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You’ve probably heard the term before, but perhaps you’re not quite sure what it means – something to do with a phone line, and connecting to the internet? ADSL may be a bit of a mystery to you right now, but all that is about to change.

We’re here to shed light on this highly popular type of broadband – what it is, how it works and what you need to set it up in your home. Read on to become ADSL-enlightened.

So what is ADSL?

ADSL stands for asymmetric digital subscriber line, a broadband connection that uses home telephone lines to transfer data from your provider to your home. As telephone giant BT owns the UK's landline infrastructure, you'll likely be using their phone line for your connection.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that your broadband has to be supplied by BT. You can buy ADSL packages from non-BT providers through a process called local loop unbundling (LLU). This means that a different provider, such as EE or TalkTalk, can rent the line from BT and plug in their own software to provide you with your broadband.

How does it work?

ADSL uses the old copper wire system of your existing phone line however unlike the old-school dial-up connections, ADSL broadband comes with a clever microfilter that splits out the frequencies used for your voice telephone calls and internet connection. It's this clever technology that revolutionised internet usage, believe it or not, back in the day using the internet would cut off your phone line and vice versa.

Because it uses the BT phone line connection, which most homes already have access to, ADSL is the most popular type of broadband in the UK. Every major broadband provider offers ADSL as standard, with only a handful beginning to introduce fibre optic lines.

With mobile WiFi, you can connect up to 10 different devices, including PCs, kids' laptops, iPods and more and still expect a decent connection speed.

What equipment do I need to install it?

Mobile broadband works in a similar way to mobile phone contracts. You can buy a device outright and then pay as you go. Or you can buy a device on a contract and pay a fixed monthly amount.

Is ADSL available in my area?

Almost everyone with an active phone line should be able to install ADSL broadband. Take our handy broadband comparison tool for a spin to see which deals are available in your area. Simply type in your postcode to see a list of the accessible broadband choices; you'll be able to compare broadband speed, any inclusive calls, length of contract, yearly and monthly costs.

What other options do I have?

If you don't want to get a phone line installed in your home, along with the associated costs, then there are alternatives:


This super-fast broadband uses fibre-optic cables and can offer speeds of up to 330Mbps

3G mobile broadband

You can use your smartphone's 3G network for an average speed of around 3Mbps

4G mobile broadband

Quicker than 3G, this mobile phone network transfers data at an average speed of around 14.7Mbps

What’s better: cable or ADSL?

There's no simple answer to whether ADLS or cable is the better option. We all have different internet requirements, so ultimately it depends on what you need as an individual.

First you need to check what's available in your area. Although ADSL is available almost everywhere in the UK, cable isn't as easily accessible – you'll need to live in an area that's able to use it. So even if you've got your heart set on cable, sadly you might not even have that option.

If it turns out you do live in a cable coverage area, then consider how much you actually need it. If there are only one or two of you using the internet and you're relatively light users, then ADSL will probably suit you better. For one thing it's cheaper, plus the lower download and upload speeds won't be an issue.

On the other hand, if you need to cater for multiple internet users, who love gaming and streaming music, or if you run a business and require the fastest speeds, then cable is likely to be the best choice for you.

Bear in mind that while it's super fast, fibre-optic cable broadband can be prone to speed bursts. Although that's not a problem for most, it can be irritating to online gamers who need a reliable connection speed.

And then, of course, there's price to consider. You'll find cable broadband is usually incorporated into TV and phone bundles, so you'll make larger monthly payments to reflect this. This could work in your favour if you were planning on paying for a TV and phone service anyway.

ADSL remains the most cost-effective option if you just need broadband and nothing else.

How fast is ADSL?

The speed of your ADSL broadband varies according to where you live, but you can expect an average speed of up to 16Mbps. Perfect for checking emails and online shopping sprees, not so much for heavy online gaming marathons. Consult our broadband tool to compare deals in your area.

What’s ADSL2?

ADSL2 connections use the same phone wiring and exchange infrastructure as ADSL, but use a different type of software, offering you even faster speeds of up to three times that of regular ADSL.

Most broadband providers now offer ADSL2 as a step up from its predecessor. Find out if you can reap the benefits of a high-speed ADSL2 connection using our broadband comparison tool here.

If you found this article helpful, take a look at our full list of broadband guides and advise we have available.