R@ndom&P@ssphr@s3'. As long as you can remember your scheme, you're good to go.
Use a password manager
Wouldn't it be great if you only ever had to remember one password? It is possible. Many security experts recommend using a password manager, a piece of software that locks and encrypts all your login credentials in a single place. You only need to remember the master password - so make sure it's a good one.
When you use a password manager you don't have to worry about making passwords memorable, so they can be as complex as you like. Most of the tools will offer to generate them for you. As a handy extra, they'll also automatically fill in your details on websites and apps when you visit them.
The best password managers work across your desktop, laptop and phone. Among the ones we recommend are:
What about getting your browser to save your passwords instead? That's also safe up to a point. Browsers do encrypt passwords, although anyone who's got access to your laptop or phone will be able to use them without any further checks.
And the most low-tech password manager of all? A piece of paper, kept in a safe place. We wouldn't recommend it at work, but for many of us it'll be fine at home.
Set up two-factor authentication
Getting your passwords up to scratch is the first step to improving your online security. There's one other thing you should do to properly lock down your most important accounts: use two-factor authentication (2FA).
The techie name doesn't help, but the idea behind 2FA is really simple. When you try to log in to a website or app that has it enabled, you have to enter both your password and one other piece of information - usually a short code sent to your phone by text or to an app. What it means is that even if someone does get hold of your password, they still can't log in to your account unless they have physical access to your phone.
You've probably used it already. Any time a bank texts you a code in order to verify a payment you're making, it's an example of 2FA in action. You can activate 2FA on all your main accounts - Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal and so on - and you really should.
If given the choice, use an app rather than SMS, since it's more secure. Authy is the best app to use, and it's pretty easy to set up, too.
Keep it simple
Managing passwords is no-one's idea of a fun afternoon. But weigh it up against the thought of losing access to your email, or having someone get into your bank account, and you realise it's well worth doing. The tips above show that a good security policy is not only safer, it's simpler too. And reducing the number of passwords you have to remember has got to be a good thing, right?
For more advice on online security check out our guides to setting up parental controls on your broadband, and how and why you need to change your router's security settings.
Posted on 2019-12-06 14:49 in News
We've already taken a look at the national parties' broadband policies for the upcoming election. But if you're in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you've got other parties in the hunt for your vote, too, so let's see what they've got to say.
"We will also press the UK Government to invest in digital connectivity including superfast broadband and 5G technology. Since 2013, we have increased broadband to 95% of premises across Scotland, on time and on budget. Now only the SNP is committed to providing access to superfast broadband to every home and business in Scotland, investing £600 million towards this, with the UK Government providing just £21 million of that.
"SNP MPs will press for Scotland to get its fair share of the £5 billion UK Government funding to roll out gigabit broadband to the hardest to reach areas. We will call on the Shared Rural Network to deliver 95% 4G mobile coverage in Scotland – as applies for the rest of the UK. And we will press for the current review into the UK Telecoms Supply Chain to be concluded promptly.
"SNP MPs will work to bridge the digital divide to improve the availability and affordability of broadband and mobile services. We will press the UK government to reclassify the internet as an essential service and support affordable housing providers to make the service available. We will also work with broadband and mobile service providers to make more affordable tariffs and packages more widely available – and call for the UK Government to legislate for a social tariff."
Although broadband policy, including funding and management, is the responsibility of the UK government, the Scottish Parliament does get to decide how the money is spent north of the border. It can also add extra funding on top of what comes from Westminster.
The SNP policy is mostly built around these two points. They want to provide extra money to continue the rollout of superfast broadband across the country, and secure a chunk of the £5 billion pledged to improve broadband coverage in rural areas. According to Ofcom data from May 2019, some 4% of premises in Scotland are unable to access a basic service offering 10Mb downloads and 1Mb uploads - a worse rate than in both England (2%) and Wales (3%).
"Creating a publicly owned Welsh Broadband Infrastructure Company to guarantee access to full-fibre broadband to every home and business in Wales by 2025.
"Cut the fibre tax - Fibre infrastructure currently has business rates applied to it, just like other commercial property. Plaid Cymru believes this discourages investment and should be rethought.
"New builds fit-for-purpose - Too many new homes are still being developed without provision for fibre broadband. Plaid Cymru wants all new build homes to incorporate gigabit-capable internet connections.
"Skills - A large number of engineers will be required to carry out all the work involved. Plaid Cymru would invest in training and skills for the industry to be able to meet the demand."
Only the first of the above policies has actually made the Plaid Cymru manifesto for 2019, and forms part of a series of infrastructure improvements under the banner of a "Green Jobs Revolution". The policy takes a similar line to Labour's plan of having the full-fibre rollout being handled by a publicly owned company, although they want to complete the job five years earlier. As of May 2019, 10% of premises in Wales had access to full-fibre broadband, a rate well above England and Scotland, but there's still a long way to go.
