UK fixed broadband speeds, November/December 2010

Research published 02|03|11

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 This is the fourth report into fixed-line broadband speeds that Ofcom has published using data collected by research partner SamKnows Limited (SamKnows). It sets out the findings from data collected during the period 1 November 2010 to 15 December 2010, during which 765 million tests were run across a panel of 1,710 UK residential broadband users. 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.

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 increased during 2010

1.5 Our results show that in November/December 2010 average actual broadband speeds in the UK were 6.2Mbit/s based on multi-thread testing . We do not have time-series data for multi-thread tests, but single-thread test data suggests that average download speeds in the UK increased by 5% between May and November/December 2010, this following an increase of 27% between April 2009 and May 2010.

1.6 This increase in average speeds is the result of consumers increasingly moving to faster broadband services: 42% of UK broadband connections had a headline speed above 10Mbit/s in November/December 2010, compared to 24% in May 2010 and 8% in April 2010.

Speeds for ADSL services varied widely and were typically much lower than advertised speeds

1.7 The theoretical 'up to' speed of broadband services continues to feature in many broadband advertisements. This is despite the fact that various constraints on broadband performance (including distance from the 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 advertised speeds which some ISPs continue to use: the average download speed for all UK residential connections of 6.2Mbit/s compares to an average advertised speed of 'up to' 13.8Mbit/s, equivalent to 45% of the advertised speed .

1.8 The average download speed received for 'up to' 20Mbit/s or 24Mbit/s ADSL packages was 6.2Mbit/s (29% of average advertised 'up to' speeds), while for 'up to' 8Mbit/s or 10Mbit/s ADSL services it was 3.4Mbit/s (42% of average advertised 'up to' speeds).

1.9 Very few ADSL broadband customers achieved average actual download speeds close to advertised 'up to' speeds. Just 14% of customers on 'up to' 20Mbit/s or 24Mbit/s ADSL services received average download speeds of over 12Mbit/s, while 58% received average download speeds of 6Mbit/s or less.

Cable and fibre services were faster than ADSL and much closer to advertised speeds

1.10 Virgin Media's 'up to' 10Mbit/s cable service delivered average speeds of 9.6Mbit/s, 96% of advertised 'up to' speeds and significantly faster than the average speeds delivered by ADSL services advertised at 'up to' 20Mbit/s or 24Mbit/s (Figure 1.1). Virgin Media's 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable service averaged 18.0Mbit/s (90% of advertised speeds) and its 'up to' 50Mbit/s service averaged 45.6Mbit/s (92% of the advertised 'up to' speed).

1.11 The roll-out of BT's 'up to' 40Mbit/s FTTC service (which is currently available to 15% of UK premises) meant that for the first time we were also able to include fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services within our research. We found that download speeds averaged 31.8Mbit/s (80% of the advertised 'up to' 40Mbit/s speed).

Figure 1.1 Summary of average download speed by ISP package, November/December 2010 (multi-thread tests)

Source: SamKnows measurement data for all panel members with a connection in November/ December 2010
*Caution: Small sample size (<50)
** Results should be treated with some caution as normalisation may not be as effective for O2/Be due to the lower incidence of panellists with longer than average line lengths
Panel Base: 1081
Notes: (1) Only includes ADSL customers within 5km of the exchange and in Geographic Markets 2 and 3 ; (2) Includes on-net customers only for LLU operators (3) Data for ADSL operators have been weighted to ISP regional coverage of LLU lines and distance from exchange; data for Virgin Media's cable service have been weighted to regional coverage only; (4) Data collected from multi-thread download speed tests; (5) The range shown represents a 95% confidence interval around the mean

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

1.12 Download speeds can fall during peak periods as a result of capacity constraints on ISPs' networks (caused by simultaneous users sharing the same bandwidth). We found that in November/December 2010, speeds measured using multi-thread tests during the peak weekday hours of 8 to 10pm (which on average were the hours in the week when speeds were slowest) were 93% of the maximum speeds delivered (typically during 'off-peak' hours such as 12am to 6am) and 95% of the average speeds delivered over a 24-hour period.

