Darren Waters

Speed Diary: Day Five

  • Darren Waters
  • 23 Feb 09, 14:50 GMT

A number of readers of this blog and my Twitter followers were kind enough to suggest different ways to test our 50Mbps cable broadband connection, as part of a Speed Diary I've been carrying out over the last week.

Fibre optic cables

So here they are. I should also point out that I performed all of these tests over a wireless connection. They would have been faster over an Ethernet connection.

Try using a download manager and downloading a file from then uploading it to /incoming

There are a number of game demo files sitting on the Virgin FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site and I was able to easily saturate the downstream speeds getting very close to the 50Mbps upper limit. Each of the five files I simultaneously downloaded was coming down at almost 1.0MB per second.

On the upload site I was getting around 1Mbps.

Two readers suggested downloading some TV programmes via BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay. One reader said: "In the name of journalistic research and only to watch Beeb programs of course."

Given the current court case against The Pirate Bay going on in the Swedish courts, it is probably not a good career move to be downloading any unauthorised content via The Pirate Bay, even material from my own employer without permission.

So I used to download some video files covered under a Creative Commons license for free distribution.

A 900MB file being shared by 25 peers on BitTorrent came down the pipe at about 400 to 500KBps in about 40 minutes. In my experience the more seeders there are on BitTorrent sharing a file, the quicker it tends to arrive so a more popular file would have been downloaded faster.

A number of users suggested downloading files from news servers, such as Giganews and the Virgin Media news server

News servers pre-date the World Wide Web and are both text discussion boards and a method of distributing large files, often it has to be said copied movies, TV programmes and music. But there are also game demos, and copyright-free material to be found.

The advantage of news servers over tools like BitTorrent is speed. Most providers of news servers have incredibly quick connections and downloading files is often only limited by the speed of your own broadband connection.

I downloaded a 350MB file from both GigaNews and the news server operated by Virgin Media. The file downloaded via GigaNews came down the pipe at between 4MB per second 4.2MB per second, which is pretty much the top end of my connection speed.

The Virgin Media news server was a little bit slower - with a minimum of 1MB per second and a maximum of 3.9MB per second.

How about a download of a large game/demo on a console?

So how quickly can you download files from a service like Xbox Live? I selected the demo of strategy game Halo Wars to download, a file over 1GB in size.

The demo was downloaded and playing on my Xbox 360 in under eight minutes.

What are the speeds like when e-mailing high resolution images, such as 50MB photos?

It is very difficult to find a mail service that will accept files as big as 50MB, and it is probably more advisable to use FTP, BitTorrent or a file transfer service like YouSendIt, or SendThisFile.

Google Mail accepts attachments up to 20MB in size. I sent two JPGs of about 8MB in size each using Google's mail service. The files left my outbox within five minutes.

How about streaming video on 2-3 clients simultaneously? Can it cope?

I wrote about this last week. To recap: I streamed the BBC's iPlayer across three machines with little difficulty but as soon as I threw in some background downloads of large files then the picture started to stutter on one of the machines.

Try Xbox 360 racing games, not FPS. Try hosting Forza 2 session with maximum racers.

Last week I used the connection to play some First Person Shooter games with some mixed results. I don't have a copy of Forza 2 but I do have a copy of Project Gotham Racing 4. I hosted a number of races and all of the gamers in my session reported the session was lag free.

Schedule daily speed tests and record the results over time to see if, as the success of the service increases the quality does not decrease (something that has often been seen in cable broadband).

Virgin says there is no bandwidth throttling on the connection of users of its 50Mbps service - something that is not true of its other connection speeds.

I took readings of the connection speed from a number of different measurement tools across the week and found there was a slight variance in the speed.

On wired connections, the tests revealed that the speeds varied from 36Mbps to 48Mbps over the period.

On wireless connections - once I had fixed my router issues - the speeds varied between 25Mbps and 46Mbps during the week.

There was one reader request that I was not able to help with, however.

Could you download the internet for me and put it on a CD please?

I think I draw the line at that test.

Finally, having the luxury of a 50Mbps service has reminded me how much has changed in term of connection speeds in the last 25 years that I have been online.