The other policies we've listed formed a three point plan the party unveiled in September. They are pretty much identical to the recommendations made by the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) in response to Boris Johnson's "full-fibre for all" announcement in the summer.
Northern Ireland Parties
Broadband in Northern Ireland is a mixture of good and bad. Full-fibre availability is by far the best in the UK, at 25% of premises, but broadband "not-spots" - where 5% of premises cannot access even a 10Mb connection - are the worst. Only two of the parties in Northern Ireland make reference to broadband in their manifestos, and in both cases it's merely a token mention.
"Digital network infrastructure, which connects us to the Internet, and to each other, is increasingly recognised as core economic infrastructure, like electricity, gas and water. They are central to tackling the UK’s productivity problem. The DUP will support:
- Full fibre networks for the UK.
- 5G network rollout."
"Continue to support the development of broadband, high-speed mobile internet access and similar telecommunications projects in such a way that ensures all parts of the UK benefit from this technology."
Posted on 2019-11-26 16:45 in News Features
As you might have noticed, there's an election coming up.
Obviously, broadband is not going to be one of the most important issues for most voters, yet it has played a surprisingly high profile role in the campaign so far, as parties use it as a way to show off their grand visions for Britain in the 2020s.
So what exactly are they promising? Fortunately, we've read the party manifestos so you don't have to. Here's what they're saying.
Conservatives broadband policy
"We intend to bring full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025.
"We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable."
The Tory policy is based on Boris Johnson's "full fibre for everyone by 2025" plan that he announced during his party leadership campaign, which we looked at back in August. The reaction at the time was that, while it was a nice idea, the timescale was just too ambitious.
No surprise, then, that the plan has been subtly tweaked. The manifesto now talks about "gigabit-capable" broadband rather than focussing wholly on fibre-to-the-home. This presumably includes Virgin Media's network, and maybe even 5G, as the rollout of that accelerates over the next five years.
The Tories have pledged £5 billion of funding to cover rural and other hard to reach areas. The rest of the estimated £30 billion will come through private investment.
Labour broadband policy
"Labour will deliver free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030.
"We will establish British Broadband, with two arms: British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and the British Broadband Service (BBS). We will bring the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership, with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work.
"BDI will roll out the remaining 90–92% of the full-fibre network, and acquire necessary access rights to existing assets. BBS will coordinate the delivery of free broadband in tranches as the full-fibre network is rolled out, beginning with the communities worst served by existing broadband networks. Taxation of multinationals, including tech giants, will pay for the operating costs of the public full-fibre network."
Labour have the most eye-catching policy by far, and either the most exciting or controversial depending on your point of view.
The first part is the renationalisation of Openreach, the BT-owned company that controls the UK's broadband infrastructure, and is part of their broader plan to bring water, the Post Office and the railways back under public control. They would then continue the rollout of the full-fibre network, starting with rural areas, with a target date of 2030. They've allocated four times as much money to this as the Tories, funded largely by taxes on the likes of Facebook and Google.
The pledge to provide free full-fibre broadband to everyone grabbed the headlines, but in truth it looks more like a long-term goal than a firm policy. There's no real detail and no acknowledgement of the ways the broadband landscape will change over the next decade. Plus, there will be at least two more general elections before that 2030 deadline.
So how viable is all of this, and what are the implications? Read our full analysis of Labour's broadband policy to find out.
Liberal Democrats broadband policy
"A programme of installing hyper-fast, fibre-optic broadband across the UK – with a particular focus on connecting rural areas.
"Reform building standards to ensure that all new homes built from 2022 have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.
"Prioritise small and medium-sized businesses in the rollout of hyper-fast broadband.
"Ensure that all households and businesses have access to superfast broadband (30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload). Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects."
The Lib Dems' main broadband policy - to install a hyperfast network, with an emphasis on rural areas - is similar to what the two biggest parties are promising. It isn't costed, though, and presumably has an open ended timetable given the nature of two of their other more interesting policies: ensuring that new homes can get ultrafast (not hyperfast) broadband, and the guarantee that everyone will get at least 30Mb internet. This is an upgrade on the current 10Mb standard, although still a long way short of the gigabit speeds being promised elsewhere.
The Brexit Party broadband policy
"Partner with service providers to offer free base level domestic broadband in deprived regions and free Wi-Fi on all public transport."
The Brexit Party's stated aim in this election is to target Leave-voting seats in Labour strongholds. With this in mind, their one-sentence internet policy appears purely designed to give campaigners on the doorstep a way to counter support for Labour's own (and more ambitious) free broadband plan. That's about all we can say about it, since there's no detail to go on - "base level" isn't defined, and we don't know exactly who will get it, when, or how much the whole plan will cost.
The Green Party broadband policy
"Better connect rural communities through reliable broadband and mobile internet, delivered through councils who understand local connection needs.
