/ Technology

Advertised ‘up to’ broadband speeds are still pie in the sky

Flying laptop

Ofcom revealed the results of its latest broadband speed test this week and although average broadband speeds have increased, advertised ‘up to’ speeds are more misleading than ever before.

But let’s start with the positive stuff first – average broadband speeds in the UK have gone up by 10% over the last six months. The average speed in May 2011 was 6.8Mpbs, up from 6.2Mbps at the end of last year. Now that is encouraging news.

It might have something to do with the fact that nearly half of residential customers are now on a broadband package advertised as ‘up to’ 10Mbps. In April 2009, only 8% of customers were on such broadband deals. So speed is clearly a priority.

However, this is where one of the problems in the broadband industry lies.

Advertised speeds still a fantasy

Ofcom’s not so good news is that the gap between actual speeds and advertised ‘up to’ speeds has grown.

It found that the average advertised speed in May 2011 was 15Mbps. If you compare this to the average actual speed (6.8Mbps), you’ll see that something is amiss. Even more worrying is that the gap has increased since the research was last carried out six months ago.

The advertising of ‘up to’ speeds by broadband providers is something we’ve been keeping an eye on for some time. Back in February we responded to an ASA review of broadband advertising claims.

Ultimately, the words ‘up to’ can be helpful, but only if a certain proportion of customers can actually achieve it. Nevertheless, headline speeds should be accompanied by a typical speed range which reflects the range of realistically available speeds.

News on a decision this review is expected in the early autumn, but in the meantime it looks like we’ll have to put up with misleading ‘up to’ broadband speeds for some time to come. Are you also fed up with fantastical ‘up to’ broadband ads?

Kev says:
3 August 2011

Why do we accept this discrepancy? I pay for Up to 24mbps and in reality get about 8.
If I bought a car with an advertised top speed of 100mph and found it wouldn’t go any faster than 30mph I’m sure there’d be grounds for legal proceedings for the goods not being as described……..

I live in a Cheshire village which is about 57Km from the exchange. My broadband speed until recently was between 1.2 & 1.6Mbs this was after ADSL2+ (up to 24Mbs) had been enabled by my ISP, PlusNet. Interestingly this was somewhat lower than I got on the old ADSL2 (Up to 8Mbs). With ADSL the distance from the exchange AND the quality of the copper wire en route are critical. So even if you are close to the exchange you can still get low speeds if there are poor quality joints or a lot of joints in the phone line. It can also be affected by problems with house extension wiring and poor quality filters. ADSL is carried by a radio frequency signal injected into the line this signal strength is attenuated along the line. Interestingly the faster ADSL2+ is attenuated more rapidly so it crosses over with the older technologies see


for some graphs illustrating the differences. It is worth noting that whatever your ISP, you will still depend on BT’s wires to get your ADSL broadband.

As well as all these technical factors the actual broadband speed will change during the day as demand rises and falls. This is because the connections to exchanges are shared by many users. By analogy the electric shower can go cold when the toilet is flushed. Also many ISPs throttle download speeds especially at peak times.

Many Virgin broadband users can get far faster speeds because their connection is via optical fibre where ADSL is not used. Virgin fibre is mainly available in large urban areas though.

I have now broken out of the ADSL speed trap by changing to the FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) service provided by my ISP (Plus Net). I now get 35Mbs down and 8Mbs up with a monthly usage allowance of 120GB – excellent! BT Infinity provides a similar service but the Plus Net customer service is far better even though the company is actually owned by BT but run at arms length.

Red says:
5 August 2011

I’m on Virgin Media and get on average 9.7 download spped on an up to 10 but the upload speed is nail pace which I belive is the norm. Problem is Virgin are over priced.

Andrew says:
5 August 2011

On an 02 ‘legacy’ package (i.e. no longer available), I was achieving download speeds of about 7 Mb against a promised maximum of 8 Mb. I switched to a new package promising up to 20 Mb. The average download speed is in the range of 10 Mb – 13.5 Mb, I can live with that and the 02 connection is almost 100% reliable; plus, the customer service is superb.

