Broadband speed explained

We see broadband speeds routinely quoted 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 routinely quoted 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 Niblett
From the Digital team
minute read
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Posted 20 NOVEMBER 2019

How are broadband speeds measured?

The speed that’s being measured when we talk about broadband is ‘how fast is data being transferred’.

When you click a link to a website or send an email, it’s that speed of data transfer that determines how quickly you see a response.

You’ll usually see broadband speed 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. 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 8 Mbps.

Why do broadband speeds differ?

There are a number of reasons why broadband speeds vary from household to household and are sometimes lower 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 broadband of up to 350 Mbps are available.

    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.

  • When you access the internet – 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 focused on businesses and home office users are likely to have more capacity than budget providers.
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 Ofcom to provide advice to increase your speed if it’s much slower than what they estimated when you signed up.

There are a number of apps and websites available now to check your actual internet speed. If you think you have a problem, it’s a good idea to record the speeds you’re receiving. Then you’ll have a record of the speeds and how long it’s been going on to back up your complaint.

The best advice is to be persistent. Don’t automatically assume 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.

It is important to bear in mind that most broadband packages advertise ‘up to speeds’, which aren’t necessarily what you’ll achieve all the time.

  • Non-fibre broadband – On standard connections, ‘up to’ speeds can differ significantly. (‘Up to’ speeds are generally what 10% of customers achieve)
  • Fibre broadband – While often better, you’ll still often see performance well below that quoted as a result of network capacity and usage, amongst other things.

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 multiple users using multiple devices with no loss of speed
  • If you don’t want any ‘buffering’ interruptions when you’re streaming TV shows, movies in HD and making video calls
  • If you enjoy gaming without lags. Not only will the greater download speeds help but enhanced upload speeds allow near instantaneous responses.

Superfast broadband offering up to 350 Mbps sounds impressive but bear in mind, you only need 3 Mbps to watch BBC iPlayer in HD. And the minimum recommended broadband speed for Netflix is just 1.5 Mbps.

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