UK broadband speeds, May 2010

Published 27|07|10

Executive summary

Background

1.1 Ofcom's primary duty under the Communications Act 2003 (the "Act") is to further the interests of UK citizens and consumers in carrying out our functions. In addition to securing the availability of a wide range of electronic communications services including broadband services, encouraging investment and innovation in relevant markets and the availability and use of high-speed data services, we must have regard to the interests of consumers in respect of price, quality of service and value for money. Our duties include the requirement to carry out research into consumers' experiences of the way services are provided and to publish and take account of the results of such research.

1.2 In the last decade internet access speeds across the UK have increased as consumers have migrated from dial-up to broadband and ISPs have offered packages at higher advertised 'up to' speeds. The next phase of this evolution is now getting under way as operators invest in superfast broadband services. It is therefore becoming more important than ever for consumers to have reliable and accurate information on how different broadband services perform otherwise consumers may not be able to make an informed choice about which broadband service is most suitable for them.

1.3 Ofcom first conducted research in association with research partner SamKnows Limited ("SamKnows") into actual broadband performance for residential connections between October 2008 and April 2009, and published findings for this time-period in January 2009 and July 2009. For the current second round of research from May 2010 to April 2012, we have updated this panel and now have over 1,500 UK residential broadband users who have connected performance monitoring equipment to their router which provides the raw performance data. We believe that the integrity of our hardware-based technical methodology, combined with the scale of the project and the sophistication of the statistical analysis, makes this research the most robust analysis of fixed-line broadband speeds in the UK. This report sets out our findings from the first month of data collection (May 2010), during which over 18 million tests were run.

1.4 Where we refer to broadband speeds in this report (whether average download, maximum or headline speeds, etc.), we mean broadband speeds for residential (as opposed to business) connections in the UK.

UK broadband speeds have increased significantly over the past year

1.5 Our results show that average download speeds in the UK were 5.2Mbit/s in May 2010, up from 4.1Mbit/s in April 2009 an increase of over 25%. This is the result of consumers increasingly moving to faster broadband services. Nearly a quarter (24%) of UK residential broadband connections had a headline speed of above 10Mbit/s in May 2010, compared to 8% in April 2009.

Actual broadband speeds are generally well below advertised speeds

1.6 Some ISPs have in the past year moved away from advertising their services on the basis of headline speeds (e.g. 'up to' 20Mbit/s). But other ISPs continue to do so. This is despite the fact that various constraints on broadband performance (including distance from premises to the exchange, quality of lines and home wiring, and congestion on ISPs' networks and the wider internet) combine to make actual speeds significantly lower than headline speeds. We found that average download speeds remain well below the speeds which some ISPs continue to advertise: the average download speed received in May 2009 of 5.2Mbit/s compares to an average headline speed of 11.5Mbit/s, equivalent to 46% of the headline speed.

1.7 The average download speed received for 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s DSL packages was 6.5Mbit/s while for 'up to' 8/10Mbit/s DSL services it was 3.3Mbit/s. For 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable services the average download speed received was 15.7Mbit/s, and for 'up to' 10Mbit/s cable services it was 8.7Mbit/s.

1.8 Very few DSL broadband customers achieved average actual download speeds close to advertised 'up to' speeds. Just 13% of customers on 'up to' 8 or 10Mbit/s services received average download speeds of over 6Mbit/s, while half (50%) received average download speeds of 3Mbit/s or less. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of customers on 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s DSL packages received average download speeds of 8Mbit/s or lower, while only 2% received average download speeds of more than 14Mbit/s. Virgin Media cable customers typically received speeds which were much closer to advertised speeds, with almost 90% of those on 'up to'10Mbit/s receiving average speeds of over 8Mbit/s, and 80% of those on 'up to' 20Mbit/s services receiving average speeds of over 14Mbit/s.

Cable broadband was significantly faster than DSL broadband services

1.9 Virgin Media's 'up to' 10Mbit/s and 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable packages delivered average download speeds around twice as fast as equivalent DSL packages. While much of this is due to degradation of DSL speeds over longer lines, cable services were still significantly faster when we compared them with DSL services of customers within 2km of the local exchange.

1.10 The fastest speed service we tested was Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s service, which delivered average download speeds of around 34-36Mbit/s on 'single-thread' tests (when one file is downloaded) and around 45-47Mbit/s on 'multi-thread' tests (when three files are downloaded simultaneously). In later rounds of this research we are also aiming to test BT's fibre-based broadband service (BT Infinity) which offers advertised speeds of 'up to' 40Mbit/s.