I may have missed it, but I can’t see any explicit reference in the earlier posts to traffic management (but see Graham’s electric shower analogy). The legacy package was not traffic managed – the new package is. Traffic management, which seems to be in place most of the day, ‘chokes’ speeds during periods of high demand. I think there are very few packages without this control.

JohnH says:
5 August 2011

I am with Virgin Media on their 50 Mb package. Until a recent problem,now cured, it had never tested below 50.21 Mb. I test at least 5 times a week at varying times of day.

I recently switched to BT Infinity here in Worcester. It was advertised at up to 40 mbps. When the engineer had finished the installation he tested the speed and got 37.5 mbps. Initially I used a wifi
connection, but only got around 16 mbps, so I bought a 20 metre high speed modem cable, drilled a few holes etc and now I get 37.5 mbps download and 7.75 mbps upload. I am on an unlimited download package and haven’t had any problems so far.
If you’re lucky, and need to have the modem and separate router well away from your master socket, the engineer should fit a data extension cable for you, but mine didn’t have one on his van.

Malc says:
5 August 2011

Virgin may not be brilliant at everything but their broadband does what it says on the tin. I pay for 10Mb and I get 10Mb or very close.

George says:
5 August 2011

I have just changed this week from AOL (Talk Talk) to Eclispe broadband. I was sick of complaining to AOL about having speeds of 6-8 kilobytes when I was supposed to have 2mb. After a complaint, it would be about 1mb for a day or two and then be throttled again. Eclipse have the same problem – an old BT line which will give about 1.5mb average however they guarantee no throttling. It is early days but so far they have been better at around 1-2mb.

Another aspect Oftcom has never investigated as far as I know is the selling of phone contracts (Talk Talk) with the promise of their LLU within months – four years and I’m still waiting. A helpful helpdesk gave me this web address: http://www.kitz.co.uk where you can see what alternatives are available in your area (where the supplier has their own LLU in place).

My son is in a Virgin high speed area and is delighted with it and when we are trying to ook at sites together over the phone is constantly waiting. My daughter lives on a new estate whhich was built four years ago but Virgin who have a high speed capablity 200 metres away on an older estate refused to put it in. They are also sick of the old BT line and slow speeds achieved but it all comes down to what makes more money and consumers don’t matter.

SusieQ says:
5 August 2011

I’d like to join the conversation but have to confess I do not understand the speed jargon. On checking my speed it told me 6160Kbps for download and 334 Kpbs for upload. TalkTalk advertise speed of up to 24Mb. How do these two figures co-relate?

Hello Susie – providers advertise download speeds, and there are 1000Kb in 1Mb, meaning that you’re getting 6.2Megabits per second based on an advertised ‘up to’ speed of 24Mbps.

As Patrick says, the download speed is what Internet service providers advertise. The upload speed is often about a tenth (or less) of the download speed and is generally more important because we tend to download more data than what we upload. A fast upload speed is most important to those who play online games requiring rapid communication in both directions.

Colin Faulkner says:
5 August 2011

We live in a village just outside Cambridge where there is no cable laid. Our broadband speed is less than 1 and is terribly slow. I wonder whether we will ever get a better service.

keith bark says:
5 August 2011

I laugh at what others are achieving. we live in a village between Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall, in Suffolk. Bury StE is 10 miles awy and Mildenhall is 3 miles distant. Both areas have good Broadband speeds. We cannot get Broadband at all. Our download speed is between 2.5 and 5.0 kilobytes per second (yes kbts). No one seems inclined to help. In a small landmass with such a large population I find this incredible (Australia, with a quarter the population and a much bigger land mass has much better coverage). Our service providers and politicians should be ashamed!

the doc says:
5 August 2011

Hi I am with o2 and get a consistant [tempting providence] 8.133mb download/1.246 upload using dsl,was on adsl2 but it was erratic so operator changed it and its been constant whatever time of day/night.