1.13 Our results showed, however, that some ISP packages suffered greater slowdowns in the peak period of 8 to 10pm on weekdays, indicating differing levels of contention in the relevant ISPs' networks. Among the 'up to' 8Mbit/s and 10Mbit/s ADSL packages, BT was significantly faster than Orange during the peak period.

1.14 Among the 20Mbit/s and 24Mbit/s ADSL packages, Sky suffered the least slowdown during peak periods, with average speeds in the period 8 to 10pm around 99% of those over a 24-hour period, and 94% of the maximum speed.

BT Infinity service delivers significantly better upload speeds than other packages

1.15 Download speed is typically the most important single metric in determining broadband performance and, along with price, continues to be the most important metric in the advertising of broadband. However, there are of course many other metrics that determine the overall performance of a broadband connection, and our research findings include a number of these: 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), the performance of ISP's DNS servers (which translate domain names into IP addresses) and jitter (a measure of the stability of a connection).

1.16 Upload speeds are particularly important for users looking to share large files, use real-time video communications and for some games. As use of such services has increased, so too has the focus on upload speeds, which has become more of a source of differentiation in recent months, with BT Infinity advertising upload speeds of 'up to' 10Mbit/s, and Virgin Media increasing the upload speeds associated with its cable services.

1.17 Our results showed that BT's 'up to' 40Mbit/s FTTC service delivered average upload speeds of 7.8Mbit/s, significantly higher than any other service we measured. Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s delivered average upload speeds of 2.8Mbit/s, with all other ISP packages delivering average upload speeds of less than half this.

Conclusion and next steps

1.18 This research report is a representative snapshot of the state of residential broadband performance in November/December 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. The research continues and we have also separately commissioned research into mobile broadband performance, with a report scheduled for publication in spring 2011.

1.19 The results of our research show continuing improvements in average broadband speeds. We also note that the highest speed cable services and fibre-to-the-cabinet services are consistently delivering speeds that are sufficient for virtually all applications likely to be used by residential broadband consumers.

1.20 Nevertheless, most broadband is still delivered via ADSL, 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. An inescapable characteristic of ADSL broadband is that performance is constrained by the length and quality of the copper line. Our research finds that for many consumers the speeds available to them via ADSL are not sufficient for a high-quality experience of high-bandwidth services such as internet TV, or for connecting multiple devices to the internet.

1.21 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). In this context in July 2010 we introduced a strengthened Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds with the co-operation and agreement of ISPs.

1.22 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, consumers whose speed is significantly less than expected will have be permitted to leave their provider without penalty within three months of the start of their contract. The new Code comes into force in July 2011 and we have published a list of signatories to it on our website .

1.23 In addition to the protection offered to consumers by the Code, it is our view that when speeds are used in broadband advertising they should reflect the actual speeds that consumers receive. It is our view that a change in the rules around advertising is necessary in order to better promote speed-based competition between providers and ensure that consumers can effectively compare the services available to them.

1.24 The Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) has responsibility for broadband advertising and in May 2010 it asked the Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee for Advertising Practice (BCAP) to conduct a separate review of the advice provided to ISPs on advertising practices. We have contributed to this review, which includes a public consultation into the use of speed claims in advertising. This consultation closed on 25 February 2011, and we have published our response to the consultation alongside this research report. In summary, we make the following recommendations:

  • that if speed is used in advertising it must include a 'Typical Speed Range' (TSR), which should be based on average actual speeds that the 25th to 75th percentile of customers receive (i.e. the inter-quartile range);
  • that this TSR must have at least equal prominence to any 'up to' claims made;
  • that if an 'up to' speed is used it must represent the actual speed that a materially significant proportion of customers are capable of receiving; and
  • that any TSR or 'up to' speed used must be based on statistically robust analysis of connection data, with the data and methodology available for scrutiny.

1.25 Figure 1.2 shows Ofcom's estimates of the TSR by technology and headline speed based on data collected in November/December 2010.

Figure 1.2 Estimated typical speed ranges (25th to 75th percentile), by technology and headline speed

Source: Ofcom / operator data / SamKnows measurement data for all panel members with a connection in November/December 2010
Note: Figures are rounded to the nearest Mbit/s