/ Technology

No one’s getting the broadband speed they pay for

Snail on keyboard

It seems ‘superfast’ broadband speeds are often nothing more than a myth propagated by ISPs to grab customers. It’s time they stopped misleading us with ads claiming false figures.

If you ordered an iPhone, you’d be irate if a £20 PAYG mobile handset pitched up. And your consumer rights, enshrined in law, would entitle you to send it straight back.

But when it comes to broadband, ISPs are still getting away with advertising ever-increasing speeds that bear little resemblance to what we get.

Advertised broadband speeds are a myth

Ofcom’s latest broadband speed test results reveal that not a single ‘up to’ 20Mbps or 24Mbps DSL broadband service (over BT’s copper wire network) delivered the advertised speed. In fact, none achieved average download speeds greater than 18Mbps.

And across broadband services of all speeds, the gap between myth and reality is widening. Fewer customers are actually getting anywhere near their advertised maximum speeds in 2010 than they did in 2009 – on average, actual speeds over a DSL line are just 45% of advertised speeds.

On fibre networks, Virgin Media’s cable broadband customers are better off than those of us on a DSL service. Virgin Media cable typically received around 75-80% of advertised speeds. Not perfect, but a darn site closer to what you’d hope for.

BT’s investing in its own fibre network, but rollout of a new network takes time and some rural areas may not get fibre for many years (if ever).

Speaking of rural areas, Ofcom’s findings are particularly bad news if you don’t live in a town or city. Average speeds in rural areas were just half those in urban areas and have actually decreased overall since this time last year.

Stop misleading us with false advertising

Of course, the question remains do we really need superfast speeds anyways? After all, if all you want to do is surf and email, a reliable 2Mbps will be plenty.

But I reckon it doesn’t really matter what we ‘need’ – the point remains that we’re simply not getting what broadband advertising leads us to expect. And that’s plain wrong.

Ofcom’s doing what it can to force providers to make likely broadband speeds clear to customers when they first sign up to a broadband service. And it’s tightening the rules within the next 12 months so that if you get nowhere near the speed you’re told to expect, you can end your contract without penalty.

In the meantime, the Advertising Standards Authority needs to get off its proverbial and tackle the ads that lure us into joining a provider. Those two little words ‘up to’ in front of headline speeds just aren’t ‘up to’ the job of making things clear.


It’s a big issue with many facets.
We need providers to be forced to disclose things like contention ratios to us, but as these will change daily there will be an issue over knowing how accurate they are even when they are providd (many are now in the small print, but with no indication of how up to date).
We also have to accept that running over copper (i.e. via normal ‘phone cables) the speeds that we get are directly inversely proportional to how far we are from the exchange and that there is nothing in the world that can be done to change that. Providers need to quote the exact distance (in terms of the route of the cable, not as the crow flies) and explain in clear terms the maximum possible, never mind likely, speed that can be achieved based on this.
The harsh reality is that it would be verging on physically impossible, never mind commercially attractive, for changes to be made to the telephone system which would allow subscribers to get the quoted speeds: the only sensible solution is the implementation of completely new infrastructure. With the profits that the ISP’s make I don’t really see any excuse for them not to do this, and in fact they should have been doing it for years past so that we didn’t end up where we are now.
Possibly if BT had not been privatised back in the 80’s, and if there had not been a (so called) competitive market for ‘phone and BroadBand services, we may have had a good system in place, funded partly by government (i.e our taxes) and because companies would not have been trying to undercut each other nor please shareholders profit would not have taken precedence over function……however Maggie did privatise BT, there is a competitive market and ISP’s do have shareholders who call the tunes, so we are where we are and now the mess has to be sorted out but it will take considerable time and whilst we wait the best we can hope for is that the ISP’s are forced to be honest, which will probably mean them losing business, which in turn will slow down the infrastructure projects due to reduced profits and hence cash flow.

FredRP says:
13 September 2010

I acknowledge the comprehensiveness of this comment. Now, however, we have a new dimension – at least this BT subscriber has! I have been a – hitherto satisfied – BT customer since we returned to UK in 1995. At my present location (our third!) I had been getting around 4 to 5 Mbps over a nominal 7.6 Mbps line.; lucky me! About a month ago, BT installed their so-called 21CN network (21st Century Network…). Since then, I have had:-
1. multiple drop-outs necessitating re-connects or cold restarts (disconnect/re-connect hub power)
2. halving of nominal and actual download speeds
3. long conversations with tech. call centre people
4. two visits by engineers, the former was futile, the latter resulting in a recovery to a short-lived 7 to 8 Mbps nominal
5. speedy degradation to a consistent 2.2 Mbps
6. my email describing my above experiences ignored by their customer service
7. this AM, linespeed is down to a ludicrously consistent 567Kbps. I should add that I am fortunate in living near (5 minutes’ walk) to the exchange…

What on earth are BT doing, I wonder, that they feel able to treat their customers in this way – without explanation or apology?

By the way, Virgin cable is connected to this property; what price migration to “up to 10 Mbps”…?