Les Dunstan says:
6 August 2011

I have been with BT for two years now and am on an “up to 8Mb” deal. I have never achieved anything like that speed, but to be fair to BT, they did advise before I signed up that it was unlikely that I would get much more than 2.5Mb. Compared to dial-up, I was happy with that, but, probably because I live some 3 miles from the exchange, my best has been 1.5Mb, and just last night, was less than 600Kb download, which is fine for email and websurfing, but I really can’t be bothered with most downloads as the time involved is enormous! After contacting BT my circumstances haven’t improved, but, without a cable option, where do any of us go from here? I feel that I am stuck in a situation that encourages me to go for a “value-for-money” deal where broadband speed is almost irrelevent! I could be paying a lot more to a different company with little improvement. But, of course, you don’t know that until you change suppliers! Surely there must be a way that, if providers don’t come up with the goods, users should either, get a huge discount, or, some form of compensation. Let’s say, if I am getting onlly 20% of the up-to speed, then I will pay only 20% of the charges. Until some scheme like this is adopted, why should the likes of BT bother to change anything. They’re getting my money; that’s all they are worried about.

Brian Rosen says:
6 August 2011

I tested my Demon provider just now, using various online testing tests and was generally rated between 6 and 9 Mbps (which seems very good in the light of what a lot of other people are saying here, but one site consistently gave me lower readings around half to two thirds of this. So the point of my message is that (in case anybody else hasn’t realized) these test websites themselves vary in their results (though I have no idea why). So before rushing to get rid of your of current provider, use a good number of sites and of course take several readings and do this at different times of the day.

Ocky says:
7 August 2011

In or village just outside Braintree we struggle to get 1 Mbps, our speed frequently hovers between 0.6 & 0.7 Mbps. This morning we were getting 0.73 Mbps.

BT kindly told me we could get Infinity when fibre to the cabinet arrives, only to then tell me this option was not available at our location.

Anyway look on the bright side, we have a truly varied assortment of birds sitting on the overhead BT telephone lines!

Barry Tucker says:
7 August 2011

In my view the Ofcom survey results should be taken with a large pinch of salt as I suspect the headline figure is based on an assessment of the maximum theoretical speed rather than actually achieved speeds measured over a period of time. Presenting the results as a simple average is not very revealing because it will probably hide some truly scandalous results as well as some very good ones. It would be more useful if OfCom provided details of the range of service quality rather than an average, which may be misleading.

It is also unclear what Ofcom mean by average. In my experience the actual download speeds achieved in practice varies enormously from day to day. I am on an up to 20mbs service and live in urban Sussex which has some of the fastest download speeds according OfCom. The noise and attenuation figures shown by my modem suggest I should expect about 8mbs but I have never got anything like that. The actual connection rate my modem negotiates with the exchange is consistently around 5.6mbs but it can drop to much lower figures at times. The actual measured download speed tested (via a cable connection rather than wirelessly) very occasionally reaches 4.8mps but normally the best I can expect is between 3.8mbs-4.2mbs. However, this rate is never sustained for more than two or three days at time and may drop to 1.2mbs or 2.2mbs for several days in a row and very occasionally may drop as low as 380kbs. I suspect that my figure included within OfCom’s average will be the 5.6mbs rate my modem negotiates with the exchange whereas an average of the actual measured download rates over the last 3 months is around 2.9mps. I have been logging my download speeds several times a day for the last two years or so.

