/ Technology

Why advertised broadband speed really does matter

Our new research shows just how important speed is to you when choosing a broadband deal. So why can’t we trust the speeds that are advertised?

A few months ago I moved into a new flat. That first week, surrounded by boxes and sitting on my living room floor, I had a list of priorities I had to get done asap. Put the bed together, get the Billy Bookcase built, buy a curtain rail, that sort of thing.

And top of the list was getting all my utilities and services set up – those essentials we need to get on with modern life. Electricity, check. Water, check. Council tax, check. Rent, check.

And broadband. Check.

Because let’s face it – today, most people in the UK would call internet access an essential. In fact I used mobile data to set up all the other services, because it’s nearly impossible to get it done quickly and efficiently over the phone.

So, how to find a good broadband package?

Broadband speed and price

I looked at a bunch of ads and broadband packages on price comparison websites. I wanted a reasonably fast connection at a reasonable price. And I found one that promised ‘up to 17Mb’ for a standard broadband package for about twenty quid a month, including line rental. Not bad, so I went for that one.

Speed and price were most important to me and our latest research has found this is true for most people. Speed definitely matters. More than two thirds of people we asked ranked it as the first or second most important factor in choosing their deal. That’s ahead of price, brand or contract length.

We also found out that the more that people believed they would get the advertised speed, the more important a factor speed was in their choice.

The problem is that, as things stand, advertisers can make some pretty wild claims about broadband speed. They’re allowed to quote one (tack on the phrase ‘up to’ in front of it) and that’s OK as long as 10% of customers can achieve those speeds.

But it’s not really OK is it? What it means is that you have no real idea if you’ll actually get that advertised speed, or anything close to it, until you actually get a specific quote once you’re already on the phone talking to that provider and well on your way to parting with your money.

Accurate adverts

This is why we’ve been campaigning for more accurate and honest ads from broadband providers, and why we want the Advertising Standards Authority to do more to make broadband companies provide customers with accurate claims upfront in their ads.

We welcome the ASA’s recent announcement that it’s now researching the importance of speed in customer choices of provider, and looking again at how important speed is. Our research shows that speed matters when picking your broadband package.

Now we wait for the ASA to announce its findings at the start of the autumn, and we hope that our research helps them take note and realise more has to be done to make broadband ads more decent, honest, and fair for consumers.

So how about you, how important is broadband speed to you? Do you know if your broadband gets the speed that was advertised to you?


Nice to have faith in the ASA. BTW who did you go with and what is your BB speed truly?

Isn’t this a repeat of previous Convos? We’ve debated the “up to” issue to death and hopefully the ASA will help resolve it. But with what? 50%? 90% 100% (what about the other 50/10%)?

What exactly do Which? propose as an “honest” declaration of speed when it will vary from consumer to consumer for good reasons.

In practice what matters is what I get – not anyone else, or an “average”. So I should speak to one or more potential providers and find out what the speed estimate is at the entry to my property. If it is no more difficult than that why not publicise it heavily (Which? included)?

What exactly do Which? propose as an “honest” declaration of speed when it will vary from consumer to consumer for good reasons.

From the entry to your home onwards, any loss in speed is down to your installation and equipment.

Hi Jack – Please can you explain why Which? is not pushing to get rid of the use of ‘up to’ in advertising? I fully appreciate that broadband speed at the master socket will depend on many factors, but all that’s needed is for customers to look up the estimated speed range for their home.

Imagine eggs being sold in boxes of “up to 12” and finding only four in the box. Thats how I saw it when I used to have an “up to 24Mbps” service and my speed was about 8Mbps. Then my ISP dropped the “up to” nonsense.

Sorry, wavechange, but the up to 12 eggs is not a good analogy. You can easily provide 12 eggs – although they may not all be unbroken, you need to check.

You cannot provide everyone with 24Mbps broadband because the speed an individual will get, as has been dealt with often here, depends upon other factors outside the provider’s direct control. Most people understand “up to” if they want to.