"Roll out high speed broadband."
Nobody is going to vote for the Greens based on their broadband policy, and they know it. They've kept it short: like most other parties they've acknowledged the pressing need to upgrade the infrastructure in rural areas, and that's about it.
Confused about some of the issues discussed in these manifestos? Read more about the challenges of rural broadband, the different types of fibre broadband, and how 5G may soon be our fastest way to access the internet.
Posted on 2019-11-22 16:05 in Features Sky BT
Struggling with patchy Wi-Fi coverage around your house? There's nothing worse than having no-go areas in your home where you can't get online to do some work or catch up on some Netflix. But what can you do?
First of all, try and nail down the problem. Load up our Speed Test tool on your phone or laptop, run it in every room and compare the results. It only takes a few seconds each time, and will give you the full picture of how good your Wi-Fi coverage is - or isn't.
And once you've identified the problem, let's take a look at how to fix it. We'll also provide some links to products on Amazon that you may find useful, though you can find many of these products in your local computer shop and many larger superstores as well.
BT Complete Wi-Fi guarantee
Broadband providers are starting to recognise the importance of full Wi-Fi coverage, and are offering performance guarantees so long as you're happy to pay a little extra.
BT are leading the way. Their Complete Wi-Fi service guarantees full internet throughout your house - with a speed of at least 10Mb - and uses special hardware to do it. As well as equipping you with BT's latest Smart Hub 2 router, they'll also give you a single Wi-Fi Disc.
And what is that? A Wi-Fi Disc is a small Wi-Fi extender that you can place upstairs (or wherever else your connection struggles to reach) that helps to push the signal into the furthest corners of every room. While this may sound complicated, it isn't. You can set one up in less than ten minutes, and the process is mostly automatic. In fact, by using the My BT app on your phone, it'll even recommend the ideal place to put the Disc for the best possible signal.
One Disc should be good enough for most homes, but if it doesn't get the job done you can claim another two Discs for free to eliminate any remaining dead spots. And if there's still parts of your house that aren't covered after that, BT will give you a £20 refund, too.
If you're tired of having to deal with spotty Wi-Fi coverage at home, BT's Complete Wi-Fi makes for a pretty compelling offer. You can add it for around £10 a month, or often pick up deals with it bundled as standard. If you're not with BT and don't plan to switch to them, BT Discs will work with any UK broadband provider, and can be purchased on Amazon.
Check out the latest BT Broadband deals.
Sky Wi-Fi Guarantee
Sky Broadband are also getting in on the act, with a Wi-Fi Guarantee that forms part of their Broadband Boost upgrade.
They promise you a Wi-Fi speed of at least 3Mb in every room. They'll help you get to this by giving you one Broadband Booster device which is similar, but not quite as cutting edge as BT's Discs. Or, if you prefer, they'll send out an engineer to fix any problems. If it still doesn't work they'll refund you everything you've paid for the Broadband Boost service and let you keep the other benefits for free for the rest of your contract.
What are the other benefits? As well as the Wi-Fi Guarantee, Sky Broadband Boost gives you free engineer visits (including evenings and weekends), daily line checks to sniff out problems with your connection, access to the Sky Broadband Buddy app with its parental controls, and 2GB of extra data when your broadband drops for more than 30 minutes - but only if you're a Sky Mobile user.
You can add Sky Broadband Boost to your plan for £5 a month. The 3Mb speed guarantee is quite low - fast enough to stream Netflix in standard definition or to play online games, but a very long way short of the speeds you'll be accustomed to in other rooms. You might be better off looking at some of the other ways to extend your signal first.
How to extend your Wi-Fi signal
If you aren't with BT or Sky, or aren't in a position to switch providers right now, what other options do you have to get full Wi-Fi coverage in every room?
- 4G or 5G Mobile broadband: 4G, or even the fledgling 5G, broadband is now a viable alternative to a fibre plan. As far as Wi-Fi coverage is concerned it comes with one big benefit: you can be a whole lot more flexible about where you position your router. Because it doesn't need to be connected to a phone line you can place it wherever you like - even upstairs if that gives you the best coverage. You can use Wi-Fi extenders to further beef up the signal, too. Want to know more? Check the latest 4G Mobile Broadband deals.
- Wi-Fi extenders: There are different types of device that can extend your Wi-Fi coverage. A basic Wi-Fi repeater (such as the TP-Link RE300 or the Netgear EX2700) that makes your signal travel further will do the job, but a better option is a full Wi-Fi mesh network. Something like the Google Wi-Fi Whole Home System works on similar lines to BT's Wi-Fi Discs, and gives you full coverage wherever you need it. They are a little pricier, but these plug-and-play hubs require zero technical know-how to set up and use.