Download speeds fell during peak times but by more for some ISPs than others

1.11 Average download speeds typically slowed down during peak periods as a result of capacity constraints on ISPs' networks (caused by simultaneous users sharing the same bandwidth). Average download speeds during the peak weekday hours of between 8pm and 10pm were 90% of average speeds throughout the day, and 75% of the average maximum download speeds received at any point during the day. Our results showed, however, that some ISP packages suffered greater slowdowns in the peak period of 8-10pm on weekdays, indicating differing levels of contention in the relevant ISPs' networks.

1.12 Among the 'up to' 8 or 10Mbit/s services, O2, Sky and TalkTalk's services were all significantly faster than Orange's service during peak hours, and they also showed little or no slowdown during peak hours, indicating lower levels of contention. Although Virgin Media's 10Mbit/s cable service remained significantly faster than DSL services during peak hours, there was a significantly greater slowdown during the peak hours than for some DSL providers.

1.13 Among the 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s services, O2, Sky and TalkTalk's services were significantly faster than BT Retail's services during peak hours, and again showed little or no slowdown during peak hours, indicating lower levels of contention. Although Virgin Media's 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable service delivered significantly faster speeds than equivalent DSL services during peak hours, it did show a significantly greater slowdown compared with off-peak times compared to some DSL providers.

Measures other than download speed also determine broadband performance

1.14 While we consider that download speed is the most important single metric in determining broadband performance, we also tested other performance metrics which determine the overall performance of a broadband connection. These included upload speeds (the time taken to send information over a broadband connection), latency (the time it takes a single packet of data to travel from a user's PC to a third-party server and back again), packet loss (the loss of data packages during transmission over an internet connection) and jitter (a measure of the stability of a connection).

1.15 Overall, we found that all ISP packages delivered on average a level of performance on these metrics which was satisfactory for most types of internet use.

However, there were some differences between ISPs, most notably:

  • O2/Be offered faster upload speeds than comparable services from other DSL operators and Virgin Media's cable services
  • Virgin Media's 'up to' 10 and 'up to' 20Mbit/s services averaged higher jitter rates than comparable DSL services. Jitter is is particularly important for gaming and VoIP (however it should be noted that the average performance of Virgin Media was sufficient not to have a detrimental effect on the user experience).

Conclusion and next steps

1.16 This research report is a representative snapshot of the current state of residential broadband performance in May 2010, and we have noted the limitations of the research. The broadband market is changing rapidly as operators are continuing to invest in their networks in order to make faster broadband available. Therefore, the results set out in this report will not necessarily reflect the future performance of networks and providers. This research phase is continuing until April 2012, and we plan on publishing updates around every six months, with the next report scheduled for publication in January 2011. We have also separately commissioned research into mobile broadband performance, with data collection due to take place in autumn 2010 and a report scheduled for publication in early 2011.

1.17 While the results of our research do show some improvements in average broadband speeds since we last undertook the research in April 2009, it is clear that for many consumers current generation broadband is unable to deliver the faster speeds that would allow the use of high-bandwidth services such as internet TV, or connect multiple devices to the internet. Most broadband customers still get their service over copper lines which were originally designed for phone services and which have been stretched to the very edge of their capability in order to provide broadband. It is estimated that around 2.75million households, are currently incapable of receiving a minimum speed of 2Mbit/s which the Government has targeted as part of its universal service commitment . As well as working with the Government on achieving this target and ensuring that consumers are fully informed about the capabilities of different broadband services, Ofcom has also put in place a clear regulatory framework for superfast broadband which has allowed investment in next generation broadband services to begin.

1.18 The research results underline the importance of consumers getting clear, accurate and consistent information on speeds, including the maximum speeds that consumers' individual lines are capable of receiving (access line speeds). We have therefore introduced a strengthened Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds with the co-operation and agreement of ISPs. The new, strengthened Code ensures that consumers are given the clearest possible information on access line speeds at point of sale. It also ensures that consumers' speed-related problems will be resolved by their ISP if possible and if this is not possible then consumers whose speed is significantly less than expected will have the ability to leave their provider within three months of the start of their contract. We have published a list of signatories to the new Code on our website.

1.19 Another implication of our research is that many consumers could take relatively simple steps (such as fitting an iPlate or microfilters) to improve their broadband performance. To help them do this, we have published a new consumer guide and video on our website which update the guides we originally published last year. Consumers should also be able to find additional help and assistance on boosting speeds from their ISP.