However as I understand it I can get a speed estimate for my home – at the input socket – by asking a potential provider; on copper anyway – not sure about all-fibre. That is what matters to me and, if it is true, that is surely the really helpful information. So why do we not make that a requirement before a contract is agreed? The “up to” simply gives the upper limit for an area.

If I am wrong about getting a personal estimate this way that is meaningful I will withdraw my post to avoid misleading others. That will be up to the moderators, though.

@jmadden, thanks Jack. I’ve replied to the DT article below – it repeats a lot of Which? and I have no respect for the DT’s ability to critically report these days.

What use is a 50% figure? The other 50% who are slower will still moan. Shifting a bad criterion from one figure to another helps no one. The “leeway” as you put it will still be large – some well in excess of the 50% figure, some well below.

You agree, I think, that you can get a fair estimate for your own premises by asking. So why not make this compulsory? Then I’ll know what to expect at my computer (well, inlet box). Fiddling with the “up to” figure becomes fairly pointless.

Why does Which? not publish all the relevant information, rather than just concentrating on one issue? That would be much more helpful to consumers.

Malcolm – If you want to know what the maximum theoretical speed of copper broadband, why not put this in the small print, rather than in a useless ‘up to’ claim. That’s what my ISP does. The predicted speed range is more useful for the average consumer.

I wouldn’t disagree. I think any theoretical speed – for 10%, 50%, average – is pretty pointless and unhelpful for individuals. The likely speed an individual should get is what would matter to me – and most others in my view. If getting that is simple, why not promote it?

Our difference of opinion seems to be whether ‘up to’ is allowed in advertising. As I have said, I have no objection to this being in the small print, though maybe as ‘maximum theoretical speed’. It is actually possible to have honesty in marketing. 🙂

It’s only a small difference of opinion on semantics. Do we agree that being given a personal estimate by potential providers is the useful information we need?

Incidentally, this will have caveats, won’t it? Your own equipment, how busy the internet is for example. It is not straightforward but could be made much less bent.

Of course we agree on this, Malcolm. I have promoted this approach in numerous Convos. My ISP bases the estimate on address but as we have discussed before, it’s even better to use phone number if available.

The speed of my old copper broadband was largely unaffected by time of day, though I realise that this is an exception. I would suggest that an estimated range of speed takes contention into account and is based on what the user can expect for a percentage of the the time. The figure I have in mind is 90% but I don’t know if this could be achieved in practice.

Good. 🙂 But I wonder if Which? will take a practical view of this issue, or pursue it’s present course?

As with tackling the problem of nuisance calls it is a step in the right direction, but it falls short of what is needed, in my view.

Victor Howarth says:
6 August 2016

Malcolm has a good point here. Supermarkets are given rulings under law to give factual details as to what they are selling. this means that as a consumer when we see for example milk displayed we can chose what we want and if we make a mistake and purchase a 2ltr container we know that it should contain 2lts. If it does not we can demand our money back and take the manufacturers to court with the law on our side. But a 2pint container LOOKS similar but we can see from the label that our error was to pick up the slightly smaller size.
But neither is labelled “up to 2ltr” as broadband speed is labelled by for example the Virgin Media package that I am changing from, as up yo 200mbs though I have seen speeds advertised as being up to 300mbs.
What we actually get might be less than 200mbs and for my area Ofcom says 60mbs is more realistic.
And any number that we can think of can be still within the 200mbs.
I am not even sure that broadband speed measuring meters are even taking an actual speed of source to modem and not adding any wireless speed from computer to modem into the calculation.
How do we take it from here, do we back down on claims for honesty as the “up to” is still right or do we demand a scale of accurate broadband suppliers in every area so that we can judge better as to which contract we enter into.

Victor, measuring your broadband speed when you are subscribing to a service that is offering over 100mbps needs care. You can only measure speed this high using a wired connection. All the patch cables that you use must be at least CAT5. If you are using a seperate routing device then it needs to be a gigabit router/switch. Finally, you need to check that the network card in your PC is a gigabit card. If any of these conditions are not met then you will have a speed limiter in your system that throttles back your throughput to a maximum of 100mbps.

