/ Technology

London’s broadband lottery makes mockery of ‘up to’ speeds

Map of London with pin in Canary Wharf

It’s a lottery out there when it comes to broadband speed – even if you live in a highly populated place like London. I happen to live in the postcode with the capital’s slowest connection, and I’m not happy.

I pay for 20 megabits per second broadband from one of the big internet providers. Yet, what speed do I get in reality? According to research by Top10.com, I’d be lucky to enjoy 3.7Mbps.

Sure, it’s not as slow as dial-up, and I can still watch BBC iPlayer, but I pay for much more and I live in London!

Broadband speed discrepancies in London

It’s all part of the broadband lottery, and despite what you might think, it’s not just a battle between the rural and the urban. Londoners face a big discrepancy in broadband speed depending on their postcode.

The postcode worst affected in the city is good old E14, better known as the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf. The area’s average speed, compiled by tests submitted by residents, was 3.7Mbps – a speed that would take four hours to download a film. Let’s just say, I don’t try to do that too often.

East London is badly affected elsewhere, with Shoreditch and Bethnal Green also struggling to get above 5Mbps. This is compared to the city’s fastest areas – Upper Edmonton and Hamstead, where both enjoy on average over 16Mbps.

Now, I’m ‘lucky’ that my ISP provides ‘up to’ 20Mbps broadband no matter what package I pay for, but I happen to be on their most expensive deal for ‘unlimited’ browsing and downloads.

Nevertheless, I’m still only getting a quarter of the speed I pay for. So shouldn’t I get a tasty discount? Why should people in Canary Wharf have to pay as much as those in Edmonton?

The ‘up to’ in broadband advertising

I know most of us realise that the term ‘up to’ is meant to suggest the speed is a guide rather than a guarantee. But when there’s a massive gap between what’s advertised and what people actually get it really does make a mockery of current broadband advertising.

I wonder if ISPs would like it if I changed my payments to ‘up to’ £15 depending on what mood I’m in, or what state my bank balance is in? Ceri Stanaway, our broadband expert at Which? had this to say on the matter:

‘Broadband advertising should reflect the speeds that most of us can get in practice, not the speeds that a handful of fortunate broadband users get some of the time. Which? will continue to represent consumers to the ASA, Ofcom and industry to help them develop a meaningful and honest way of advertising broadband speeds.’

And yes, I know, rural dwellers have got it even worse, with Which? Convo commenter Keith asking why rural areas are ‘charged the same fees as town dwellers’. But maybe, if you don’t get the speed that’s advertised you should pay less, no matter where you live? Or better, broadband providers’ misleading use of ‘up to’ speeds should be done away with altogether.


Well clearly the words “up to” are a complete cop out and legally absolve the providers from doing anything at all. My ISP promises “up to” 8 meg, BT tell me the maximum I can expect is 5.5 meg and quite frequently in the evenings and at weekends it collapses to 32-16 kps. As you might imagine they’re under a deadline to get it sorted.

Yep, I’m in the slowest part of London, and it sucks! Even our unlimited broadband seems to get slower at the end of each month. Its a cop out, we pay as much as everyone else (if not more we are on the highest premium) and we get the worst service….

HELP! Its driving me insane!

originalsteven says:
30 November 2010

I was previously with BT and my speeds were OK, but not amazing. We have recently switched to Sky and the speeds have been appalling! I spent around half an hour on the phone to a very nice woman at Sky today to ask for my MAC code as my speeds have been terrible since signing up in August. The maximum available is 8meg, my predicted speeds are ‘up to’ 5.5meg; yet at times at can drop to 150kbps. This all seems to stop and the speeds go up around 11pm-midnight. I am paying £17.99 per month for this privilege!

She also told me that because I live in an area where BT own the exchange, it was BT who were ‘shaping’ my traffic (cutting it at peak hours etc). Apparently, if you use more than 1.4GB a day in a BT-owned exchange then they begin to shape your speeds.

I currently work for a company that sells broadband, and I am aware of the monopoly BT has on the market. The company providing broadband either has to get their equipment in to the exchange to provide broadband directly, or else they must pay BT to use their equipment.

The problem here seems to be the monopoly BT has over the market. I am aware that Ofcom have taken action and basically forced BT to allow other companies in to some exchanges, but this only applies to a certain number of them, and not all. In some areas the power still seems to lie with BT, regardless of who your provider is.

Consequently, people like myself are left at the mercy of BT. I have to wait until they decide to upgrade the line, what speeds they decide to give me at peak times etc and there is no way to change this, as I am not even with them to call them and complain about it!

I am keen to change providers (perhaps to my employer’s service) but it is an 18 month contract. I’m not sure if I want to take the risk and be tied in for this long with speeds similar to those I am getting now! Especially when the ‘Get out of jail free’ “Up To” phrase is used so much.

Wish I could get 3.7Mbps!

I routinely get 9.7 Mb/s on my 10 Mb/s broadband – It’s called fibre optics – Three cheers for Virgin Media!

I left BT many years ago in the days of Bulletin Boards (before www) because the BT line was so poor the line kept being dropped on my 75/1200 modem speeds and the Bulletin Boards would not allow me to connect. The speech quality was also terribly bad. I was the first in the street to connect to NTL (now Virgin Media) when the cable was first laid – never regretted it.

The local BT telephone lines have not changed in that 10 or more years.(it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten when!)

i do live in a rural area (we’re literally the furthest house from the exchange on over head cables), we pay for 8 meg and the best we’ve ever got was 1.5.
as more people get internet in the area our speeds are slowly decreasing and our rural setting will probably be very low priority for BT to upgrade the line.
there is no point in switching to another provider (there are only 3 here anyway) as the infer-structure would remain the same.
i work from home and if speeds decrease much more it will affect my ability to do so.
when you look at the speeds other countries enjoy it’s as if we are living in the 3rd world .

