/ 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.

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.

I have Virgin Media which certainly seems to keep virtually up to the 10 Megs I pay for – It is usually around 8.9 to 9.5 Megs. (The only dip is Transatlantic Connections at certain times when it can dip to 7.0 for a couple of minutes)

I actually changed from BT when Cable and Wireless was first installed in Stratford in about 1982 or so (I was the first subscriber in my street) because BT lines were so bad that I was thrown off two Bulletin Boards permanently (before the WWW) as the connection was continually disconnected.(dropped)

It was obvious to me that the ancient copper lines were totally insufficient – if – as was the case – I always had a crackly line for my telephone too..

The real problem is that if you test a copper line when there is no digital traffic – then it is possible to get say 10Mg if the receiving station is very close – So 10 Meg IS possible – However directly traffic increases thenl only a small number of users will fill it to capacity causing the speed to drop.

It is made worse by the oxidation of the thousands of copper connections between the transmitter and receiver as well as distance which increases the number of those copper connections.

Fibre Optics has far far higher capacity – and cleaner connections. Hence Virgin’s far better performance

Derek Haselden says:
1 August 2010

There is nothing really special about broadband because the weasel words "up to", as well as well know equivalents such as "from" are common currency in advertising. If anyone is still taken in and expects the full whack, then all I can say is grow up. One real constraint on all this is BT Open Reach who cannot afford to put in really fast broadband, both at the exchanges and over the land lines, and the rest of us who will not pay what it would cost to enable them to do that.

Do please all, including "Which" stop whining and get onto those who could actually change things, namely the government.

Unfortunately, living in Hull means subscribing to the monopoly that is Karoo, putting up with irregular and expensive service, suffering variable bandwidths and getting poor support. I would dream of at least having the luxury of land-line and ISP choice!

Jimlad says:
21 August 2010

I agree much could be improved with KC’s Karoo. I pay £16.99 per month and my average speed in Beverley in marginally over 3MB – and some parts of the town are even slower. Reliability of the connection has improved over the past year but it is frustrating to see lower priced offfers from other suppliers both on-line and in local branches of national chains!

birdboy says:
20 August 2010

Copper prices have increased dramatically in recent years. Has BT ever considered the value of its copper network as scrap? It may then be well able to afford optical fibres.
It optically cabled the Shetland Isles several years ago and one cannot get much more remote or rural than there. Shetland now enjoys great connections and speeds unlike most towns and cities in not so Great Britain.
We will continue our slide below the third world unless there are major projects to upgrade our infra structure. These upgrades should be led by our major companies as in Victorian times. Suggested major projects are as follows:
Proper digital TV network not the current apology that is a post code lottery
An integrated high-speed rail network to replace the broken Victorian remains that is Network Rail, who have no plans for rail in the future beyond Perth.
A joined up motorway network that includes Scotland and properly bypasses major cities. ( the M25 was never intended to be a stand-alone ring for London it was supposed to have an inner ring parts of which were built but the system scrapped many years ago)
A transport integration scheme that links the various forms of public transport so that they become properly usable at all times of day. (its in operation in other countries ie Netherlands where the trains are on time, fast and have busses, metro and taxis at every station and, more importantly, through ticketing allowing all forms to be used seamlessly)

Wake up UK and stop the continuing slide into mediocrity

Hi Birdboy, You are right about scap copper prices-but what needs to be scapped is ‘BT’.

I have no problem with ISPs advertising speeds “up to …”. My slow speed is due to my distance from the BT exchange and the antiquated BT wiring. I think that it is a bit unfair that “Which” targets the ISPs on the grounds that people do not get the speeds advertised rather than BT.

My ISP (Nidram) tested my line initially and told me what spped I could expect.

As regards not getting what I pay for, that is not quite right either. I get what I want but it just takes a bit longer to get it.

My son who lives in a little village in Norway gets speeds up to 50Mb/s (plus TV and telephone) over a fiber optic link to his house. This is provided by a private company at a cost higher than we in UK seem willing to pay, and on the condition that at least half the houses in the village sign up to it. Maybe UK citizens are just not willing to pay for a good sevice and that we get what we are willing to pay for.

