/ Technology

Tractors & fridges – baffling excuses for slow broadband speeds

What’s causing your slow internet speeds? Could it be background noise from cars and trains? Perhaps interference from your household fridge? Or could it be caused by a tractor taking out the broadband line?

The simple truth is, broadband speed is typically dictated by how far your home is from the nearest exchange. But despite this, each of the excuses above were given to our mystery callers when they phoned major internet providers, posing as potential customers who’d like to know the speeds they might expect.

Our callers made 180 phone calls to 15 of the biggest internet providers, who are each obliged by Ofcom to give potential customers a likely estimate for the broadband speeds they can expect if they enter into a contract. This estimate should be based on the caller’s location, and must be offered up as soon as is reasonably practical during a phone call.

Irrelevant advice over the phone

Despite your home’s location being the main determining factor in the level of broadband speed you can enjoy, our callers were confronted with a cornucopia of excuses for why speeds can slow down. One call-handler from Eclipse said:

‘For example, [if] someone with a tractor going through a field took out a line, we wouldn’t be able to guarantee [your speed] because of those potential issues.’

A representative for Be told us that ‘any noises caused by machines, for example, refrigerators, trains, cars, may interfere with the broadband signal’.

So is there any truth in these claims? While household electricals and passing traffic can indeed create interference with your broadband, compared to the real issue of your home’s distance from the nearest exchange, these factors are largely irrelevant.

A spokesperson for TalkTalk put it best, telling one of our callers that ‘really, the only way you can get better speed is by moving house’. A different Eclipse call-handler also summed up the issue neatly, saying ‘the only way you can get faster speeds is either to move house or to change the laws of physics’.

Your rights when signing up to broadband

Some of the worst advice we received was when one AOL call-handler said they wouldn’t be able to provide a speed estimate until our caller had taken a contract out with them:

‘Once you take out a package with AOL and you set up for broadband, we will be able to tell you [your speed] afterwards.’

This is utterly unfair advice for anyone entering into a contract for a service. As a potential broadband customer, you are entitled to an estimate of likely speed for your home long before you sign on the dotted line.

Have you ever been given any poor excuses for slow broadband speeds by an ISP?


So, this is about maximum expected speed governed by physical and terrestial factors. Another quite important factor is the through speed you get from the ISP. The speed of their modem interface means little if you have to share the available bandwidth with, say, 100 other subscribers. There should at least be a mandatory ‘minimum committed speed’ stated along with typical avarage loading speeds. If we are to talk rip-off figures, Gordon Brown did the best ever job for the ISP’s when he said all contracts were to be for a minimum of 8 Mb/s. I was on a 2 Mb/s contract at the time, the cost went up by 8 pounds a month within days for the 8 Mb/s speed, but the modem remained at 2 Mb/s. Thanks Gordon, you were wonderful. I soon changed provider to get the up-grade. Today I have 16.47 Mb/s download speed but only 797 kb/s upload speed. That up-load also needs to be addressed. Just stating the ‘up to’ speed is really not good enough.

You should expect a throughput speed of about five-sixths of your modem (Sync) speed, normally when the network is not congested.

You are not sharing YOUR bandwidth with other subscribers, but the much greater ( by 1000s) bandwidth of the exchange.

If you need faster upload speeds, you need to go to fibre (FTTC/P) if available at your cabinet.

It is the bandwith supplied to the exchange I am talking about, divided by the number of subsribers using that bandwith, if indeed that bandwith is available to the exchange itself …. That is where the minimum committed rate comes in. Its taken me a while to work out 5/6 to be 83%, but that depends on the physical copper line and overhead feed to the house, nothing to do with the ideal modem speed. If those copper wires feed 16 Mb/s to the house I see no reason why the same wires cannot send 16 Mb/s back to the exchange, why should one need FO to upload if copper is ok for downloads?? Yes, I know it then becomes bi-directional traffic and it’s a compromise, but my point was that the upload speed should be considered along with the download speed. Uploading a 10 Gb web site takes a long time.

Most of us upload far less, just short instructions to servers, than we download.

Hence that’s why ISPs generally market ASYMMETRIC DSL (ADSL) to meet the majority demand.

The 17% reduction in throughput is not to do with the quality of lines to the house, but is to accommodate the protocol, ADSL & TCP/IP, overheads of the transmission. It is the envelope that enables the postman to deliver the letter to your door 🙂 .

I’m not quite sure I understand you. You’re blaming Gordon Brown because your ISP was run by a bunch of crooks?

You really have to start taking control of these things for yourself you know, the government can’t do everything for you (As this lot are proving over and over again…).

