Our handy guide explains what cable broadband is and gives details about why it's different to ADSL and whether or not it's a better option for you.

Though cable broadband is not as readily available as ADSL, it is on the increase in the UK and is already well-established in the United States where there were more than 22.5million cable modem users as far back as 2005. So how does cable broadband work and what are its advantages?

What is cable broadband and how does it work?

A cable modem allows data to be sent over the cable television structure by taking advantage of unused bandwidth on the network. As a result you need to live in an area that is served by cable – but you do not require a BT phone line.

In the UK, most of the cable internet connections are supplied by Virgin Media. Previously they were supplied by ntl:Telewest, but Virgin Media completed a takeover of the group in 2006. If you do not already have a cable line, you will need to arrange for a representative to visit your home and install a line – usually this will be accompanied by a set-up fee

The installation process sees a cable modem attached to a coax cable which goes outside the house and on to a cabinet in the street. In order to work with your PC, it is usually necessary to install a LAN card – this is something you will usually have to do yourself as engineers generally won’t get involved in the set-up process. In effect, although it is called a ‘cable modem’, it acts more like a network router.

Many cable modems will also incorporate their own router alongside the modem functionality. Even though they may appear within the same device, functionality is kept separate from the modem. As a result, both the wireless router and the cable modem will have their own distinct IP and MAC addresses.

Cable modems are usually available as part of a broadband package from most leading providers. With other services you can buy or rent a cable modem directly from the supplier.

As with ADSL the download speeds available on cable are much higher than the upload speeds. However, cable broadband has potentially faster download speeds than ADSL and can even get as high as 50Mb for some business broadband packages. Some cable companies may allow you to run your own web server at home but bear in mind that your IP address may be replaced periodically which can make access difficult.

Earlier in this guide we examined both ADSL and cable broadband – however, which is right for you, and are there any alternatives?

Which is better – ADSL or cable?

There is no definitive answer as to which is best between an ADSL and a cable internet connection – it’s all about which is right for you, the individual.

The first consideration is availability. Whereas ADSL is available using BT phone lines, and is accessible for more than 99% of the UK population, cable is less readily available and you must be in a cable-enabled area to gain access. For many therefore, the choice is taken out of their hands.

If you do have the choice, then think about how you plan to use the internet. If you use the internet in a passive manner then ADSL may prove to be a better option as slightly lower download and upload speeds won’t affect you. However, if you are a real internet enthusiast, perhaps with your own website or business to run, then the faster speeds available through a cable modem usually make it the better choice.

Nevertheless, cable broadband does have its downside too as it can often have speed bursts. While this won’t cause any problems for general downloading and browsing, it can be frustrating for online gamers who are reliant on a consistent connection speed.

The other factor of course, is price. Cable broadband is usually tied into TV and phone deals as part of a bundled service from a cable provider. As a result you will be making a larger monthly payment to cover all of these costs. However, this usually works out as a cost-effective method of payment – as long as you plan to have a TV and phone service anyway. Broadband only deals through cable providers often work out more expensive than ADSL.

To gain some perspective of what’s available in your area, and at what price, use the broadband comparison tool.

What are the alternatives?

There are some alternatives if ADSL and cable broadband aren’t right for you:

  • Wireless internet – Now being offered in remote and rural areas where ADSL and cable are not available. Small internet providers offer local coverage using wireless technology and by fitting an antenna on the outside of a home, which can receive the connection. No telephone line is needed.
  • Satellite broadband – Available throughout the UK but generally only seen as a last resort, satellite broadband works in two forms. The first is a one-way connection where you can receive data, but can only send data (such as an email) with a dial-up connection. The second is a two-way connection but this is usually very expensive to install and includes a monthly subscription.
  • SDSL – Standing for symmetric digital subscriber line, this is basically the same as ADSL but with uploads and downloads at the same speed. It is generally considered a specialist option for large businesses because it requires an extra telephone line.

So now you know all of the options, we hope you can make an informed choice about the right type of internet connection for you. Limited is an appointed representative of Financial Group Limited, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA FRN 303190). Financial Group Limited, registered in England No. 3157344. Registered Office: Moneysupermarket House, St. David's Park, Ewloe, CH5 3UZ. Telephone 01244 665700