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Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband Britain - slowly getting faster?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 14 Dec 08, 08:30 GMT

Back in June, we toured "Broadband Britain" - and discovered that speed was an issue of real interest and concern to internet users around the country.

Since then, the debate about building a next generation broadband network has only got hotter, with reports from government and Ofcom stressing the need for speed.

Now we've repeated the study of speed test data we commissioned in June from thinkbroadband.com. Then, it showed that the average speed across the UK was 3.2Mbps, but that there was a big gap between rural and urban areas. What's surprising - in a year when it seemed that suppliers were competing to offer us faster broadband - is how little has changed. The average speed, calculated by analysing 188,000 speed tests conducted by users across Britain between June and November, is now 3.6 Mbps.

Rory Cellan-Jones, Arnisdale"We have plateaued" was the assessment of thinkbroadband's Sebastian Lahtinen. Sure, the gap between the cities and the rural areas has closed a little - but at a time when "up to 8Mbps" has become the norm in broadband packages, it is still pretty rare for that kind of speed to be achieved. Indeed, even in the fastest region in our survey, London, only around 15% were achieving speeds of 8Mbps and above, and the average connection speed had barely changed over the last six months.

If we are to build a network that can deliver much higher speeds, it's probably up to two companies to do it: BT and Virgin Media. Today, Virgin launches its 50Mbps service to cable customers, which will be the fastest residential broadband available to more than a handful of households. BT has started putting 100Mbps broadband into a huge new housing development at Ebbsfleet in Kent - but that accounts for just a couple of dozen homes. Next year, it's promising a pilot of fibre-to-the-cabinet, with 35,000 homes offered up to 40Mbps.

But there are questions - both technical and financial - about each company's approach. Virgin isn't laying miles of new fibre - it's relying on a software fix to its network to deliver higher speeds, and not everyone is convinced that's a future-proof strategy. BT is starting down the fibre route - but is still pretty anxious about the scale of its investment, and jousting with the regulators about the return it gets from offering rivals access to its network. As the recession bites, any large-scale investment in fibre is going to get ever harder to justify to shareholders.

In any case, most of us are probably reasonably happy with the kind of speeds that are on offer right now. Unless you are in a household which contains a hardcore gamer and a couple of heavy video downloaders, you will struggle to justify laying out the money for 40 or 50Mbps broadband. But that could change quickly. This has been the year in which internet video - the BBC iPlayer and other services - has exploded, with some grumbling from the ISPs about the strain on their infrastructure. Sooner or later, the iPlayer will go HD, and just imagine the pressure that will put on bandwidth. History has shown that when you build it, people come, and businesses will find ways of delivering them new web services. But right now, Britain seems in no hurry to build faster broadband.

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    At the minute, it's not exactly the top end speeds that are the problem! Rather it's the bandwidth used by the content providers.

    I've got an "up to" 8mbps service, which generally runs at 4.8-5.5 mbps. More than enough to stream low quality video. However, between 6pm and 10pm, it's impossible to get a feed from the ITV Catchup service which doesn't need to buffer every 15 seconds. This is because the amount of bandwidth itv give to a stream isn't enough.

    This is just an example, and from my experience it is an increasing problem. All is well and good getting 100mbps to the home, but if you can't get the speeds from the providers then it's wasted.

  • Comment number 2.

    If Virgin Media's throttling caps remain at the level they are now customers will only be able to run that 50Mbps service at full speed for ten minutes before Virgin 'manage' them back into the stone age.

    I think I'd rather have an 'up to' 8Mpbs that just keeps chugging away.

  • Comment number 3.

    Since when is replacing hardware to support a universally agreed upgrade path for cable systems considered a "software upgrade that some think isn't future proof"?

  • Comment number 4.

    All this talk of speed. If only! I'm in a village that's only 2 miles from a main BT exchange in a semi-rural area.

    BT took EU money via Advantage West Midlands to enable our exchange 3 years ago for ADSL. A group of us protested to BT and AWM that it was a waste of money since the the old copper infrastructure could not handle it. The best speed recorded in the village was 1.9M, but most users were under 1M. Now, as more users come on board, increased cross-talk is reducing speeds still further.

    Within 3 years of getting it, some of my neighbours have lost their broadband altogether.

    BT has a real problem with people like us; invest in new copper? try wireless? hope we'll move away? At the moment their unspoken policy is the last. They can make good returns in cities. Let's face it, there is no good business case for broadband in rural areas yet - perhaps in a few years with more paid-for traffic, the equations might change.

    As it is, large swathes of rural Britain are blighted by decaying broadband. House prices reflect this; business investment reflects it too. The digital divide is back, and back with a vengeance.

  • Comment number 5.

    What speed is needed?

    Avid gamer could win all his online games with 30Kbps a second provided it delivered consistent response times - > 35ms for UK hosted games. With the extra 80 ms delay introduced by distance across the Atlantic it probably not advisable to place a bet on winning a game hosted in the US, no matter what speed is promised.

    Two-way Video telephony can be done with 190 Kbps each way, provided the packet loss is less than 1%.

    iPlayer will stream happily at 500kbps, and I believe they have announced their client will support 1.5Mbps.

