Broadband a potted history

Updated April 2020

The early years of connecting to the internet meant having to use a “dial-up” MODEM. This was (in most cases) normally an “Expansion Card” that was fitted in the PC and in turn this was connected to the normal (phone) land line; using a standard telephone cable. land lines were analogue – capable of (analogue) voice transmission but computer “data” was and still is “digital”. The MODEM was a device that was used to MOdulate and DEModulate digital signals to analogue and vice versa.

To connect to the Internet, you needed an ISP (Internet Service Provider), who would provide you with a phone number. The software used by the MODEM dialed the number and waited for a response, to “handshake”. Connection speeds were initially 8K, then 16K and on to 28K and even 46K, if you were lucky 🙂

While you were connected to the Internet, you couldn’t use the landline to make or receive voice calls, some people had an extra line installed to get round that problem. BT (Openreach) released ISDN (Integrated Digital Services Network) in 1986 and this enabled Voice & data to be sent down the same cable. It was an expensive service that was geared towards businesses.

Then along came “Broadband”, that was a game changer! Memory is a little hazy but from what I remember, “Cable Companies” were springing up (late 1990’s / early 2000) and they laid “Fibre optic” cables from their premises to cabinets on just about every street corner in the UK. In my case the company was “Yorkshire Cable” (Telewest), which is now Virgin Media. The cables to each house, from the cabinet were still the standard copper cables but they used Coax cables inside the customer premises.

They were initially offering connections speeds of up to 500Mb (Megabits) which compared to 28 or 46 Kb (Kilobits) with a dial-up modem, it was a no brainer. Of course you wanted the increase in speed. Over the years this has risen to (currently) 300Mb but most people will have something between 16Mb to 80Mb.

To use the new “Broadband” connection, they provided a device that they called a “Cable Modem” but it was in fact a hi-bred ROUTER. The “modem” fitted into your PC was now redundant because an “Ethernet cable” was now used to connect to the Router via the NIC (Network Interface Card). In some cases people now had to fit a NIC into their PCs.

BT offered a service called ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) which unlike ISDN didn’t require a “dedicated” line.The device you used to access their Broadband services was called an ADSL Modem but again it was actually a hi-bred Router. To use the ADSL service, the landline needed to be  “Configured” and you had to use “Filters” on all of your telephone sockets. The filters basically allowed voice and data to be used on the same cable by using separate frequencies. Again, the Modem fitted in your PC became redundant because the “new” ADSL router typically used USB to connect to the PC but now use an Ethernet cable to connect to your PCs NIC (Network Interface Card).

BT / Openreach have now upgraded most of their landline infrastructure and have basically replaced their cables to cabinets on street corners with fibre and in some cases are now offering “Fibre to the Premises” so they can be competitive with the “Cable Companies”. With regard to “Cable Companies”, they are all now owned by “Virgin Media” so your Internet connection will be with either BT / Openreach or Virgin Media.

Broadband is also called “always on” because unless you actually power off the router (Internet Gateway) you are permanently connected to the Internet via your ISP. For most people this won”t be a problem.

Over the years, “Broadband connections” have improved massively. The initial offerings (for both Cable & BT) allowed only one PC / device to connect to the router but more could be added by using a hub or switch.

Internet Gateways started to become the defacto standard. These devices are routers with a built-in 4 port (typically) switch and a WAP (Wireless Access Point). Again this was a game changer as you can now connect up to 4 PCs using Ethernet cables and even more using WiFi. These are available for both Cable and / or ADSL but Virgin only allow you to use the one supplied by them.

Modern Internet Gateways include a “Firewall” and some are better than others!

Broadband is also available using the “Mobile Phone” network. This mainly started to be taken up when 3G was introduced but increased considerably on the release of 4G. This is brilliant because you have an “always on” Internet connection when out and about and in some cases it is better than using WiFi, if you can get a good signal! When (if) 5G is rolled out to the masses, it will be a game changer. It will compete big style with standard Broadband services and will likely make WiFi a second option but it is still a radio signal and if you don’t get a good signal, you won’t get a decent / reliable connection!

Broadband is here to stay. The future (for many people) will be “Mobile Computing“, where your PC is “pocket sized” which enables you to “compute” when out and about but when back in the office or at home, it will connect to a large screen with keyboard and mouse (if you want) and it will use the best Internet connection available. If you have a “Dock” for your mobile computer, it’s likely that it will use Ethernet. If you don’t have a “Dock”, it will use WiFi or 4 G / 5 G.