In order to ‘improve internet speeds’ GB declared, for whatever reason, that the minimum BB speed in UK would be 8 Mb/s. At the time I was, by free choice and of my own sound mind, and with great care and a lot of research, on a 2 Mb/s contract (including line rental and phone package) and was perfectly happy with that speed, at that time at the price I was paying. The fact that GB in effect said the 2 Gb/s tarif was no longer acceptable for the plebs like me and I had to go to 8 Mb/s, like it or not. At that time 8 Mb/s was very expensive compared to 2 Mb/s. The ISP had to dump the 2 Mb/s tariff, my tariff increased to the 8 Mb/s and the cost went up by 50% for the same service and I was not happy. As I said I changed ISP povider very quickly, mostly as the phone package phone-to-internet usage ratio was then totally out of balance (for me). How you interpret that in the way you did, that I expect to be hand fed by the government I dont know. The same would apply whatever government was in power, I have no particular political affiliations, I detest them all equally.

Even fibre optic will not give maximum transmission speeds if the last few 10s of meters are a pair of copper wires (laws of physics I’m afraid). Ideally the fibre optic line needs to go from the ISP through the exchange, into your house and right up to the port on your pc or wireless router.

Yeah, that’s called FTTP (Fibre to the Premises)! It can give speeds of over 100 Meg.

Even so, FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) can still give fast speeds of up to 80 Meg, even with the final few 100s of yards to your house being copper.

Interference can affect broadband speed badly. Our speed was fluctuating at around 2 Mbps or less and the connection was intermittent. When a telephone engineer came to investigate, he found that the chaotic telephone wiring in the house was acting as an aerial for the broadband signal, picking up any interference that was going. He solved the problem by moving the master socket close to the location of the router and fitting a combined master socket and broadband point there. Any interference from sources in the house is now confined to the telephone circuit, where it has no noticeable effect, and we get a consistent broadband speed of around 10 Mbps.

sawtooth says:
21 September 2012

i think it would be a far better idea if the government took over the isp,s and gave everyone a better deal with faster speeds,the isps dont care how fast your connection is they just want your money.with the tech we now have it would be relatively cheap to supply fiber to every house in the country,the old copper lines are fast becoming obsolete and are being replaced any way, non of the isp s really want to do it cos it eats up the massive profits they rip us of for.the gov could get the job done in half the time and half the cost.i for one wouldnt mind paying for something that was actually supplied not something that might be up to

It could be that the government has slightly more important issues than high-speed broadband to deal with.

Back to the good old GPO service of wind up telephones you mean? Ah, how I miss those days. One problem with using all fibre optics is the power requiered, like a couple of extra nuclear power stations to add to the two more we need to support digital TV and radio. Even now a power failure cripples an area, if everything was on FO there would be no service at all for those without battery back up. The copper wires also supply the power for a simple telephone which will continue to work during a power outage. FO to houses will require the subscriber to supply power and their own battery back up also, for the electronics, which would not be inconsiderable.

Roger K says:
21 September 2012

As well as distance to exchange, cable quality and interference, the is another potential factor: the “contention ratio”, i.e. the number of users/accounts sharing a broadband pipe – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contention_ratio It seems to be more of an issue with upload rather than download but I am not sure about that. As far as I know UK contention ratios tend to vary from 20:1 (business) to 50:1 (consumer). The lowest I have seen & used was 4:1 in Indonesia, but that was on a very slow broadband system.

As more and more of us start to use continuous streaming services (BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm & Netflix etc.) rather that just the intermittent traffic of email & WWW, I wonder if contention will become more of an issue. My download usage has increased several-fold since I bought an internet-enabled TV.

In terms of my download speeds, I used to get about 4-5mb then it slowed until a couple of years ago I was getting about 2mb. I phoned TT and by some miracle I got through to the UK technical support rather than the Indian helpdesk who just work to a script. They said they could increase my speed by adjusting (remotely) the settings on my account. Within 24 hours I was getting 7-8mb, and it is now up to 13-14mb – the exchange being almost a mile away. Supposedly they will be offering me fibre at 36mb very soon (in SE London).

Stephen Mcinally says:
21 September 2012

I too since June this year bought a Internet Enabled TV other wise known as “Smart Televisions” I am with Virgin Media and supposedly have 60 MB broad band which I upgraded to in June. I notice a good deal of buffering and when a television engineer came recently he commented and said “There is know way that can be a 60 meg connection! I intend to take this up with virgin Media, on another note earer this year they told me “we don’t support Internet enabled TV? Now with the proliferation of of TVs that are Internet why not?

With intermittant of use of broadband, I tend to switch off my router between sessions. This was the reason given for a fall from 5.6 Mb/s for over two years to 0.2 Mb/s recently. It is now back to 7.7 Mb/s but I must keep the router on and connected. This as wasteful as leaving other electronic equipment on standby all the time.

All because your ISP is not monitoring your line correctly. They should be reported.

“I must keep the router on and connected” is a myth!

There is no harm in switching router off overnight. The exchange does not see that as instability; it’s frequent disconnections, say more than 10 per hour, that lower your speed.