I used BTinternet.com as my ISP and rued the day that I had done so! I have never had anything that comes near the speed that BT Advertises – either download or uploading! Their help service is abysmal at the extreme end. If you have problems, they expect you to go on line to follow a simple check procedure – all very good if your computer can do that. Then you get put through to a never ending Press Button 2 for – until you have gone in a circle several times. Eventually you get through to an Asian Male who cannot understand you and you cannot understand him – in any case if you say my operating platform is a MAC, he/she is totally confused and cannot answer or do anything further other than to say it will cost you £XXX if the fault is at your end. Eventually the BT Engineer arrives and fixes their fault, and they then try to bill you for it!

I am with O2 now and the Service is 100% better although not perfect, but then they are using BT Equipment that should have been upgraded years ago!

The Unfortunate truth of the matter is that successive Governments have been allowed BT to get away with under investing in and renewing out dated equipment and they have the monopoly!

I have o2 broadband and have had for the past 18 months, the package is 8mbps and when using speedtest.net I get a down speed of 7 or slightly under. However when I use thinkbroadband I get a lower down speed of around 6. When I queried it with o2 as was told that it depends how near the tester is to you speedtest .net has the servers in the uk the one I use is either Manchester or Birmingham where as thinkbroadband are in Europe. However when I was with Aol I got very slow download speeds.

Richard Canin says:
26 August 2010

First downspeed is measured in Megabits/sec Mb/s, not MB/sec a fact that some of your contributors seem unaware. My experience in Solihull, West Midlands is that Sky Broadband only provided me with 0.4Mb/sec- too slow to view BBC I Player etc. I switched to Tiscali (now Talk Talk) and got 0.7Mb/sec -still problems. In addition I was cut off most evenings – the service being restored next day. Both companies blamed the BT copper landline and the fact that I am 4000 metres fom the local exchange. I now have 2Mb/sec from Virgin’s fibre-optic cable which is satisfactory. How do people receive speeds that are advertised using a BT copper cable?

Richard Canin

Actually we’ve always used “Megs” since digital transmission was introduced in the 70s .

However to answer your question “How do people receive speeds that are advertised using a BT copper cable?” – They can’t

That is why fibre optics is superior – I get 9 Megs as a rule..on my “up to 10 meg line.

Hoffman 35 says:
12 November 2010

I am, I suppose, at the end of the line – only 35 miles from London, but around 5 miles from the exchange. Occasionally download speed reaches 600Kbps, but is usually round the 300 mark, as is upload. This has definitely deteriorated over the past year or so. So, no iPlayer, no videos. I pay £9.99 a month to Plusnet for “up to” 8 Mbps. Complaining e-mails have never received an answer.
You would think they would at least cut the price – it makes me mad to go to London and see them advertising what is obviously a far better service for £5.99.
Speed check websites have indicated once that O2 could give me 9Mbps, another time that BE would be the best in the area. But once I’ve gone through the hassle of changing, will it really be any better if we’re still stuck with the same old BT line – and the distance from the exchange?

I was getting about 5Mbs on an upto 16Mbs service out of BT, which you probably feel is not bad given that I am nearly 4km from the exchange. But recently BT really ****** me off by changing the T&Cs so that I would have to pay a lot more every time I went over the 10GB cap on Option 1. After a long arguement, in which they refused to move me up to option 2 with its then increased to 40MB cap without starting a new contract (in blatent denial of their own T&Cs IMHO), I was left to take a no penalty transfer to VM – still within my 18 month contract. Now for a 20% lower charge, I have no cap on their L (upto 10MB) service, and actually get 9.7MB i.e. 97% of what I was promised, as opposed to about 31% of promise from BT. Unsurprisingly I am well pleased I have switched to VM.

Matt says:
2 January 2011

Sadly all ISP’s and blatently misleading customers and OFCOM are either unwilling or unable to take any real action against them.

I was offered “up to” 7.5meg by my current ISP which of course was bull and I’m lucky if I can get 1meg which is actually worse then my old ISP.