What causes broadband outages?

Broadband outages can have a number of causes, and correctly identifying them is invaluable for managing without connectivity – or getting it restored

Saturday, 1 August, 2020

Broadband outages are rare, which is perhaps why they retain the power to shock.

It almost seems impertinent for the internet to be unavailable, preventing us from checking social media websites for the umpteenth time or reading a marketing email.

A common internet meme suggests things to do while the internet is down include painting your feelings, crying in front of a mirror and asking God why this has happened to you.

Yet in truth, the sudden absence of the internet rarely has a significant impact on productivity, unless you’re just about to conduct a Skype interview or submit something on deadline.

Broadband outages can occur for a variety of reasons, and understanding these should help to minimise any frustration.

Out for the count

According to research in America, the five main causes of broadband outages are:

  1. Network congestion, often caused by high-profile online events. Sir David Attenborough’s Our Blue Planet documentary led to an outage in China when it was released.
  2. An issue with the network accessed by your service provider. Causes could range from vandalism and storm damage to scheduled repairs or (if you’re lucky) line upgrading.
  3. Erratic line speed performance. If your connection is running slowly, webpages time out and devices may report connection errors due to insufficient bandwidth being available.
  4. Hardware failure. The equipment which distributes internet connectivity is often quite rudimentary. It’s susceptible to burnout, overloads and simply not working properly.
  5. Incorrect domestic setup. Sometimes the fault doesn’t lie with your ISP. A faulty microfilter, wrongly programmed firewall or corrupted device could be responsible.

Outages can be domestic, local, regional or provider-specific.

Virgin Media tends to top the list of UK ISPs whose services are offline, since it relies on a proprietary network of cabling with variable speed and reliability.

Many more issues are caused by Openreach doing (or not doing) something which affects third-party providers, most of whom rely on Openreach’s cables and connections.

Cause and reflect

These steps ought to establish the particular cause of your broadband outage.

In turn, this will determine how to move forwards – or how long you’ll have to wait to rejoin the information superhighway:

  • Hardwire a PC or Mac into your broadband router using an Ethernet cable, ensuring the hub itself is plugged into the master phone socket. This rules out many domestic issues.
  • If the computer can’t connect, reboot your router and then try connecting using a mobile device. If the internet is still unavailable, the problem is likely to be external.
  • Using a mobile network, check your ISP’s homepage or service status page. They often take hours to acknowledge outages, so check on downdetector.co.uk in the meantime.
  • Ring your ISP to report the issue. Their technicians may be able to advise on network issues in your area, or effect a repair based on the information you provide.
Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!