This pattern of a large variation in the measured rate is consistent with the way the rate adaptive ADSL protocol is managed by the BT exchange equipment. BT argue this is to guarantee customers a stable connection at the highest possible speed but in my view it is BT using the poor state of their local infrastructure to justify limiting the bandwidth provided to a fraction of what the customer is paying for. BT place the blame for poor performance on the state of the customers’ line but the lines are owned by BT and OfCom should be insisting that BT replace underpeforming lines and relate their charges to the actual performance of a line. BT refuse to take responsibility for obvious line faults unless you put a lot of pressure on them. A few years ago the BT box on the outside of my house had badly corroded terminals which meant the ADSL service failed completely but my ISP was unable to persuade BT that there was a problem. It was only after I threaten to start proceedings in the Small Claims Court against the ISP and BT that BT took it seriously and replaced the wall box. The engineer did a less than perfect repair because a couple of years later the same thing happened and again I had to threaten legal action. This time BT replaced the underground cable from my house to the nearest manhole – about 20 metres away.

Like other contributors I see little point in changing ISPs because the weak link is the BT local loop which all ISPs have to use. BT is planning to bring fibre optic cables to their local cabinets in my locality by the end of the year and I shall consider changing to this service as my ISP is planning to offer it. Whether this will give a significantly faster and more stable service depends on the state of the existing cable from the cabinet to my house which I think is about 400 metres long.

As the market became more competitive, my original isp (AOL) spontaneously moved me to higher speed tarrifs at no extra, or discounted, costs. I ended up on a tarrif providing me with broadband alone, ‘up to’ 30mb for £26pm.

In reality, my line has never been able to support more than 5mb!!

I now have a ‘bundle’ from Pipex which comprises: line rental, anytime phone calls, and ‘up to’ 8mb broadband (averaging between 3mb and 4mb) for £24pm!!

I thought moving to a town rather than the village I lived in would give me better speeds, how wrong can you be?!! Where I used to live was 11Km from the exchange with over 1000 joins in the cable (BT engineer’s clever test kit) and I regularly got around 1.5Mbps, I then swapped to a WAN supplied by Yorkshire Forward and after some 3 years of hassle got around 2Mbps.

I moved to town onto a new housing estate like “Walt at EK”, and I now get 185Kbps on an upto 8M connection, so convinced were BT that this would be the case I even had BT Vision, no surprise, that it only worked in the middle of the night. The Ofcom stats are easily distorted I suspect, I live in Scarborough and there are businesses on my nearby industrial estate that get 50Mbps connections, put that into the averages and all of a sudden Scarborough is a broadband mecca! My partner can actually see her exchange from her sitting room window and still “only” gets 4.5Mbps, I would settle for that any day.

The Upto description should be removed and real speed averages for your exchange substituted.

Graham Cox says:
2 February 2012

Which ignores rural people.

We are three miles ffrom Ashford, yet can get no more than 0.7mbps in the early evenings for example so that we cannot evening see the BBC news in a tiny window.

Hi Graham, we’re certainly not ignoring rural people – please share your view on our most recent broadband Convo related to rural: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/broadband-ultrafast-budget-george-osborne/

Graham, I recently had a holiday in Garrigill, North east Cumbria. It is a small village with a pub and post office in a deep valley. It has no mobile phone signal at all, and my car radio could only get Radio 4 FM, and that was poor quality Yet in the cottage we rented, I had a 2 Meg broadband service via WiFi on a laptop.

The landlady explained that the broadband did not come down the phone line as they were too far from the exchange, but from a ‘communal’ WiFi service radiated and re-radiated to the village. I don’t know how it works, but it must be an established technology. Perhaps you and your neighbours could investigate and use a similar system yourselves.

Here is a suggestion for everyone who thinks their speed is less that it should be.

Send an email to the CEO of your broadband supplier. You will find a lot of CEO email addresses here http://www.ceoemail.com The ‘Telecoms and Internet’ section near the bottom of the page is the section you need. You will almost certainly get a better response than contacting customer services. If things don’t improve a second email to the CEO should really get results.

The general principle of contacting the most senior person works well in my experience. The website above covers a large range of different business sectors. I believe it would be valuable if Which put a small article on this subject in the main magazine.