The Covid-19 pandemic has changed a lot about how we live and work, but one thing it has emphasised is how important good broadband has become.
Socialising, working, learning; the pandemic shifted everything online, as we embraced digital pub quizzes with family and hammered Netflix and Disney+ for entertainment. Zoom classes replaced yoga and fitness; Teams and Hangouts took over from the classroom and meeting room.
None of this would be possible with an internet connection that creaks along. These days, you need your broadband to be fast, your latency low and your jitter, well, less jittery.
The broadband networks largely stepped up to the plate, give or take a few hiccups. And we definitely tested those networks; Virgin Media said it had seen a 50 per cent increase in download and upload traffic year on year.
We may be out of the worst of the lockdown, we hope, but mindful that we are only an outbreak or two away from another one, perhaps it is time to have another look at what services are available and what kind of internet connection you should be looking for.
A survey carried out for Sky Broadband found that 74 per cent of people said broadband played a “vitally important” role during the pandemic.
The survey, which was conducted by iReach, found broadband was now considered second only to gas and electricity in terms of importance to people – ahead of other home comforts such as a washing machine or dishwasher.
Almost half of those surveyed said the availability of reliable, high-speed broadband was an influencing factor when it came to choosing where to live, while about two-thirds of people wouldn’t holiday somewhere without reliable wifi access.
It is also a source of family strife, with 53 per cent saying they believed unreliable wifi was a cause of arguments.
Broadband has changed significantly in recent years. Where once we thought 3mbps (megabits per second) was fast, these days you would have trouble watching a Netflix show or downloading a film at that speed without serious frustration.
The home phone line was once the centre of everything, bringing our calls and our internet connection; nowadays people may not even need to have a phone line installed, let alone rely on it for internet access.
In fact, the humble landline has dropped out of favour so much that only about half of households had one installed, according to figures from Comreg, with people turning to fibre connections for internet, and their mobile phones for calls.
We have more options than ever before; so what are they?
First up is the technology. There are different types of broadband technology and different methods of delivering high-speed internet. What is available to you is largely influenced by where you live; rural homes will have fewer options, inevitably, than suburban and city homes.
Short for asymmetric digital subscriber line. ADSL uses your home’s existing phone line to deliver your broadband. That means you need a phone line installed, and one that is suitable for carrying a broadband signal. On the plus side, it’s the most widely available type of broadband, and it can be cheaper than other options.
The downside? You’ll get slower speeds, which can also be affected by factors such as distance from the nearest telephone exchange and the quality of your phone line.
Fibre, a more up-to-date technology in terms of internet speeds, uses fibre cables to carry the internet to your home or business. It facilitates faster speeds and eliminates the need for a landline.
But there are a couple of different types of fibre: fibre to the cabinet (or part-fibre) and fibre to the home. Fibre to the cabinet will use copper wires to bring the signal from the nearest cabinet to your home, which means speeds can vary depending on how far that distance is. It is still likely to be faster than ADSL, and it may be your only option.
Fibre to the home brings the fibre optic cables directly to your home, and can deliver speeds of up to 1,000mbps.
It was once considered a viable way of getting rural areas of Ireland online, and it still has something to offer. Speeds are improving all the time, and mobile broadband has the advantage of being able to travel with you, via a small dongle that plugs into your laptop, or a wifi hub that broadcasts a wireless signal to which you can connect your mobile devices.
If you plan on using it as your main broadband at home, there are a few things to consider. First, keep an eye on how much you are downloading. There are unlimited plans but – in normal times at least – there are also fair usage policies, and breaching these can rack up charges quite quickly. There have been tales of bills for as much as €1,500 for streaming video services over and above an allowance.
Secondly, make sure your home has decent mobile signal. Depending on your location, it may not, and you will need to check out what has the strongest data signal in your area before committing to a package.
If you are in rural areas that aren’t served by other options, and you are waiting on the National Broadband Plan to deliver, satellite broadband is another route to get online. It requires a satellite dish to be installed on the house, and can give speeds of up to 50mbps. It can be more expensive than other options, and typically has a capped data allowance.
There are several providers in Ireland that will offer some of the above technologies. Virgin Media, Sky, Eir and Vodafone all offer some form of fibre, as do Pure Telecom and Digiweb. Virgin Media, for example, covers about 50 per cent of the households in Ireland.
Speeds: What do you need?
How fast your broadband works will depend on what technology you are using, and what you are willing to pay for.
Most people immediately look at the headline numbers: the 250mbps, or 500mbps and so on. What package is best for you will depend on what you want to use your broadband for. For example, you can stream a Netflix programme in high definition with a 5mbps connection in theory, but you’ll get along much better if you aim for higher than that.
Up to 5mbps will be okay for sending and receiving the average email, streaming music and checking in on Twitter. Gaming online will require more than that, as will downloading any games or other entertainment content in a reasonable time, so aim higher than the bare minimum.
Also, bear in mind a your 250mbps connection is unlikely to be always delivering that speed: the numbers quoted are usually the maximum achievable speeds. Your line should be capable of that, but may not always achieve it.
There will be several factors that influence the broadband speeds accessed by your device, including the capabilities of the devices on your network, and how many devices are trying to connect at once.
Some 90 per cent of Virgin Media’s 385,000 customers are using lines that can achieve speeds of 240mbps-500mbps; the company’s current entry level product starts at 250mbps, so that is the minimum package you can now sign up for, with the newly launched 1 gigabit package at the top end of the scale. And Vodafone, through its partnership with Siro, is offering gigabit broadband in some areas, as does Digiweb. Eir also offers gigabit internet in some areas.
You may also have heard people talking about latency and ping times. That refers to how long it takes your broadband to respond to a request, so the lower the number the better – 50 milliseconds is considered good.
There is also jitter to take into account – how much that latency varies over time. The higher the jitter, the more likely it is that you will run into the dreaded “buffering” during a Netflix binge.
Speed isn’t the only thing to consider, though. Does your plan include a download limit for example? Some plans will allow you to download a certain amount of data each month – usually generous enough. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, many of those limits have been lifted temporarily.
While it might seem like a good idea to save a few euro a month by opting for the capped product, there may be charges or other penalties for going over those limits. For example, you may end up with a higher than normal bill. Or your provider may continue to allow you to download, but at slower speeds than before.
The unlimited plan is always worth considering. But you should check the fine print. Many “unlimited” plans will have a fair usage condition, and if you consistently breach that limit you may find yourself penalised – or, as some former “Surf No Limits” customers may recall, have the service withdrawn.