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Last updated: 21 May 2021
Today we take our instantaneous, inexpensive home internet connections for granted. But not so long ago our lives of ceaseless streaming, video calls and social media were unimaginable. Our old internet connections were sluggish, tethered to clunky monitors and monopolised our landlines. Downloading a single MP3 file would take nearly ten minutes. And that film you wanted to watch? That’ll be ready sometime next week.
Forgotten dark old days of dial-up internet and glacially loading pages? Let’s take a trip down memory lane and refresh your broadband history.
When did the internet start?
The internet we use today to watch cat videos and order novelty socks began as a military communication network. ARPANET was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1970s to enable data transfers between computers in different locations. It was technically ‘the internet’ but not one you’d recognise today: it connected just four computers—and those computers were the size of large appliances.
This data transfer system was emulated and refined by other scientists throughout the 70s. Soon networks of computers were sprouting up around the world, but each used its own language so communication between them was difficult. That all changed with the development in the 1980s of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP), which became the universal language of the internet.
The internet became even more user-friendly with the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 90s. Finally, the internet became close to something we’d recognise today, with browsers, websites and links--although it was exclusively being used by nuclear physicists. The first commercial access to the ‘net wasn’t sold until 1995.
What was dial-up?
That early internet was dial-up, which commandeered our landline telephone lines to receive and transmit data. Speeds were painfully slow, at just 56kbps. In comparison, today an entry-level fibre optic connection delivers speeds of around 36Mbps or 36,000kbps.
At those crawling kilobit speeds, streaming music and video content was impossible and downloads took days. And in the meantime, you couldn't make or receive any calls on your landline. It was the perfect recipe for family discord.
What is broadband?
Broadband healed the family rifts in the early 2000s by allowing one phone line to be simultaneously used for both the internet and phone calls. Broadband also carried a higher volume of data at higher speeds, by using a technology called ADSL, for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. ADSL delivered maximum speeds of 8Mbps and later 24Mbps, but not everyone received connections that fast. The farther you lived from your street cabinet, the slower your internet connection would be.
ADSL was followed by cable broadband, which bypasses copper telephone wires altogether, using coaxial cables instead, and delivers even faster speeds. The UK’s cable network was primarily installed by Virgin Media and today reaches about half of all households.
Broadband, whether ADSL or cable, was extremely expensive when it was first launched, so uptake was low at first. But by the middle of the 2000s, most of us had hopped on board and were using the internet the way we’d recognise today: to watch funny animal videos and share photos of our lives with our friends. Today, a quarter of UK internet users are still subscribed to ADSL, or standard, broadband packages.
What is fibre optic broadband?
Internet picked up the pace yet again later in the decade, with the advent of fibre optic broadband. The first—and most widespread—form of fibre internet is fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), which runs on fibre optic cables to your street cabinet but then traverses the rest of the distance on phone lines, like ADSL. FTTC offers ‘superfast’ internet, that with average speeds exceeding 24Mbps. In the UK it usually comes in two flavours: with average speeds of around 36Mbps and with average speeds around 65Mbps. About 95% of us can access FTTC and 55% of internet users are signed up.
As speeds increased, so did customers' choice of provider. Today, dozens of ISPs are vying for your monthly bill, offering a dizzying array of entertainment bundling options and incentives. As the UK’s market has been flooded with broadband deals, comparison sites have been set up to help consumers navigate the waters. Plug in your postcode and these sites can tell you which technologies are available at your property and which internet providers deliver them and for what price.
The future of broadband
Broadband isn’t resting on its laurels in the UK: a newer and even faster connection has already been rolled out to around one in 10 homes. Full-fibre broadband makes the entire run to your router on fibre optic cables, delivering speeds which make FTTC look sluggish. The sky is the limit with full-fibre but today the fastest commercially available connections top out at 1Gbps or 1,000Mbps. This is gigabit broadband and the UK government has pledged that all households will be able to access it, or another technology delivering gigabit speeds, by 2025.
In the future, however, our internet connections might not be delivered via wires at all or linked to our homes. Mobile broadband, which uses the mobile network to transmit data, is now with 5G achieving speeds to rival fixed-lined connections. Someday in the not too distant future, we might all have cut the cord and be using broadband via mobile networks.