I can confirm the previous post regarding interference via telephone wiring. I cut out a large amount of redundant extension wiring in my previous home, with a resultant doubling of broadband speed. The availability of cordless telephones renders extension wiring unnecessary anyway.

I must be one of the lucky ones. I have a Virgin Media 60 meg connection, but it’s closer to 68 meg. All my connections are wired, no wireless and I spent a little extra on some quality Ethernet leads. According to some, buying a ‘quality’ set of cables won’t make any difference, but after changing mine, my speed went up by 4 meg.

Ivan says:
23 April 2013

Well tried Virgin Media Rep. 😛

My download speed has recently dropped quite dramatically; I used to be able to download a 1.5GB movie in around 90 mins, whereas now it seems to take several hours. Since (as far as I am aware) neither my home or exchange have moved further away, I’m perplexed as to why this should have happened – BT have not been particularly helpful.

> ” I’m perplexed as to why this should have happened”

Nothing can said without your router stats; they are key to the performance of your connection.

As “david” and “richard” have both said above, interference picked up by wiring really can be a major factor. Our house had GPO wiring from about 1969. My broadband speed was obviously very poor, but it took a lot of pressure from me to get the ISP and BT to act. Once BT had put in a modern master socket at no cost to me, and unwanted extension wiring had been removed, the broadband speed was raised to a consistent value which is right for my location.

Gerry Hall says:
5 October 2012

Re Tractors and broadband cables.
Some years ago a friend of mine who had a farm in Kimbolton (Herefordshire) was approached by an internet company who wanted to run an internet cable a couple of miles across his fields. He agreed to this as long as it was deep enough. During the next five years the cable was pulled out twice by the farmers’ subsooil drag. So it can happen!!

I live on the Western isles and signed up with BT Broadband thinking – great, I would now be able to watch iplayer/catch up tv (no aerial signal where I live so depend on satellite) by connecting with ethernet cable, simple I thought. At no time was there any suggestion that because of my location I would have slow broadband speed and unlikely to be unable to access certain features. I have constant ‘buffering’ (not that I even knew what that meant till someone explained it to me!!) For clueless people like me – I think it just might have been obvious when I spoke with the rep !!
I feel that it should have been made clear there and then what I could realistically expect.

Duran says:
25 October 2012

I’m with Talktalk and I upgraded my package to 24Mb from 8Mb when it became available. Unfortunately I didn’t notice any major improvement but I thought it might have been coincidence but in June I started checking my speed and I recorded consistently speeds below 2 Mb, often even below 1Mb, readings taken at different tims of the day. I contacted support and now in October a few down the line there is still no improvement. Last week they escalated my problem to the higher technical level and still nothing has happened, my last reading last night was 0.5Mb and as I said earlier, I’, paying for 24Mb. They sent me a message on my mobile to ring Technical support (again) if my problem hadn’t resolved. I had their technician visiting my home in the middle of August he said my modem was a very good one and he had a tablet computer with him. He tapped on it and saifd he was accessing the exchange and reset things and that that should improve my connection, but obviously it didn’t. After this all the support I had to resolve this problem was from a distance.
Has anybody had similar experience? Can you advice me on what my next step should be?

David Strohacker says:
30 November 2012

I would like to ask if you have had many complaints about TalkTalk broadband recently. I have had nothing but trouble for the passed fortnight and despite my emails they have not come up with a positive solution.
Many thanks.

I’m dropping in in the middle of a long discussion and haven’t read much but think I have something useful to say.
If you have wireless connection between your router and PC you may find that your broadband slows down every time you or a neighbour turns on a microwave oven. I was able to borrow a spectrum analyser and found my microwave was putting a lot of noise on top of the channel we were using. So I went into the setup procedure and selected a channel as far away as possible and no longer suffer from slowdowns. Without a spectrum analyser I suggest you try other channels well away from the present one and see if it improves.

PHIL says:
29 October 2014

I took the advice of which and have monitored my broad-band speed over a period of about 3 weeks and informed the results to B.T. (download speed average 2.6 – 2.8; upload speed 0.84) My house is about 1 mile from the sub station.I tried to have a telephone conversation ( but you guessed ) I got E mail I did explain it was a waste of time because B.T. broad-band is so slow. You should have seen the speed that these E mails arrived and departed.They told me that they had checked the speed and it was leaving the sub station above 15.6 so all was O.K. I am so sorry but I must inform which that according to B.T. results you must have a faulty programme I am so sad to admit this, but I used to work for B.T also I am a share holder (great results then) NO CHANCE FOR THE REST OF YOU Phil

I have just come off the phone with Plusnet. My linespeed is variable from 0.25Mbps to 8.0 Mbps. The customer service person said there was “a little noise on the phone line” and he would improve the signal to noise ratio by turning up the signal. I have to reboot the router in 2 hours. We will see if it has made any difference.