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UK broadband still in the slow lane

Gap widens between advertised and real web speeds

A broadband USB plug

Broadband speeds are rarely as fast as advertised

Many advertised broadband download speeds in the UK are unachievable in reality, according to the latest broadband speed research by Ofcom.

Phone and broadband watchdog Ofcom has found that not a single 20Mbps or 24Mbps DSL broadband service delivered the advertised speed.  In fact none achieved average download speeds of more than 18Mbps. 

Ofcom’s latest research represents the most comprehensive UK broadband speed testing to date, which included more than 18 million speed tests in 1,500 homes in May 2010.

Ofcom is planning to introduce new measures that will allow broadband customers to change their package or end their contract without penalty if their actual broadband speed is significantly below the advertised speed.  Customers will have to wait to use this new right, however, as the new speed code of practice won’t be introduced for up to twelve months.

Find out how happy broadband customers are with their broadband providers’ speeds in the Which? broadband review

Average speeds up, but gap between ads and reality grows

The research also revealed that average UK broadband speeds achieved in reality have increased to 5.2Mbps. This is a 25% increase on last year’s average actual speed of 4.1Mbps. 

Despite this overall increase, the gap between customers’ advertised and achieved speeds has widened. In April 2009, average actual download speeds were 58% of average advertised maximum speeds (7.1Mbps). As of May 2010, average download speeds are just 45% of average advertised ‘up to’ speeds. 

The widening gap between advertised and actual download speeds is partly the result of a greater number of broadband customers upgrading to broadband packages with higher advertised ‘up to’ speeds, such as 20Mbps or 24Mbps. 

Find out how to complain about your broadband speed.

Cable beats copper for speed

Ofcom’s findings also highlight the difference in speed between cable and DSL broadband services, which are delivered over BT copper wires.

The majority (80%) of broadband customers with ‘up to’ 20Mbps broadband over a fibre network (such as Virgin Media’s cable broadband service) achieved average download speeds of more than 14Mbps. 19% received more than 18Mbps on average, and only 4% achieved 8Mbps or less.

No test participants using 20Mbps or 24Mbps DSL services managed more than 18Mbps on average and only 2% achieved average download speeds of more than 14Mbps.  Two-thirds of them had average download speeds of 8Mbps or lower. 

Distance from exchange still affects speed

The speed of broadband provided over BT’s copper wire network is strongly affected by distance – the further you live from the nearest telephone exchange, the slower the maximum speed you can receive. Fibre networks do not suffer from this deterioration. BT is currently investing in a fibre broadband network, but not enough BT fibre customers took part in Ofcom’s speed test for it to report on this service.

Other factors that could affect your broadband speed are explained in the free Which? guide to broadband speed. 

Best and worst broadband providers

Out of leading ADSL providers advertising up to 8Mbps or 10Mbps broadband packages, O2 and Be provided the highest speeds in practice, while Orange and Plusnet’s average speeds were lowest. 

  • AOL Broadband ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.6-4.7Mbps 
  • BT ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.8-4.5Mbps 
  • O2/Be ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 4.3-5.0Mbps 
  • Orange ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.3-4.2Mbps 
  • Plusnet ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.3-4.2Mbps 
  • Sky ‘up to 10Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.9-4.9Mbps 
  • TalkTalk ‘up to 8Mbps’ – average speed achieved 3.6-4.3Mbps 

Cable broadband provider Virgin Media’s actual speeds were closest to those advertised. Customers on its 10Mbps broadband package achieved average download speeds of 8.6 to 9Mbps. 

Unsurprisingly, average speeds were typically slightly slower at peak (evening) times than at less busy times in the middle of the night. Orange and Virgin Media cable customers suffered the biggest slow down at peak times compared to off-peak times. 

Ofcom speed code of practice

Ofcom first introduced a broadband speed code of practice in 2008, a year after Which? first identified the huge discrepancy between advertised and actual broadband speeds. 

Ofcom mystery shopping into how closely providers stick to the code and consistency of broadband speed estimations, combined with Ofcom’s latest speed test results, have prompted the broadband watchdog to strengthen the code in the following ways:

  • More accuracy and consistency in broadband speed estimates at point of sale with standard ranges for speed estimates across all providers
  • Broadband providers must log a fault if broadband speed is significantly below the original estimate
  • Broadband customers will be permitted to change their package or end their contract without penalty (within three months) if their actual broadband speed is significantly below the estimate

Broadband discrepancies will remain a high profile issue

Which? broadband expert Ceri Stanaway says: ‘The increasing gap between what providers promise in advertising and what people can achieve in practice drives home the importance of clear, meaningful information when people take out a broadband service. This will only become more crucial as more broadband customers upgrade to higher theoretical speeds, which Ofcom’s findings show are impossible in practice.

‘It’s good news that Ofcom has put in place steps to improve the broadband speed information ISPs must provide at point of sale, and that broadband customers who receive in practice far below the speeds they are told they should achieve will be free to end their contract without penalty.

‘Investment in fibre broadband networks, which don’t suffer the same distance-related problems as copper wire, may slowly reduce the gap between advertised and promised speeds. However, the rollout of such networks to more rural areas of the UK is many years away at best, making it likely that broadband speed discrepancies will remain a high profile issue for the foreseeable future. 

‘Which? believes there is still more work to be done to make sure consumers can’t be misled into signing up for a service on the basis of false advertising. We hope that the ASA, which is responsible for the way products are advertised, steps up to the mark and works closely with Ofcom to ensure broadband providers are not permitted to make misleading claims.’ 

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