A simples guide

Broadband speed explained

We love broadband because it speeds up our interaction with the internet. The quicker that response, the better. We see broadband speeds routinely quoted alongside deals but do you actually know what it means?


How are broadband speeds measured?

The speed that is being measured when we talk about broadband is ‘how fast is data being transferred’. When you click a link to a website or click send on your email, it’s that speed of data transfer which determines how quickly you see a response.

Broadband speed is denoted as Megabits per second (Mbps).

Note that’s a MegaBIT not a MegaBYTE. We’re going to sound a bit geeky now but a bit is not the same as a byte. A bit is a measure of speed and a byte is a measure of storage.

People often assume that a download speed of 1 Megabit per second (1 Mbps) will allow them to download a 1 Megabyte file in one second. That would be nice and simple but unfortunately, it’s not the case.

A Megabit is 1/8 as big as a Megabyte, meaning that to download a 1MB file in 1 second you would need a connection of 8Mbps.


Why do broadband speeds differ?

• Where you live
The most important factor is where you live. The availability of internet services in the first place will determine what speed you can achieve. If you live in towns and cities you will almost certainly have access to fibre optic broadband offering high broadband speeds. In some cases, superfast broadband of 300Mbps are available and at least one provider now boasts of speeds of up to 1Gbps.

If you live in rural areas however, the fibre rollout is slower due to the smaller demand. That means you’re likely to remain on copper wire systems which are much slower and prone to service interruptions until suppliers are able to upgrade the connection in your area.

• When you access
As well as differences brought about by the type of cable you have, when you access the internet also has an effect. Accessing at peak times tends to lead to some temporary slowdowns in speed.

How much slowdown you suffer depends on how heavily your provider has invested in the network capacity. The more expensive providers focussed on businesses and home office users are likely to have more capacity than budget providers.

Can I complain to my provider about broadband speeds?

You will notice when you look at any advert for a broadband service, they will talk about speed with the prefix “up to”.

To take a motoring analogy, it’s a bit like buying a car that can do ‘up to’ 200mph and then driving it on a muddy road full of potholes. Sure your car can still do 200mph in theory, you just can’t achieve that speed.

On standard connections, non-fibre optic broadband, ‘up to’ speeds can differ significantly. They assume that you live right next door to an exchange so that there is no slow down as the signal travels along the wire to your house. Living a distance from the exchange and the nearest street box has very real implications for the speed that you will actually receive.

While things are much better with fibre optic broadband, you will still often see performance well below that quoted as a result of network capacity and usage amongst other things.

There are a number of Apps and websites available now to check your internet speed. If you think you have a problem it is a good idea to record the speeds you’re receiving. In the event that you do have to complain you then have a record of the situation and how long it has been going on.

You should check your contract for what your guaranteed speed is. You will find it is quite different from ‘up to’.

For example BT say “'Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed' is the fastest speed that any customer in the bottom 10 per cent of that group of customers can get. So, if there are 20,000 customers who fall into the group covered by this example, we would look at the 2,000 customers with the slowest speeds. The Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed would be the fastest speed that any of those 2,000 customers actually achieve.”

Even if you can understand that, you’ve no way of measuring it!

If you do complain, the best advice is to be persistent. Don’t be fobbed off that it’s your equipment that is at fault or that it will be fine tomorrow if it’s been going on a while. Escalate until you get a proper response.


What broadband speed do I need?

What speed you need depends on how you use the internet.

If you only use it for casual browsing you’ll need less speed than someone who uses the internet for other reasons.

A high speed connection could give you significant benefits particularly:

  • If you’re a family with multiple users using multiple devices with no loss of speed
  • If you regularly download TV shows or movies, chat over FaceTime or Skype and want to do so without ‘buffering’ interruptions.
  • If you enjoy gaming without lags. Not only will the greater download speeds help but here enhanced upload speeds allow near instantaneous responses.

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