In my experience Virgin Media have always provided slightly over what they claim – so my 100mbps service measured up as around 104mbps downstream and 12mbps upstream. I am currently on a 150mbps service that measures up at around 148mbps downstream and 19.7mbps upstream. I suspect the only reason that I am not measuring the full speed is that my switch is supporting 5 wired devices and the hub is supporting the same number of wireless devices.

When you are using highspeed Internet connections like these the real speed killers are high connection latencies and the performance of remote servers. If you are not currently using an ad blocker then I would definitely recommend that you get one. In my experience the adverts are the underperformers on many webpages.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

I’m sure most folk would hate this, but things might actually be a lot fairer if broadband charges were based on a “standing charge” for line rental and a “usage charge”, based on the quantity of data downloaded or uploaded – just like most energy bills 😉

Then at least those getting a poor service might not have to pay the same as those getting an excellent service.

So if it takes me 5 secs to download something and someone else 12 hours, surely they’d be paying more cos they’d be using it more ?

william – what I was mooting was that, if you took 5 secs to download a 5GB movie (or whatever) and I took 12 hours, we both get charged the same amount for the data involved. In other words, the charges would reflect the useful added value from the service.

My ISP dropped the ‘up to’ claim years ago, instead giving a range of download speeds that a new customer could expect. My speed was near the bottom of the estimated range and a neighbour’s near the top. I’m now on fibre broadband in a different home but with the same local ISP. I chose a 50Mbps service and that’s more or less what I get. This morning I checked and the download speed was 52.38Mbps.

I have no doubt we will carry on with Convos about advertising broadband speed until the use of ‘up to’ is banned by the ASA. When business learns how to run a business, complaints will stop.

Just wanted to add that The Telegraph has also covered this story today:

‘Broadband companies could be forced to advertise average speeds rather than top speeds as part of a major crackdown being planned by advertising watchdogs and called for by consumer groups.

‘Consumer Group, Which?, is calling on ASA to ban any claim detailing speeds received by less than half of customers.

‘It claims the rule allows brands to advertise attractive high speeds which are misleading an estimated 84pc of consumers who are not aware of it.’

The full article can be read here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/28/broadband-providers-could-be-forced-to-cut-misleading-speed-clai/

@ldeitz, i wouldn’t trust the Daily Telegraph to put any real critical thought behind what it reports (or regurgitates). Most of its decent staff have gone. It seems to quote Which? in the main here.

What is the point in quoting a 50% figure? It just shifts an artificial benchmark for the sake of a visible compromise. That still means 50% of consumers will not get what “they expect” and they will doubtless continue to moan.

I need to know what speed I will get, and, as I understand it, I can get a personal estimate from a potential provider if they have my phone number. If this is true, then why not make it a requirement that the provider does just this? The general “speed” advertised is then no more than a guide to the maximum for my area.

I don’t want to sound hostile, but I am irritated by Which?’s partisan approach to this. It ignores constructive and informative comments made by knowledgeable contributors to what is not a one-sided issue. It seems to simply want to pander to the populist view without explaining the whole issue.

If I am wrong, please say. I will hold my hand up and withdraw my irritation. But Which? has a responsibility to present honest, fair, balanced and objective cases when advising influential bodies and consumers.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Hello @malcolm-r and @duncan, thanks both for your comments and feedback.

Just to clarify, we think ‘up to’ speed advertising as it currently stands is misleading for some people and a barrier to consumers making an informed decision. So we’d like the ASA to ensure that broadband providers base their advertising speeds on what the majority of their customers are receiving and a 50% minimum would qualify this.

We’d also like the adverts to make clear that more accurate quotes are available once you contact the provider directly. However, the upfront advertisements need to be clearer because this is the start of the customer’s journey towards buying a broadband package.