Hylton says:
1 December 2010

What a storm in a teacup!

If you aren’t happy with your broadband speed, move closer to your local exchange. Even that doesn’t guarantee a really fast connection, as the speed is also influenced by the quality of your line.

People who complain about their speed not reaching the maximum possible line speed make me laugh. It is just another thing for them to complain about, and is so tedious.

Desi says:
1 December 2010

Oh Happy Days ! I pay for up to 20mbits with Virgin Media, and on average I get 19 mbits, day or evening. I regularly check my speed and, if necessary, change the test location. This works for me. I bought a new laptop (Acer) 6 months ago and what a difference it made to my speed. Prior to that I had a 8-yr old desktop, and only made speeds of up to 3-4 mbits.

Pete says:
1 December 2010

ADSL Third World.
I am from a very small town in Central Europe and I get 6.5 Mbps ADSL there. Here I get 0.7 Mbps (off-peak) only – and it is a new development (in a big city), not far from the exchange box. iPlayer works rarely and even so does Skype. I lived in the US and Scandinavia and compared to them England is the real third world country when it comes to the ADSL.

It’s not just East London that is badly served. I get a similar broadband speed in West London (Ealing), up to 3.5Mb on a good day.

I live in East London – and I get 9.7 Mb/s from my Virgin 10Mb/s Line usually . It’s called Virgin Media – the problem is the supplier – Virgin’s time to send an engineer is first class – normally next day. But it is not the cheapest service.

My only criticism is their help line is useless – if your computer software strays from Microsoft. Even their setting up CD didn’t work. If I had left it to the help-line – I’d still be waiting. But once I set it up myself it worked flawlessly as dial-up. When I upgraded to Broadband the same inability to use their set up procedures.

When I upgraded to my HP Xenon Server – the access speed quadruped.

But have noticed one or two locations seriously slow – particularly this Which? location – I wonder if they’re on a BT line?

Hello Patrick, The access speed is now about two to three times faster on the 6th Dec – Somewhat similar to the change when I updated my server to an HP Xenon server 🙂

I hope so – I do know when I upgraded my server the speeds of access quadrupled.

Dicky says:
2 December 2010

“I pay for 20 megabits per second broadband from one of the big internet providers. Yet, what speed do I get in reality? According to research by Top10.com, I’d be lucky to enjoy 3.7Mbps”

Why don’t you just check the speed yourself instead of relying on “research by Top10.com”?

Kevin says:
2 December 2010

I have always hated broadband advertising. Say they offer 6mb* download 1mb* upload rates in their ad. *: you will never ever see this number. You can immediately chop that number in half or even a third and that will be your speed on a good day. They then blame this on ‘other users’ slowing down the network in prime hours. These companies have contracts out with each ‘user’ on their network, it isn’t like they just showed up one day and started using bandwidth. They should be legally required to provide the bandwidth necessary to reach advertised speeds.

I like to compare it to ordering a cheeseburger. If the menu up top says “up to 2 patties on your double cheeseburger, you may only get 1.5 or 1, but we will still charge you for 2″ I am of course going to be curious into how that is legal for them to do. Why is this different?

I do get riled by the apparent assumption that everyone can get fast broadband speeds, such that downloading movies etc. from Apple and Lovefilm and others will take a matter of minutes to complete. Here in the middle of Wiltshire, with our broadband speed of about 1 – 2Mbps (at the moment it is 904Kbps), its a matter of hours or days in my experience!

It will be interesting to see what impact the roll out of the BT fibre network has on promised vs actual broadband speeds for these services – although obviously their fibre network, like Virgin’s, will only serve a limited area of the country – to start with at least.

Thanks to many of you for making the point that there are things you can do – such as upgrading your equipment or server – that can improve your broadband speed.

That said, there’s a limit to what an individual can do to improve broadband speed themselves, and the fact remains that the rules that allow false advertising of broadband speeds simply need to change.

John says:
6 December 2010

Hark the news BT are upgrading the Isle of Dogs…
but alas…. it’s only if you live in a house.

In the last 20 years the Isle of Dogs population has exploded in flats… the same flats where city workers, IT workers live… but apparently these are not on the list.
BT affinity.. yeah right… only if there’s a competitor in town, sadly lacking in East London.

I think the only way you’ll get fast internet in E14 is if enough of us banded together to build our own exchange and set up our own service.

I pay for “up to 2MB/sec” with BT and when I complained, they moved me from option 3 to option 1 which halved my monthly bills. My download speed remains at 80kB/sec (4% of what it should be!!!). It seems wherever I live, it is too far from the exchange. What’s wrong with paying for what you get? isn’t this a rip-off?

Noy just london

Aylesbury South and West has an old local loop, BT broadband is maxed at 1mb/sec
but sold as upto 8mb

Impossible to achieve

As to the advertised speeds of UP TO xy or z Mbps, there is NO legal misrepresentation
AND not in breach of the law or advertising code so long as just ONE fortunate household
of the targeted recipients actually has THAT or very close to that speed, so don’t moan too
much, will you?

Living in a none-too-prosperous part of west London, I consistently get 6 or a little over
but a mate of mine just down the road no more than 150 metres away gets 9
or a little over. Can’t explain the discrepancy as we both have identical broadband
packages from the same ISP.

Yes, there are some things you can do yourself in your home to improve on speed.

Any update on the broadband situation in Canary Wharf / IoD? I am moving to E14 soon and was wondering what is the fastest broadband now available in the area.