- Powerline adapters: A more techie solution, but potentially just as effective, are powerline adapters. These devices come in basic packs of two - you plug one in to a power outlet near your router and the other wherever you need it, and the internet signal travels between them via your existing electrical cabling. You have the choice of using the adapter as a Wi-Fi point at the other end to cover all devices in the room, or use ethernet cables to connect devices with where you might want a more stable connection, such as TVs and games consoles. If you find need more rooms covered then you can buy larger packs, or even easily add more at a later date. A well-rated product is the TP-Link TL-WPA4220T starter kit, though there are plenty of others to choose from.
- Get a better router: All broadband providers will give you a router to use when you sign up. If you've had Wi-Fi problems in the past, make sure you know what router you're going to get when switch suppliers: some are very definitely better than others! We've got all the details in our Broadband Providers guides. If you're looking to buy a router with a bit more oomph, you could consider the ASUS AC66U or the TP-Link AC1750.
- Check the position of your router: Your other option is just to make sure you're got your router set up in the best possible way. Wi-Fi signals can be blocked by large physical objects, like walls, doors, floors, bookcases and so on. They're also susceptible to interference from microwaves, cordless phones and other devices that emit radio waves. If possible, try and move your router to a different position where there are as few obstacles as possible. With the Christmas season coming up, it's also worth mentioning that decorations such as tinsel have been known to cause problems, so bear that in mind if you want to make your router look festive!
For more, take a look at our guides to Broadband speeds and on how to speed up slow Wi-Fi.
Posted on 2019-11-15 19:33 in News
Social media has been buzzing with reaction to Labour’s latest election pledge - free, fast, full fibre broadband for everyone. But what have they actually promised and what would it mean for your broadband?
Well the first part of their proposed plan is to renationalise Openreach and the parts of BT that sell broadband products in order to form a British Broadband service. This follows Labour’s existing pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and water companies.
The second part is to give everyone in the country the fastest full-fibre broadband for free - a pretty bold and eye-catching election pledge!
Corbyn called it a “fresh, transformational polic[y] that will change your life” while Johnson has declared it a “crazed communist scheme”, but what does it all mean and could it possibly work?
Could they actually pull this off if elected?
It’s hard to say exactly at this point because this is only an election pledge and the full manifesto has yet to be published, but we do have the full text of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech announcing Labour’s broadband plans as well as interviews given by shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
The main thing we do know is that fully free fibre broadband is only promised by the year 2030, which is so far in the future that the technological landscape is likely to be extremely different.
By then 5G mobile broadband or an even faster future technology is likely to be widespread. It’s also likely that well before then many households will be connecting their homes to the internet using 5G mobile routers. Many of these already look and work like smart speakers mimicking those of the big brands. Whichever one of Amazon, Apple, Google or some other tech giant tha first offers 5G connectivity as default may completely change how broadband works, it may even be bundled free with smart devices or home hubs - rather than getting broadband free from the government it may be free from whichever multinational corporation you choose to buy devices from.
2030 is so far in the future, it’s hard to predict!
What we find far more interesting and far more relevant to the near future than the promise of free broadband a decade from now is the proposal to nationalise Openreach.
What is Openreach?
Openreach is one of the BT Group companies that’s been separated from BT’s commercial arm. Openreach operate the telephone exchanges and install and maintain telephone lines, fibre-optic cables and street cabinets. It’s also Openreach engineers who would come to your home to install broadband equipment if needed.
Most UK broadband uses Openreach telephone exchanges, cables and engineers because it’s all delivered over your telephone lines. Only broadband that’s provided by cable companies and smaller full fibre suppliers like Virgin Media, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear avoids using Openreach’s broadband delivery system and engineers, as do 4G and 5G mobile broadband services and those based in Hull where BT never operated.
This doesn’t mean that every broadband service delivered through Openreach’s infrastructure is the same. While many broadband services are re-selling the same Openreach products, others use a system called Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) to allow them to install their own equipment in Openreach exchanges, which has historically allowed faster speeds and cheaper prices than other broadband providers.
However, this only ever made a significant difference to speeds in the era of phoneline-only (ADSL) broadband, so it hasn’t really been the case since part-fibre (FTTC) products offering speeds around 36Mbps or 67Mbps became the most common products sold. Openreach controls the fibre street cabinets, so competition for part-fibre products has only been on price and bundled extras, everyone using Openreach infrastructure is essentially selling the same broadband.
What will this mean for broadband?
Well for one thing, a national full fibre network will be important back end infrastructure underlying 5G mobile broadband and whatever comes after that. Fibre-optic is a ‘future-proofed’ technology that gets faster over time, only limited by the tech that deciphers the messages delivered down the fibres at the speed of light. In fact, we would have had superfast broadband in the 1990s and ultrafast broadband in the 2000s if not for the privatisation of BT putting a halt to the rollout of a national fibre-optic network in the 1980s.
The other main benefit of a nationalised equivalent of Openreach is that plans to install fibre-optic infrastructure can prioritise rural and remote areas that are the most in need of better broadband technology. And this appears to be exactly what Labour intends to do.