Currently advertising standards allow for broadband providers to advertise their top ‘up to’ speeds to bring in new customers based only on what a handful of customers are receiving – once people have signed up to these services they are then typically offered an estimated average which then varies in any case.

@ldeitz, yes, I understand this. I do not see the point in pursuing a speed that some will get or exceed, but others will not. I see any speed based on a % of consumers as pretty pointless “50%” means half the consumers will still be misled; I don’t see that as helping.

It would help consumers far more to show them how to find out an estimate for their particular property. Make this a requirement for potential providers to give before any contract is entered into. Why do Which? not promote this.

The maximum speed available can still be shown with a caveat. It at least shows the limit.

“The maximum speed available can still be shown with a caveat” you want to add even more to the small print. Noooooo. 🙂

No william, I just want the relevant facts made clear. In adverts, and by Which? Then people who want to make an informed decision have the information needed.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

BT provide useful information for anyone experiencing slow broadband speed: http://bt.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/12666/~/nine-steps-to-improve-your-bt-broadband-speed

They offer an estimated speed for anyone who would like to sign up for their broadband services. The problem as I see it is that they still use ‘up to’ when advertising their services.

When my broadband service was installed recently, the engineer told me to expect lower speeds when using my wireless laptop, especially when at a distance from the router, which was helpful advice.

Duncan, I know you’re a not a big fan of W10 but surely any new PC would have come with W10 while any earlier one might not have done?

Also, if the old PC in that comparison only had Wireless B or G while both the new one and the router had Wireless N (or whatever the latest standard is), wouldn’t that also have affected the speed?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Assuming a working system why not force companies to only quote the minimum speed that any customer can get. Surely you’d see a massive investment as they all try and do away with incredibly poor speeds that so many people get.

William, as far as I know the physics of copper wires and distance from the exchange are key factors in speed. So giving a minimum (that the furthest person on the line can get) is not very helpful. The provider may simply not be able to do much about it. I’m sure Duncan can put me right.

If you can get a reasonably accurate estimate of speed for your particular premises from the potential provider surely this is the most useful information?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Copper wires ? Time to join the real world and not use broadband down a phone line.

Good news! We now get 2/3 of the Broadband Speed that we are paying for!
Bad news. It is not reliable. We get frequent 3 – 4 times an hour mini breaks which lose the cursor echo when typing to a website on a PC, but crash tablets and mobile phones. These breaks, as revealed on our Router/Modem Event Logs only last a fraction of a second, but recovery can take minutes. It makes serious internet use – such as on line banking impossible, (important here because our nearest physical bank is over 10 miles away). Open reach engineers acknowledge that there is a problem, but are mystified by it, as are professional independent experts who have checked our own systems, which are perfectly standard with basic factory set up. We do not have any unusual or exotic equipment , and we cannot detect any external electrical interference. We cannot detect any viruses or malware, and the problem effects PCs Tablets and Mobile phones. The problem may be that Openreach cannot check downstream of the Router, and that we cannot check upstream from it – although I suspect that the problem is in the mile of copper between us and the fibre cabinet. But we have adequately (for our needs) fast internet, which is useless for many of the most important purposes!

I am happy with the broadband speed I am getting.I did not know the actual speed until I installed Open Signal that I learnt about from Which It less than the advertised up to speed but it is fast enough for my needs. I live in a town ,but I want everyone in the country to get reasonable speeds before a even consider fibre broadband or anything else

It is not so much getting more honest claims from the ISPs, as GETTING the INFRASTRUCTURE that would allow them all to achieve far better. I suspect each ISP comes up with some technoogy change that would allow their customers to achieve slightly better, but that is at the expense of every other ISP using the same infrastructure. It is capacity-limited, so if one improves its speeds, one must expect others to drop – and all the claims are made at one point in time, and fall away as other ISPs leap-frog them.
I SUGGEST your campaign SHOULD BE that every community with 1,000 population should be on FIBRE-OPTIC hi-speed broadband by the end of THIS year, and every 750-population community by the end of next year, and so on until we ALL get a fair deal.