I am rural (nr Bristol!) BT customer who claim ‘up to’ speeds. I actally get 0.5Mb/s. Now BT must know this because of their reaction when queried. Do why aren’t they obliged to offer a contract which relates the price to the speed? Simple ?!

Lewis says:
29 July 2010

Why dont they test your line and speed’s during the time that they come and install it & then charge you based on the speed your getting?..that way those in rural areas are never paying over the odds


Although I’m no fan of telephone companies, I can’t see that advertising ‘up to..’ speeds can be considered as false advertising or that you are paying for something that you are not getting. The information I’ve seen on various telephone company web sites state that the actual speed will depend on the distance you are from the exchange and the loading on the system. How are the companies supposed to adverise?

Should we be complaining to our energy supplier that we are only getting 236 volts some of the time, or our 95 octane petrol is actually 94.5 octane – or, for that matter – we sometimes get 242 volts and 96 octane? how about a city dweller paying road tax for sitting in a traffic jam while someone who lives in the country paying the same tax can drive on jam free roads for 90% of the time?

Having said that, it could be reasonable for telephone companies to publish minimum and maximum speeds at different radii from the exchange, but I cannot see any way that precise speeds could be maintained with the variables involved.


You’re absolutely right that most providers state on their websites that speed varies by distance from the exchange (although it’s often hidden in small print). And Which? research shows that most broadband customers understand that their actual broadband speeds will vary and are unlikely to always be as high as the maximum advertised speed. It’s the sheer size of the gap between advertised and actual speeds that most people object to.

The use of ‘up to’ in advertising suggests strongly that it is possible for some people, at least, to get close to the maximum speed. Ofcom’s research found that on 20-24Mbps ADSL services, not a single person achieved more than 18Mbps and that the average speed achieved by people on 20-24Mbps packages was just 6.5Mbps – only around a quarter of advertised speeds.

I genuinely don’t think providers should be allowed to advertise maximum speeds that not a single person can achieve in practice.

mike says:
26 May 2012

What a stupid example they are utilities which have to provide a guaranteed standard up to 96% of that shown. I’ll be happy with that.

The license fee example is just irrelevant nonsense.

This guy is a broadband shill

Roger P says:
29 July 2010

I suffer slow broadband speeds as I am rural customer with twisted pair (copper) connection. Recently I fitted the BT bb accelerator, which did improve speeds significantly – but still below the 1MB level. I pay for 4MB.


I’ve had an up-to-8MB line through Zen for some time now and regularly test its speed via http://www.thinkbroadband.com/

When the measured speed dropped below 3MB I complained to Zen who called BT in to investigate. It took them 4 days to fix. What I didn’t like was BT’s constant reminder (it felt like a threat) that if they found any problem on my property they’d charge me quite a lot (£160+, I think). However, they replaced some kit in the exchange, after which the measured speed became a regular 5.5 to 6MB.

A few months ago Zen upgraded me (free) to 20MB but I was warned that, because of the distance to my local exchange, I was unlikely to get any better than 9MB (and, yes, I live in London).

In the first month the speed was 6.7MB, last month was 7.2MB and today it’s 7.5MB. I’m very happy with that.

Marion Prescott says:
29 July 2010

I am also a long way down copper cable and suffered very slow speeds until TalkTalk "patched in" one MB. It is not wonderful but reasonable for what I need . (We didn’t succeed with 2MB). At least the service is now reliable. Most people don’t seem to know about the ‘distance from the exchange factor’ and change their ISP’s thinking this will solve the problem. It won’t where I live. Is the answer to have a cable provider, assuming this is available? I see from the article that Virgin have good results.


I used to have cable TV and phone, but the service I received was awful. I can’t write more here or they’ll send their legal eagles after me.

In theory it should be excellent. I’m waiting for BT to install Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) – that’s the box at the end of your road. Then there’s only a short bit of copper from the cabinet to your PC, so speeds should be almost as good as pure fibre.

Trevor Folwell says:
29 July 2010

If I go to any site that saya "check you broadband speed" they all come out pretty much the same.
So why can’t I actually pay for what I can get ie if I can only get 4MB on my line why can’t I pay only £4 a month. It’s not rocket science, your ISP knows what your line is capable of.


You’re right, but as I understand it the line to your vicinity IS capable of, say, 20MB but there could be 20 or more of you sharing that broadband line so you might only get 1MB when it’s very busy.
I also believe that some ISPs actually throttle the data to each individual so you couldn’t experience the full 20MB even if nobody else was using it. You might only get, say 6MB, at best of times.
(I made up these figures, just to illustrate my point)
I agree that if 6MB is the realistic maximum, you should only be paying for that. With a bit or research you’ll probably find that the more expensive broadband deals have fewer people sharing the line, so the pay-for-what-you-get option is already partly there.

David Ll says:
30 July 2010

I do not understand why advertising standards does not take action or trading standards? If supermarkets provided vegetables etc as being up to kilo for the kilo price and then actually provided 250gms I am sure action would be taken.