When a commercial company rolls out a new communications technology, it tends to go to the most heavily populated areas. Not only that, it’s usually those where people have the most money, or at least are most likely to buy new technologies such as areas with lots of students or young professionals.
In practice this means that new technologies often come to areas that already have the fastest broadband available and often have a choice of fast broadband options from other companies like Virgin Media or even full-fibre from suppliers like Hyperoptic. This was the case with part-fibre broadband and 4G, and it’s already the case with next generation G.fast and 5G rollouts.
This is because commercial companies need to guarantee that they’ll make enough money to not only pay for the costs of installing and running the service, but also that they’ll make a lot of profit on top of these costs in order to pay their shareholders and executives.
With a nationalised service rolling new technology out, only the costs need to be covered, and profit is rolled back into making services better. Effectively, the taxpayers are the shareholders and the government are the executives.
So in theory, nationalised broadband service would be able to prioritise getting everyone in the country to a minimum level of broadband speed. Meaning areas that already have a reasonable broadband speed would be at the back of the queue and, for once, those areas where there’s currently no good broadband service or no broadband at all would get put to the front of the queue to even the playing field.
Should the government stay out of broadband?
The major political parties all recognise that rollout of broadband to the most under-served areas of the country is a problem. The disagreement is over how best to address the problem.
This Conservative government and past governments have already recognised that commercial neglect of rural and remote broadband provision is a problem.
£780 million of taxpayer money was spent on the rollout of faster part-fibre broadband to less commercially-viable, mostly rural areas under the Broadband Development UK (BDUK) scheme.
This used a convoluted process where companies were meant to bid in local authority areas and the companies with the best bids in each area would be granted the contract by the local authority to install new broadband infrastructure in that area. Due to Openreach effectively having the monopoly on the type of infrastructure work involved, in all but a handful of areas all this money went to the BT Group and Openreach ended up doing the work. As a result this was criticised as inefficient and a waste of time and resources.
Broadband has also been designated an essential service and so the Universal Service Obligation, that was previously applied to voice telephone services in 2003, is being applied to broadband services from 2020. This will mean that everyone in the UK must be able to achieve at least 2Mbps broadband (or an alternative type of internet connection).
The Conservative party also recognises that none of this is enough and have pledged £5 billion to bring gigabit (1,000Mbps) broadband connections to the hardest-to-reach 20% of the population by 2025. They’ve also promised a Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund that they claim will unlock an expected £1 billion of further public and private investment in full fibre broadband.
We’ve examined whether the government’s proposals were viable back when it was a leadership campaign pledge.
How are Labour proposing to pay for this?
Again, we don’t know all the details yet, because the full manifesto is yet to be published, but we do know that a large part will involve taxing the big multinational tech companies like Google and Facebook, which are notable for avoiding paying UK tax at present.
However, the government has criticised Labour’s spending estimates and pointed out that the task of buying back privatised services and setting a new British Broadband service is likely to be extremely disruptive and add significant delays to the rollout of gigabit fibre broadband, and also discourage private investment in broadband technologies. In fact the sale of TalkTalk has already been disrupted by these plans and BT’s stock prices have plummeted.
The government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has already commissioned a detailed report into how gigabit broadband could possibly be rolled out to the last 20% in such a short timeframe, and this report does support the government’s criticism that switching to a monopoly provider would cause the most disruption and delays in the initial stages. However, in the longer term the government’s report may support Labour’s proposition that a nationalised service is the only way to guarantee a fair rollout of 100% fibre coverage.
The report looked at 3 different scenarios, one of which was a national monopoly, albeit one run by a commercial company such as Openreach, not a government owned nationalised provider.
In the 15 year projection, the only option that offered the closest to 100% coverage for full fibre broadband with the same prices charged to customers nationwide was the monopoly provider solution.
The projection for the current situation was likely to have 60% coverage in 15 years time, the ‘enhanced competition’ scenario would cover 80% in 15 years time leaving another 20% for competitors to cover (which would likely hit the same problems with needing to prioritise profitability) and the ‘franchising’ scenario also potentially covered 100% but was likely to charge customers more in low competition areas than in urban areas (something that has happened before with Ofcom’s market classification system where if you have no choice for a cheaper provider, the provider is allowed to charge you more for the same service).
The report also found a number of downsides to their national monopoly scenario - mainly that there would be no incentive to innovate and install new technologies when there are no competitors pushing technology forward. This was demonstrated with how mobile network technologies rolled out slower in monopoly countries than in those with multiple mobile networks, and how the pattern repeated with every generation of mobile broadband speed.
However, this is arguably not a problem in a nationalised scenario where the government sets the ambitious innovation targets. Particularly when ambitious full-fibre broadband proposals are so frequently central to political campaigning.
What does the future hold?