And are you prepared to pay for what this will cost? Or should the taxpayer fund people to download films and play games? Pensioners and the vulnerable might prefer that the limited cash goes to more worthy causes perhaps. Just posing the question 🙂

Quite agree, Malcolm. More bingo is not the answer in this case. Let’s get the whole country up to adequate speed for normal requirements first and then address the high-speed deficiency in due course when the extra cost and the source of funding will become clearer. I have a feeling that a lot of people clamouring for high-speed availability will be reluctant to sign up for the higher broadband service charges when it is actually installed. Virgin Media are finding this problem in some areas: having, at considerable expense, installed [or acquired] a full cable service to every property and had a high sign-up rate on the introductory offers they are finding a few years down the line that as property changes hands, or goes into rental, they are not getting replacement customers or customers are reverting to the original BT telephone line. Their records show which connected properties are not subscribing so desperate marketing follows.

Telecom companies are currently pushing hard on fibre “deals”, but how many people would need fibre if they were to deliver on there normal broadband package promises?

Ken says:
29 July 2016


That’s a good idea. The “up to . . .” mark would then be replaced by “at least . . .” 1.5 Mbps at the master socket.

Paul Stokes says:
30 July 2016

Virgin media leads the way . Break up BTs monopoly

Yes break up BT’s monopoly asap! And fine the rest of the broadband cheats who promise broadband speeds and bandwidth they cannot ever supply regularly and consistently! And while your at it FIRE THE RUDDY USLESS MP’S who control and came up with this rotten broadband system we have in the UK as its far from OK!!

James Campbell says:
1 August 2016

Break the monopoly and pay by actual speeds achieved (i.e. get reduced rates if they cannot achieve a basic speed and consistent level of service).
We get download “NaN” & upload of 0.68mb/s – off peak, using the Which tool and the area (a city) is supposed to have superfast broadband. Local exchange was fibred at the turn of the year and still no plans to do our cabinet!!

They brought fibre optic to one of 4 cottages at bottom of hill, why only one! Also we have appalling broadband between cottage and next decent contact only about quarter of a mile, why?

Margaret Clogg

Copper wires only where I live in West Sussex and no Virgin Cables as an alternative.

Victor Howarth says:
6 August 2016

I know that in at least one remote village in France they are having Fibre Optic cable cables installed in their village. So from one Phone box and one post box they have been leapt into the future. We are having to wait for suppliers to respond to our Governments requests. In the mean time all broadband suppliers are stuck with copper wire technology as it is only that that they have installed years ago. Even where I live Virgin Media are still using old NTL cable TV wiring yet claiming that it will give up to 200mbs and in other areas they are claiming that they can deliver 300mbs.
Maybe some teckno wizard should come forward and explain the facts, can we get good broadband speed using what is here now? Or do we have to wait and “put up and shut up”.
I for one find advertised “faster broad band” to be totally misleading and reading Ofcom reports from which all suppliers quote from to be too long to dissect for the common man.

George says:
6 August 2016

We used to have our Broadband via Copper cable only at a max of 4Mb. Now we use FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) which gives us a maximum of around 80 – usually 50-60 Mb. I’m told that this is about the maximum the Fibre/Copper hybrid will stand. The only way to go really fast, is full fibre. And by the way, even Virgin’s Fibre is only to the nearest cabinet – the rest is some form of Co-Axial cable. As per usual, we in The U.K. are being bent over and Royally – well you know the rewst…….

This comment was removed at the request of the user

That is the right answer! . . . and Duncan, I hope you are not getting tired of repeating it, because there seems to be a big gap in people’s understanding even though they know all about 300 Mbps and FTTP when they see them. Perhaps you have a template that you quickly cut and stick into your replies! Virgin and Sky both have old billionaires behind them; they didn’t get where they are today by doing good things for nothing.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

OK, Duncan – Console yourself with the thought that you might never be a billionaire but at least can sleep at night.