    While more speed is always welcome, it's the amount that you can assure at peak periods is the number we need to plan critical service delivery.

    I have provided more detail here; http://www.bbbritain.co.uk

    In brief, it's not the speed, but the proportion of that speed and the quality of that bandwidth available to consumers at busy periods.

    None of this is covered in the ISPA guidelines on speed, a shame as ISPs sales and marketing are actually underselling the potential of the available connectivity.

  • Comment number 6.

    I disagree with the assertion that you require an uber gamer or video addict to need faster broadband speeds - although the main issue for me is the data allowance with most ISPs.

    Firstly, there's a need for faster broadband to not only allow consumption, but also creation - we're uploading more content than ever and upstream speeds make it a tooth-grinding experience - plus the changing economy necessitates more experimentation with online businesses, which is best achieved by people creating start-ups of one type or another - trying doing that when your broadband is increasingly sapped by the amount of people coming online in your area.

    That's why Obama has proposed greater investment in the infrastructure in the U.S, not to enable more people to watch Youtube more quickly.

    Plus, HD is already here, with the Xbox for example, plus higher quality Youtube and Facebook videos. Although the iPlayer doubtless drives much of the online video experience for many in the UK, there's a large number of people already using alternatives which offer high quality content if only we could ever download it.

    Add in internet radio, and it doesn't take more than a couple of open internet browser windows before things start seriously slowing up...

    The choice is simple - either the nation as a whole invests in making high speed broadband available as a utility to all parts of the country, or we slip increasingly further behind other nations in terms of broadband access, innovation, and expertise - and without a manufacturing economy to talk about, that future doesn't sound too promising!

  • Comment number 7.

    Where do these speed statistics come from - I am amazed.

    I live in a village in Aylesbury Buckinghamshire just a few miles from the Exchange - I have never ever managed to achieve download speeds on either of my Broadband Lines; any faster than 250kbs.

    My current (and previous) suppliers tell me I have an 8mb connection.

    Strikes me that 8Mb is a just a liitle faster than a quarter of one Meg!

    Come on BT and Virgin - Get this Broadband working for the future needs.

    Martin



  • Comment number 8.

    I'm on Virgin and regularly get my "upto" 20Mbs in my urban home, but I work in a market town and many of my customers can't get any internet above dial-up.

    The marked difference between the haves and have-nots is growing, and that should be addressed before any speed issues.

  • Comment number 9.

    Sorry martininnes you've fallen into the age old bits and bytes trap! The advertised 8Mbs service you've got is 'bits' whereas the 250kbs you speak of is 'bytes'. There are 8 bits to a byte so even if you lived right next to an exchange on a new line the max download speed you could expect would in fact be 1 megabyte per second, your getting a quater of that (250 kilobyes) which is actually pretty typical and means a connection speed of 2meg in ISP speak. I've yet to see anyone on a home ADSL line get over 350kbs in general so in fact you're not doing all that bad!

  • Comment number 10.

    We live in the middle of Sussex, and can't even get broadband.

    So that would be a start...

  • Comment number 11.

    We live in Milton Keynes and 2 or 3 years ago, we took part in a BT experiment that installed a fibre-optic link from the local exchange to our home. It was great while it lasted, averaging around a 10 Meg connection and all for no charge.

    Unfortunately, the experiment came to an end and they took the equipment away (although I suspect that the fibre-optic cable is still there) and we went back to a poor 1 Meg ADSL broadband over the copper telephone lines.

    I does seem strange that BT is now speaking about trying out a fibre to the street cabinet service when they've already gone one better with the service that they tried with us.

  • Comment number 12.

    The sooner the authorities ban the "up to"broad band rates,the better,these speeds are still entirely fictional.
    I do not believe that the countries average speed is more that 2mb at any given time.
    We in Britain are not becoming the poor people of broad band,we are that already and to add to that the idea of paying £51 per month,as Virgin has announced,is ridiculous if compared to the speeds and prices charged on the mainland continent.
    Once again it would seem that Britains are being ripped off.

  • Comment number 13.

    Imperfect though Virgin may be it seems to me that for the forseeable future they will be the only ones delivering the claimed speed. Friends who have other providers tell me about their "faster broadband" but in reality their actual speeds are much lower. When tested they have rarely proved to be close to the claimed speed and some rarely reach 30%. Surely they should be prosecuted for their false claims.

  • Comment number 14.

    The far east is often flagged up as the ultimate broadband zone, with city customers being offered 100mb on fibre at relatively low costs. But there is a problem.

    I work on an online game and we have several far eastern players with fast links - when they are working. They lose connection far more frequently than anyone else and generally speaking have a very poor service.

    This is repeated throughout the world.

    My BE connection works happily at around 18mbps (with uploads at about 2.1mbps) - but the hassles I have with Be's dns servers is impossible, and I now use openDNS.

    Although I need a fast connection for my work (I am a composer), when it comes to other, domestic uses, I have seen no great advantage to higher speed. The biggest difference I noticed was moving from 512 to 2mbps. The increments above that have meant little.

    Most websites still load slowly not because I am slow but because their server is slow.

  • Comment number 15.

