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What broadband speed do I need?

By Jon Barrow

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What broadband speed do I need?

Superfast broadband sounds appealing. But just how fast is it and do you really need it? Read on to find out.

Speed is a crucial consideration when you're deciding which broadband package is right for you. Too slow and you'll struggle to do the things you need to do; too fast, and you may be paying for a service you don't really need.

To help decide what's best for you, think about how you use the internet.

Broadband package reviews - once you've decided on the speed you need then head over to our broadband review pages to see how each provider did in our regular satisfaction survey and to find out what deals they have to offer.

Standard vs fibre broadband

Most broadband packages in the UK use ADSL technology and so transmit data over the existing BT phone network. This means they're widely available though download speeds are limited to up to 17 megabits per second (Mbps) and it can be far less if you live a long way from the nearest telephone exchange.

Superfast packages use more efficient fibre optic cables to transmit data. This means they can reach faster speeds, though prices are higher and they're not available in all parts of the country.

It's worth noting that very few fibre packages actually offer a fibre connection from your house all the way through to the exchange. Instead the vast majority use fibre to connect the exchange to the cabinet in your street and then switch to the phone line for the final leg into your house. This type of connection - called Fibre to the Cabinet or FTTC - offers speeds of up to around 76Mbps. Only a tiny proportion of houses - approximately 2% of homes in the UK - are able to receive pure fibre directly from the exchange (known as FTTH, Fibre to the Home, or FTTP, Fibre to the Premises) and hence can benefit from speeds of up to 1Gbps.

Virgin Media is the only major provider that doesn't use the BT Openreach network. Instead it uses its own fibre optic cables to connect its street cabinets to the phone exchange and then uses coaxial cables to link the cabinet to customers' homes. Coaxial cable is faster than standard phone lines and hence Virgin can offer speeds of up to 300Mbps.

Find a great-value fibre package by reading our regularly updated guide to the cheapest superfast broadband deals.

The benefits of faster download speeds

Fast speeds allow for quicker downloads and also help to reduce the problems caused when different family members log on at the same time. They let you seamlessly enjoy services such as online radio, video on-demand and catch-up TV at the same time, while fibre's faster upload speeds make life easier when you're sharing photos online or making video calls.

As the graphic below illustrates, at its fastest the difference between downloading a film from a service such as iTunes is about 90 seconds for fibre optic vs around 20 minutes for ADSL. A good fibre connection should put an end to any stuttering and buffering of on-demand TV, too.

Check the speed of your broadband package with our interactive broadband speed checker.

Superfast broadband speeds

Do I need to go superfast?

Fibre broadband is great but isn't necessary for everyone. For browsing the web, checking emails, uploading the odd photo to Facebook and even streaming from BBC iPlayer or Netflix, you don't need a superfast connection.

For iPlayer you need 2Mbps of sustained bandwidth to watch standard-definition content or 3Mbps for high-definition, while the minimum recommended broadband speed for Netflix is 1.5Mbps. However, you will likely benefit if you regularly:

  • Use your broadband at the same time as other people in your home
  • Download films or large online files on a regular basis
  • Use online TV catch-up services from more than one device
  • Upload videos and other large files to the web
  • Play video games online
  • Use video-calling services, such as Skype

How accurate are broadband speeds?

Speed is clearly important. But the reality is that few of us will ever get the headline speeds that providers quote in their ads. That is because companies are allowed to advertise speeds that only 10% of their customers can get.

We don't think that's fair. We want the majority of customers to get the speeds they're promised in ads, not just 10%, and need your support to convince advertising watchdogs to pull the plug on confusing broadband ads.

Learn more about our broadband speed campaign and pledge your support.

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