I stumbled across my first ever modem recently - a Commodore 64 Communications modem that I used to connect to Compunet when I was a teenager.

Commodore 64 Communications modem

This was a 1200/75 baud modem which means, if I've got my calculations right, that the maximum downstream speed I could have reached was about 1Kbps.

That means that I had been using that modem today and tried to download the Halo Wars demo - it would have taken about 97 days to download, rather than the eight minutes on the 50Mbps connection.

I think it is safe to say that we have made some great leaps in terms of internet connection speeds over the last 25 years.


  • Comment number 1.

    Mind your MBps and Mbps's there! Mbps usually refers to megabits per second, while MBps refers to mega bytes per second - a big difference (1 byte = 8 bits so 8x - although usually taken as 10 for reasons too obscure to go into).

    Very nice memories seeing that 1200/75 modem - it was great for loading Prestel pages (1K each) - the days before the Internet had pictures :).

    That got me thinking - it would be interesting to have a graph of content size against bandwidth. Connections are getting faster, but digital things are getting bigger.

    The digital camera I was using last week was a 14 Mega pixel model - a single image from that wouldn't have been able to fit on to a collection of hard drives from 25 years ago.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's the same scenario as building more roads - you'll just find more cars to fill them!

    Were the seeders of the torrent in the UK/Europe? That can make a big difference to the speed that is seen

  • Comment number 3.

    @PrinterElf Good question. I think the seeders were mainly Europe.

  • Comment number 4.

    BenjaminEllis - I don't actually see a single misuse of MBps/Mbps. If you're referring to the upload speed mentioned, I think Virgin media may actually be that slow upstream.

  • Comment number 5.

    1200/75? That's luxury!
    My first online experiments were using a 300 baud acoustic coupler on BT Gold sometime in the early 80s.

    Thanks for the updates, Darren - it's very interesting to read a 'real' end-user's account.

  • Comment number 6.

    I too downloaded the halo wars demo when it first came out through BT and it took me at least an hour to download it completely via wireless on a 3-4mb line so if the 50mb is as good as virgin says then it someone I will seriously consider

  • Comment number 7.

    I am sooo jealous, Here in Malaysia, our fastest speed is only 4Mbps...

  • Comment number 8.

    Really, those tests are useless in real life.
    The suggestions and tests are completely obscured. upload and download to an ftp site? thats reasonable, but these are only on virgins internal network servers. but the other tests? theres no technological reasoning for these, you havent even pointed this out in your article.

    You want to test your connection? You want to test your connection to the backbone and beyond. Once your at the backbone, your into the internet, your not affected by virgins servers.
    youre on the internet!

    Firstly, if you want a real download rate, download off a real download site (e.g rapidshare) with a download manager. you will get a true download speed with that.
    Yes, its going to create many connections to the server, but it WILL saturate your connection. giving you a real download rate.

    running a speed test from is also a good idea. it runs a test from servers located on backbones closest to you. giving you a realistic upload and download rate with a ping.

    the rest is down to other outside servers.
    no other tests are relevant.
    therefore youre tests are completely pointless.

    I cant believe this:
    "but as soon as I threw in some background downloads of large files then the picture started to stutter on one of the machines."
    this is a joke seriously?! this is caused because TCP is unbias against any connection, it is unbias against all traffic. when your streaming something and downloading something, tcp doesent care, its going to download everything evenly. therefore your saturating your connection with the downloads and streaming.
    any connection will do this.

    Testing your connection via wireless is also ridiculous. Your internet speed is different on wireless, it fluctuates? ITS WIRELESS! your internal network affects this, the quality of your equipment and distance from the router will completely affect the test.

    seriously, this article has really surprised me. I would have thought that the BBC could at least employ someone with some tech knowledge, with capabilitys to explain it in plain English.

    im at uni, ive got a 100mbs connection to the janet backbone. i download and upload at 10mbs. i get a ping to servers in maidenhead on the backbone at 10ms, and at 11ms. After that, its not my ISPs fault, im on a backbone, im on the internet. Run some real tests along the right lines.
    i could go on. but its boring and im being obnoxious.

  • Comment number 9.