So will we have the very fastest broadband free for everyone by 2030? Would a Labour government be able to balance the books? Who knows! It’s too far in the future to judge what broadband will look like in a decade, we could all be getting it free from Facebook, Apple or Google by then, rather than free from the government.
If a Labour government stayed in power until 2030 and managed to deliver on the promise of the very fastest broadband free for everyone, that would be hugely disruptive and reaction from broadband service providers has been strongly negative.
But in the shorter term, the government’s own report seems to suggest that a nationalised version of Openreach might be the only chance we have to deliver cheap full-fibre broadband for the parts of the UK that currently need it the most.
Posted on 2019-11-08 17:49 in Features
You already use their phones, browser and search engine, and pretty soon you might be using Google for gaming as well. But the upcoming Google Stadia is not a new console, it's something altogether different.
If you're tired of continually updating your PC so you can play the latest titles, or wish you could carry on playing your favourite console games when you leave the house, Stadia might be for you.
So what exactly is Google Stadia, and when can you get your hands on it? Let's take a look.
What is Google Stadia?
Google Stadia is a new kind of gaming platform. It isn't a console, and it doesn't need a high end PC. It's a streaming service.
The idea is that, instead of running games on a piece of expensive hardware sat underneath your telly, the games run on Google's remote servers and are streamed to any device that can run the Chrome web browser, or to your TV using a Chromecast Ultra dongle.
It means you can play triple-A games on a cheap computer, or even on an expensive computer like a MacBook that normally has very few gaming options. You'll also be able to play on compatible phones and tablets, making full console games truly mobile. There's another benefit, too. You don't have to download, install or update any of these games. They're ready to play anytime you want.
Stadia is a subscription service. It costs £8.99 a month, with a free plan set to launch some time in 2020. Some have described Stadia as being the "Netflix of gaming", but there's one big difference - unlike on Netflix you'll still have to buy most of your games in addition to your subscription.
How to play on Google Stadia
Google are selling an official Stadia Controller to play games, but the service will also work with any other compatible USB controller. Stadia hasn't launched at the time of writing, so we'll have to wait and see how it performs, but it looks promising. Google's systems will be far more capable than any machine you'll have in your living room, and the company has said that latency - a measure of how responsive or laggy a game is - won't be an issue. Early testers have said it's at a similar level to something like a PS4.
To a certain extent, performance will be determined by your internet connection. Because while you don't need pricey hardware to play games on Stadia, you do need fast broadband. The service streams the games at 60 frames per second at resolutions up to 4K - it's going to eat through a lot of data in a very short amount of time.
When does Google Stadia launch?
Google Stadia launches on 19th November in the UK, along with the US, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. The launch will be staggered, so not everyone is certain to be able to play on day one.
The first gamers to get access will be those eager early adopters who bought the Google Stadia Founders Edition bundle - long since sold out - which included a Chromecast Ultra, controller and other goodies. Next in line are those who bought the Premiere Edition bundle, a similar package available from Google now. And then there are the subscribers to the Stadia Pro subscription service, followed by the free Stadia Base users next year.
At launch, Stadia will work on any laptop or desktop computer that can run the latest version of the Chrome browser. Smartphone compatibility is initially limited to just Google's own phones, the Pixel devices, models 2 to 4. There will be Android and iOS apps as well, but you'll only be able to manage your account on these at first, not play any games.
How much does Google Stadia cost?
There are different price options that help to make Stadia as accessible as possible.
- Google Stadia Premiere Edition - priced at £119, it gives you everything you need to get started: a Stadia Controller, Chromecast Ultra, three months subscription to Stadia Pro, and early access to the service.
- Google Stadia Pro - priced at £8.99 a month, this lets you play at resolutions up to 4K, with 5.1 surround sound. You also get free games on a regular basis, starting with Destiny 2: The Collection, along with discounts on other titles. You have to bring your own controller, and Chromecast Ultra if you want to play on your TV.
- Google Stadia Base - the free plan for those not keen on the idea of paying for games, and paying to play them. It launches at an as-yet-unspecified time in 2020 and lets you play at up to 1080p resolution with stereo sound. It works with the same games as the Pro plan, but you don't get the free titles. You also can't stream it to a TV through a Chromecast.
You can switch between the Pro and Base plans whenever you like. Any games you've bought under one plan will still be playable after you switch.
What broadband speed do you need for Google Stadia?
Google Stadia needs fast broadband to work well, and the resolution you can play at will change depending on what speeds you're getting. Use our speed test tool to find out how fast your broadband is.
Google's recommendations are:
- 10Mb for 720p gaming with stereo sound
- 20Mb for 1080p gaming with HDR video and 5.1 surround sound
- 35Mb for 4K gaming with HDR video and 5.1 surround sound
In all cases, these are minimum speeds, and you need to meet them consistently rather than just every now and again.
