Broadband speed explained

We see broadband speeds listed alongside deals but do you know what they mean? We take a closer look at what broadband speeds are available and when you need them. 

We see broadband speeds listed alongside deals but do you know what they mean? We take a closer look at what broadband speeds are available and when you need them. 

Holly Cox
Digital expert
minute read
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Posted 23 AUGUST 2021

How are broadband speeds measured?

Broadband speed (how fast data is being transferred) is usually measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). 
People often assume that a download speed of 1 Mbps will allow them to download a 1 MB (Megabyte) file in one second. Unfortunately, it’s not the case. 
A Megabit is one-eighth the size of a Megabyte, meaning that to download a 1MB file in one second, you’d actually need a connection speed of 8 Mbps. 

Why do broadband speeds differ?

There are several reasons why broadband speeds vary from household to household and are sometimes slower than the advertised average speeds, including: 

  • Where you live – If you live in towns and cities you’ll almost certainly have access to fibre broadband offering high broadband speeds. In some cases, superfast fibre broadband of up to 516 Mbps is available.

If you live in a rural area, the fibre roll-out may not have reached you yet. If so,  you’re likely to be on copper wire systems, which are much slower and prone to service interruptions. 

  • When you access the internet – When you use the internet can also impact speed. Accessing the internet at traditional peak times (a distinction which is becoming a little blurred as more people work from home) can still lead to some temporary slowdowns in speed. 

How much slowdown you suffer depends on the extent to which your provider has or hasn’t invested in its network.  
You may want to avoid packages with traffic management, where download speeds are adjusted for particular activities at particular times, if you don’t want to be slowed down. 

Can I complain to my provider about broadband speeds?

Yes. Your internet provider is required by regulatory body Ofcom to investigate any complaints you make about broadband speed, if it’s much slower than what they estimated it would be, when you signed up. It’s in your rights to request an affordable and decent connection. 
You can check your internet speed against the speed of other providers in your area using our broadband speed test tool. 
If you think there’s a problem, it’s a good idea to record the speeds you’re receiving, to back up your complaint. 
But remember that most broadband packages advertise ‘up to’ speeds, which aren’t necessarily what you’ll achieve all the time. 

What broadband speed do I need?

What speed you need depends on how you use the internet. 
If you only use it for browsing the internet, you’ll need less speed than someone who uses the internet for streaming movies or online gaming. 
A high-speed connection could give you significant benefits, particularly if: 

  • You’re a family with several users using multiple devices 
  • You can’t tolerate any ‘buffering’ interruptions when streaming TV shows or movies in Ultra HD, or making video calls 
  • You enjoy gaming – not only will the faster download speeds help, but enhanced upload speeds allow near instant responses and no lagging 
  • Multiple people in your household work from home and regularly make video calls at the same time

But bear in mind that you only need up to 5 Mbps to stream BBC iPlayer in HD, while 1.5 Mbps is the minimum recommended speed for the platform. The minimum recommended broadband speed for Netflix is also 1.5 Mbps. For high definition viewing, Netflix recommends a minimum speed of 5 Mbps. 
Find out which type of broadband you need to suit your streaming requirements.  

How can I check my broadband speed? 

You can check your broadband speed with our broadband speed checker.  
It’s free, simple to use and you can compare your connection speeds to your neighbours’ average speeds, and see your options if you’re keen to switch providers. 
You should make sure that nobody else is using the internet at the same time and if possible, use a wired connection using an ethernet cable to ensure you get an accurate result.  
Speeds fluctuate throughout the day so you might want to consider running the test a couple of times. 

Is a fibre connection always faster? 

Fibre broadband is faster and more reliable than ADSL (Asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband because of the technology it uses. 
An ADSL connection uses copper wires and electrical signals to transfer data, while a fibre connection uses light. That means your downloads and uploads travel much faster.  
However, the speed and quality of your fibre broadband will vary according to your provider and where you live. 

Most fibre connections still run a copper wire from a cabinet on your street to your home, and few in the UK benefit from a connection entirely made up of fibre cables.  

What’s the average broadband speed in the UK?

The average speed of broadband in UK homes is 80.2 Mbps, according to the latest Ofcom data (November 2020). The speed increased by 25% compared to November 2019. 
Around 78% of connections are superfast or ultrafast (30 Mbps or higher), 5% are ultrafast (300 Mbps or higher) and only 8% of connections have average speeds of less than 10 Mbps. 

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