    @william0will: I believe the purpose of some of the tests is to see if the Virgin 50Mbps service really does deliver 50 Mbps to the door, and the only way to test that is to use Virgins own servers. As soon as you move out onto the internet, then you are no longer testing your connection to Virgin but Virgins connection to the backbone, the backbone itself, and the remote servers connection. By running a set of different tests you isolate and baseline the performance of the different segments and can then analyse where any bottlenecks may lie. It's a basic performance analysis technique and one you should learn if you work in the IT world.

    While TCP itself doesn't care what is in a packet, it doesn't evenly distribute the packets it just works on a first in best dressed basis. However, the use of QoS on most routers these days does prioritise traffic at least within your own network, and probaly witihin most ISP's as well. Network neutrality is important on teh backbone, but I'm quite happy to prioritise my Skype calls and iPlayer traffic over my news feed and e-mail server.

    If you had read the entire series of blogs, then you would see that most of your points have been raised before, especially the wireless one, which led to Darren making several improvements to his wireless network that produced near saturation through-put.

  • Comment number 10.


    "Testing your connection via wireless is also ridiculous. Your internet speed is different on wireless, it fluctuates? ITS WIRELESS! your internal network affects this, the quality of your equipment and distance from the router will completely affect the test."

    This point has already been established in the blog posts and some tests have been done using both wireless and wired connections to compare them. A large number of people use wireless these days and therefore it seems right that this is the standard environment for the testing. You point out yourself that the tests need to resemble real life usage and wireless fits that bill well.

    "running a speed test from is also a good idea. it runs a test from servers located on backbones closest to you. giving you a realistic upload and download rate with a ping."

    You may not have read Darren's comment about the online speed tests he used therefore I have quoted it below.

    From the 'day 5' blog:-
    "I took readings of the connection speed from a number of different measurement tools across the week and found there was a slight variance in the speed"

    Maybe you should read all the information first and you may not feel the need to be so obnoxious (your word, not mine)

    and from the introductory diary blog:-
    "Of course the first thing I did was test the speed. Virgin says that only two one website - and had tests that could successfully gauge the speeds available to its users.

    I used both tests - on both a wired and wireless connection"

  • Comment number 11.

    Like i said the FTP test was reasonable. but you really dont have any clue what these ftp servers are capable of. I was saying that there should have been more practical real world tests, and tech tests using appropriate tools.
    I suggested rapidshare, because files are hosted on high bandwidth distributed servers capable of 100mbs+ download speeds. This is well known.
    Yes, i was going to mention QoS but it wasnt appropriate. HTTP downloads, and iplayer both run over port 80, and cannot be classified on a standard home router.
    TCP algorithms give even priority to http connections, this is why this has occurred.
    This is due to the home network, not the connection.

    Some of the ways the connection was tested from the suggestions were rubbish i think.
    He didnt want to download anything off the pirate bay, so he used a legal website with few seeds and peers, that isnt a good test.
    he could have just downloaded a linux iso and got some decent stats from that.

    My point was that some of the speed tests from user suggestions were not really carried out with the accuracy, knowledge in ways i would expect. The suggestions werent that great, and this wasnt raised by the author. he didnt point out why the videos stuttered when downloading a large file.
    There are many tools and ways of testing connections more reliably with more accurate results.

  • Comment number 12.

    In the past I've downloaded a few things I've missed on iPlayer from a UK based TV site, and with the high number of UK seeders, the speed is phenomenal, maxing out the 20Mb Virgin line for the duration of the download (all 10 mins of it!). I'm not sure what BT client and settings you were using, but I would be willing to bet that the defaults won't even begin to make full use of the line and number of connections it can support.

    There are always 2 benchmarks that any system has to meet - the numerical and the subjective.
    While I would agree that most readers of these blog posts are probably interested in the purely numerical stats (i.e. is Virgin delivering the 50Mb line that they've promised, which it seems they are), actually demonstrating a real-world interpretation of the 'geek-speak' and what the connection can do for mere mortals who have no idea what QoS, TCP or packets are is far more relevant.
    Yes, perhaps you or I would solve the problem by employing more sophisticated traffic management hardware and software (as I suggested in response to the Day Four post), but as you said you really need to be knowledgeable in the field to even come up with the suggestion.