So, given the way broadband speeds can fluctuate based on things like the time of day or how many other people are online at the same time, what does this mean in practice?
Most likely it means that the old, standard broadband packages will struggle to handle Stadia. You'll need a cheap fibre deal even if you're only planning on being a Base subscriber. For 1080p or 4K gaming you should probably be looking at a faster fibre plan, with an average speed in the region of 60Mb. Of course, if you're in a busy household with people constantly watching Netflix or YouTube, or downloading large files, then you might need to go for something even faster.
Need to upgrade? Take a look at the fastest broadband deals available in your area now.
What games will be on Google Stadia?
Google Stadia has already attracted a large number of big-name publishers and big-name games. They range from console favourites like Red Dead Redemption 2, to next year's hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, to the notoriously resource-intensive Football Manager 2020. It's expected that games will be full price, although it remains to be seen what kind of discounts will be offered to Pro subscribers.
Here's the full list of titles announced so far:
- Assassin's Creed Odyssey
- Baldur's Gate 3
- Borderlands 3
- Cyberpunk 2077
- Darksiders Genesis
- Destiny 2: The Collection
- Destroy All Humans!
- DOOM Eternal
- Farming Simulator 19
- FINAL FANTASY XV
- Football Manager 2020
- Get Packed
- Ghost Recon Breakpoint
- Gods & Monsters
- Just Dance 2020
- Marvel's Avengers
- Metro Exodus
- Mortal Kombat 11
- NBA 2K20
- Orcs Must Die! 3
- Rage 2
- Red Dead Redemption 2
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- The Crew 2
- The Elder Scrolls Online
- Tom Clancy's The Division 2
- Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
- Trials Rising
- Watch Dogs Legion
- Windjammers 2
- Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Need more help in finding the right broadband plan? Check out our guide to broadband for gamers to find the best deals for Stadia users, along with PC, Xbox and Playstation players.
Posted on 2019-11-05 18:20 in Offers BT Shell Energy Virgin Media
Virgin Media are kicking us off with some great combined offers. Along with a price reduction on TV packages for the first year, Virgin are also offering a choice of a £100 gift voucher from Amazon, Debenhams, John Lewis or M&S or a £100 bill credit. It doesn't stop there, either, as you can also get 12 months free Amazon Prime. Worth £79 a month, you get a whole host of goodies bundled in, inluding access to Prime Video (where you can watch Amazon Original shows along with a whole host of other TV boxsets and the latest movies), unlimited music streaming, access to a rotating selection of content on Kindle, unlimited photo storage and, of course, free next day delivery!1
BT have a whopping £120 M&S voucher offer on Superfast Fibre products! If you want TV as well, packages are available from £15 extra a month and can be added during the checkout process. You can get the basic Classic Bundle with AMC and standard Freeview channels, or choose to add Premium channels with an Entertainment Bundle. Plus, you can add even add Sports from BT and Sky, Movies from Sky, Netflix and a whole lot more! You'll need to hurry, though, because this offer ends on the 14th and is only available via the links below.2
Shell Energy have some early Black Friday deals, offering some great introductory prices without the need to queue or get your kidneys elbowed! Their Fast Broadband package is currently one of the cheapest in the market at only £16.99 a month while Fibre packages are not only reduced in price, but also come with two months free in the form of account credit! Plus there are no connection fees for any of these deals. To top it off, if you're on one of Shell's gas or electricity plans, you can also make extra savings on your monthly energy bill!3
All offers available to new customers only unless otherwise specified. Some offers only available in provider network areas. Use our Use our postcode checker to find out what's available in your area. See respective landing pages for full terms and conditions and details of how to claim rewards.
1. All Virgin Media offers are on a 12 month contract. Offers end at 11:59pm 13/11/2019.
2. All BT offers are on a 24 month contract. £9.99 postage and packing fee for the BT Smart Hub applies, activation costs may apply on TV products. Standard broadband products will not be offered if you are able to get Fibre products. If you're in a Fibre-enabled area but can't get Fibre you will be offered a Standard broadband offer. Offer ends at 11:59pm 7/11/2019.
3. All Shell Energy offers are on an 18 month contract. Two months free will be applied to your account as bill credit 90 days after activation. Offer ends at 11:59pm 8/12/2019.
Posted on 2019-10-28 17:53 in Features
We all know the basics of online security: the need for a good Wi-Fi password, the importance of anti-virus software, and so on.
But how much thought have you given to how secure your wireless router is?
Not much, you say?
That's not a surprise, since most people don't realise just how vulnerable their router or hub can actually be. Left unprotected it could be prone to all kinds of attacks, from random snoopers to malware that puts all your connected devices at risk.
So how can you lock down your router to make it more secure? Let's take a look.
1. Change your router's password
Every router comes protected with a password already in place. The trouble is, the default passwords for every model of router are freely available for anyone to find. Anyone can log in - whether it's a nosey neighbour or a gang of hackers on the other side of the world. Back in 2017, Virgin Media had to advise more than 800,000 of its customers to change their router's password due to the fear that the devices could become compromised.