    I've had a connection with Be, who provide a very stable and low latency line at around 8 Mbps, which is fine for home use. I've recently moved house, and now have a 20 Mbps virginmedia connection, which to be fair is perfect speed-wise. I easily max out the connection when downloading from a good source (for example, from university servers). So I cannot knock it from the point of view which most people to look at connections from.

    However, I also like to play online games, and this is where my Be and VM lines differ. My latency (that is the time it takes for data to go from me, to the server, and back again) is very very variable, which poses a huge problem for online gaming since it is so inconsistent. On my BE line the latency times were not just low, but also very consistent.

    So while it is nice to focus on the overall speeds people get, there is more to it than that. I feel the speed I get from VM is at the expense of a consistent latency, and these high headline speeds (ie, 20Mbps) are causing a problem in terms of latency eg, if someone on the same bit of bandwidth available to me quickly downloads a big file at high speed, this will increase my latency for a short while. Bearing in mind that same contended bandwidth will be available to a lot of people in my area, this will cause the constant "spiking" I mentioned above. With lower overall headline speeds, I don't believe this would be as apparant as it is now.

    I just wanted to point out that this demand for "high speed" should also be balanced by a consistently performing line, even if we do have to lose a few Mbps to get it. Obviously those on 2-3 Mbps will probably wonder what I'm complaining about :)

  • Comment number 16.

    @9 - ojhilt

    Ok, firstly, if we are going to be accurate about speeds, let's use correct notation. b = bits, B = bytes. Thus, 8mbps ~ 0.96mBps.

    And you have never seen anyone get over 350kBps on home adsl!? Well, i have known LOTS of people, i have in two houses had 1.5mBps and 2mBps as well as friedns getting similar speeds.

    @12 - friendlyonewhocares
    Up to is perfectly legitimate way of advertising it if they do allow people to get that speed if possible (based on location, etc) as they do let users get those speeds at the exchange, but when a user connects to the exchange the harware checks what speed is possible and connects at that speed. I've had ISPs tell me that i will get only 1mbps when signing up to an 8mbps package and i got 8mbps on the dot, that is more annoying!

    All the country needs is an overhall, remove the copper phone lines and replace them with fibre-optic cables, then we could get gbps to the house, not just mbps. That would cost a fair bit in upgrades and i couldnt imagine the amount of hardware that would be needed for a few people to have it! But hey, we can dream.

  • Comment number 17.

    Also, i would like to add that speedtests are very unreliable. They can be swayed by things like the speed of the users computer, whether the test is done over wireless or not, how busy the test server is, etc.

    I have run multiple tests one after the other on my computers and i can get quotes ranging from 0.5mBps to 2mBps.

    The best way to test your speed is to download a large file and see what happens. I know i can hit over 2mBps which puts me around 16mbps connection.

    But then we have to remember the overheads that don't go towards your download speed, packet data has to be transmitted but doesnt count towards your transfer speed as it's not counted as 'useful' data, you have start/stop bits, check bits, and all the other TCP header data.

  • Comment number 18.

    The old "Build yourself out of a recession" why isn't the government spearheading this and getting the whole country wired up. Could even go towards having some joint underground infrastructure so all underground services are done via the same network, saving loads in the long term.

  • Comment number 19.

    Rory - All this fuss about 50Mbits, but lets have a bit of attention at the other end of the spectrum. The problem is not getting the fastest speed, it's getting reasonable speed for those of us outside major cities. We pay the same to get access but can't get the speed.

    You say "In any case, most of us are probably reasonably happy with the kind of speeds that are on offer right now.". Yeah, right-o. I'm 3.5 miles outside Newark-on-Trent, pay £18.99 a month and for that I actually get a speed of 400k, over which I am trying to run a business.

    So it may not be so cutting edge a topic to report on, but as a "compare and contrast" scenario, it certainly merits attention - which is exactly what we in the stick don't get from BT.

  • Comment number 20.

    " let's use correct notation" - yeah right pigeonfriend, who then goes on to use lower case m throughout - m is the SI prefix for "milli" or 1/1000, so your 1.5mBps and 2mBps connections were a tiny fraction of dialup speeds !

    M is for Mega = 1 million.

  • Comment number 21.

    I am surprised that Rory is surprised that speeds have not improved since June. What has happened since June ? One or two LLU providers have increased their coverage of ADSL2+ services that are capable of >8M but the vast majority of ADSL users are on up to 8M connections now just like they were in June.

    Let us not forget to educate and inform (remember Reith) that an "up to 8M" connection means a connection that connects from the modem to the exchange at up to 8128 kbits/s. Even at full speed it will only deliver 6700 kbits/s of useful data.

    The way to judge the quality of a service is the percentage of the connection speed that you can get as actual throughput. The connection speed is basically a matter of physics.

  • Comment number 22.

    I'm one of those with rural broadband issues. Yes, it's nice we have it compared with others, but the problem lies in the infrastructure, the BT copper. Brand new adjacent houses built at the same time have wildly differing speeds, simply because BT use the next available (?ancient?) copper pair rather than installing something new. I personally find that rather insulting, a new house and an old phone line!

 

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