    I presently work on the autopilot system for one of the next-gen of aircraft. As a similar example, the pilot doesn't necessarily need to know the full technical details of how we resolve an issue they have, they just need to know what practical things resolving that issue enables them to do with the aircraft.

  • Comment number 13.

    The blog shows that the advertised headline speed is fairly irrelevant to the actual experience of an average customer, even when the provider can actually deliver such speeds reliably within the confines of their own network.

    The limitations, especially in the newly designed cable broadband networks, are not at the access layer of the network (the wire from the local network node to the home). They are out in the internet world beyond.

    It just goes to show that messages about headline speeds can only disappoint. Maybe it's time for Virgin Media to change their marketing, rather than fiddling further with their technology.

  • Comment number 14.

    You said: "I think it is safe to say that we have made some great leaps in terms of internet connection speeds over the last 25 years."

    I'm not sure sure the leaps are great everywhere, as BT say my maximum expected Broadband speed is 125Kbps (and that the maximum, which of course it never runs at.

    I have declined their offer to sign up,

    I don't know how long I'll be waiting for up to 8Mbps broadband, never-mind the 50/100 a lot of people and the BBC seem to be talking about a lot recently.

  • Comment number 15.


    Thanks for the comments. I did test both wired and wireless. Please see earlier Speed Diary days.

    I did also do a download of a Linux ISO. Please see earlier Speed Diary days.

    In fact you'll see lots of other tests... if you read the earlier Speed Diary days!

  • Comment number 16.

    "Each of the five files I simultaneously downloaded was coming down at almost 1.0MB per second."

    ie 8Mb per second - ie a total of 40 Mb per second - good to see that Virgin is offering what it can't deliver - even from its own FTP servers...

  • Comment number 17.


    There will be connection overheads that mean that you'll never see 50Mbps numerically, but the connection was probably maxed out. A BT download from just Virgin users would perhaps provide a better test, but practically impossible to set up!

  • Comment number 18.

    I have a question...

    Why can my £280 PS3 download at my full downstream speed indictated on the router while my £500 laptop struggles to download faster than 120kbps on dedicated fast servers?

    I think technology in general has been left in the hands of capitalism for far too long. As long as businesses are allowed to sit back and upgrade nothing in their search for pure profit only, the human race will never know how to invent something as apparently simple as the toilet that prevents splash-back let alone 50MB broadband across the nation.

  • Comment number 19.

    Raw speed is not so importatant - but enough speed is.
    There is a level of performance below which you are pushing rocks uphill but once you break through there are always other limiting factors.
    Rather like buying a car once you have a car with adequate performance upgrading to a Ferarri may not increase your speed (due to the car in front).

    Once you can go uphill at 70 miles an hour without changing gear its enough. lees than 75 horse power is a problem but much over 150 horse power is not making so much difference, due to other bottlenecks a long the way
    5 Mbps is a realistic minimum

    I have (as non UK resident)for some long time 2 fast connections - 25Mps (Docsis cable)at my home in the Netherlands and 60Mbps (DSL) in my office in Germany.
    While both peform adequately I canot say I notice a big difference.

    I have now the option to upgrade the cable to 125Mbps fibre link for a samll fee - but it is a question if this is interesting except as a topic of conversation.

    Here 8Mbps is the lowest entry level subscription and costs typically less than half of UK price
    I pay only 20 UKpounds per month for 25Mbps connection including VAT
    Random testing show I have always better than 20Mbps.

    It is a building requirement here for the last 5 years that all new houses have a fibre connection (for 120Mbps) also for TV and Phone.
    For 30years all new houses have cable TV connection - that can also supply Internet and telephony
    Plus we have a telephone line that can supply also Interent and digtal TV

    Less than 2% of the population have satelite TV.

    So we have in built competition - - when customers have the option to switch supplier at an instant - my experience is that performance improves by magnitudes and you hear nothing about investment recovery, customer serice lines are answered in sconds and not hours and the tone is quite different

    It looks to me to be very simple


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