You don't need to wait for something to go wrong. If you only do one thing to lock down your network, this is the change to make.
So how do you set a new router password? First, you need to log in to your router settings. You do this by typing in a numerical address in your web browser, then entering the password. The address is normally something like 192.168.0.1, but you'll need to refer to your instruction manual or look on your broadband supplier's website for the exact details. Once in, we'd suggest changing both the password and the username to make it even more difficult to crack.
Bonus tip! If you've got any devices connected to the internet - like a home CCTV system, a smart doorbell, or even a child's toy - that are still using the default password, considering changing the password right away. There are countless stories of hackers taking control of these devices, along with the cameras and microphones inside them.
2. Change the SSID
To make it easy for you to find and connect to your Wi-Fi network, routers publicly broadcast their name, known as the SSID. Ironically, this is also one of the things that makes your router vulnerable, since the SSID normally contains either the manufacturer's or your broadband provider's name. Any unauthorised snooper can use this to know what type of router they're dealing with.
While you're logged in to your router's settings page you can change the SSID, and can set it to anything you like. It's worth doing, but be warned that you will need to reconnect all your devices again afterwards.
If you want to go a step further you can tick the box in your router's settings to hide the SSID entirely. This will make your network invisible to anyone within range, and if they can't see it they can't connect to it. It's inconvenient, though: you'll have to manually type in the SSID every time you want to connect a new device.
3. Enable the router firewall
Most routers have a built-in firewall that checks all the incoming and outgoing traffic for suspicious activity. It blocks anything that should not be allowed. The firewall should already be turned on on your router, but if not activate it now. As with most of the other things here, you'll find the option in the router settings. You don't need to configure it in any other way.
4. Keep your router up to date
Routers are one of the weak points in any network. They are vulnerable to exploits that can expose connected devices to hackers, send masses of spam, or worse. New threats emerge all the time. What makes it especially serious is that hackers don't need to be within range of your Wi-Fi signal, they can be anywhere and can target thousands of compromised devices in one go.
For this reason you must keep your router up to date to make sure it's always protected against any new flaws. Fortunately, you shouldn't need to worry too much about doing it. Most third party routers will update automatically whenever a new firmware update becomes available, while broadband providers like Sky or Virgin Media will push out updates for their own dedicated hubs.
That said, if you wanted to check in from time to time to see if there are any updates available, that wouldn't hurt. And if you're using your own router, and it's pretty old and no longer supported, it might be worth upgrading to a newer model. Chances are you'll get performance benefits from that, too.
5. Update your network's security settings
Routers support a few different security protocols to protect your wireless network. The most common two are called WEP and WPA2. You don't need to know the technicalities of these, just that WEP isn't very secure - it only still exists so the router will work with really old devices that don't support newer standards - and that WPA2 is the one that you should use.
It should be set as the default anyway, but if it isn't log into your router settings to change it. You'll need to reconnect all your devices again, but the slight inconvenience is worth it.
While you're there, here's a couple of other tweaks to make:
- Consider turning off WPS. This system was designed to make it easier to connect devices to your Wi-Fi just by pressing a button on the router. However, the general advice from security pros is to disable it. Just keep in mind that some devices, from a Sky Q box to many printers, do still use WPS to connect.
- Disable any other unused features. Most routers come with lots of extra features that most home users don't need. These often include remote management tools that let you access your router even when you're out of range. Unless you specifically need this - and you almost certainly won't - make sure it's turned off.
6. Use Wi-Fi scheduling
Some routers offer a Wi-Fi scheduling feature that lets you control when your wireless network is and isn't available. Some broadband providers also offer this as part of their parental controls apps. It's worth using for security reasons if nothing else, since you can effectively shut down your Wi-Fi when nobody needs it, like throughout the night or when you're at work during the day.
7. Create a Guest network
Finally, one of the simplest ways to take control of your online security is to change your passwords on a regular basis. Your Wi-Fi password is no different. You'll hand it out to dozens and dozens of people over the years - friends, visitors, random workmen - to the point where you have no idea who can use your internet.
But constantly changing the Wi-Fi password is a real faff because you always have to go round and reconnect all your devices.
A quick fix for this is to set up a guest network, assuming you're able to. Sometimes you can do this on the router itself, and other times through your broadband provider's mobile app - BT, Vodafone, and Virgin Media are examples of suppliers who let you do this.
The idea is that you keep your main password for just you and your family, and everyone else gets the guest password. You can change that every few months, ensuring that people who don't need access to your Wi-Fi forever won't get it.
Router security is easily overlooked, but it's easy to fix. A few changes to the settings here and there will help to protect you and all the devices connected to your network. Need more security tips? Check out our guide to the five ways to stay safe online.