What you need to know about broadband speed


We all know how annoying it is when a film that you're watching suddenly stops or your video game is lagging because there's not enough bandwidth to keep up with the download or data transfer. In this article we look at all the various things that may be affecting the broadband performance within your home.

Ofcom figures from 2016 show that 44% of UK households enjoy Superfast broadband with speeds of 30M/bits or more and 8% of households receive Ultrafast broadband speeds of 100M/bits or more. But 29% of households receive 10M/bits or less, 10M/bits is the minimum speed that is required to fulfil the basic needs of a household as laid down by Ofcom.

So what's affecting your broadband speed ?

What broadband speed can I get ?

The broadband speed that you can get to your property depends on a number of things; what's happening in your own property, the underlying telephony infrastructure in your area, the distance that your property is from your local telephone exchange and how densely populated the area is that you live in.

We've created a list of items to check in order of priority;

  1. The number of people using broadband in your house, your local cabinet and your local exchange
  2. The telephony equipment in your house
  3. The quality of the WiFi connection within your home
  4. The quality of the line from your house to your local cabinet
  5. The distance of your house from the local cabinet
  6. The distance of your house from the local cabinet and from the local telephone exchange
  7. Whether your broadband connection is being used for uploading or downloading data
  8. The actual capacity enabled at the exchange for your telephone number

Let's start by looking at your own property and how many people are sharing the broadband connection and how that connection is being used. Browsing the web, checking email, watching Youtube, live streaming or downloading TV programmes from Sky, BBC iPlayer, Netflix or Amazon, background refreshing of mobile apps plus data transfer from internet connected devices such as Amazon's Alexa, Google Home, printers etc all take up your broadband bandwidth.

1. The number of people using broadband in your house, your local cabinet and your local exchange.

If you live alone or as a couple your broadband usage is likely to be a lot less than a family with a couple of teenagers, simultaneously watching Youtube, playing online video games and streaming live music, never mind the parents who may be trying to work remotely or watch a film on Netflix.

If you are finding that your broadband is slow in a heavy usage household think about who is doing what and when, and whether you can ease the load by only doing certain activities at specific times.

The number and type of users in your immediate area can also affect the broadband speed that you receive, which is why at peak times, generally 8pm - 10pm you may experience slower speeds. This is because the connection between your local cabinet and the local exchange does not have infinite bandwidth and this bandwidth is shared out across all the users in your area.

In the same way, if there is a large number of heavy users connected to your local exchange then the bandwidth on the connection to the backhaul network and out into the internet has to be shared across all the users.

If you work at home during the day in an area where most people go out to work then you may well experience greater broadband speeds than at other times.

2. The telephony equipment in your house.

What about the equipment in your property that handles the broadband connection ? Check that you have the latest router as an older router may not be making the most of the broadband speed available. Also check that your broadband router is connected to the master socket ie. the socket that brings the telephone line into your house. This is because connecting a router to a slave socket, a telephone extension socket, can reduce the broadband speed significantly.

Next check that the master socket and any slave sockets are fitted with micro filters or that the master socket has this capability built-in. The micro filter splits out the data and voice traffic across your connection so that they don't interfere with each other.

You always get faster speeds when your device is connected via a cable rather than WiFi, so if you are streaming a lot of TV programmes or playing online video games then consider connecting the TV, computer or games console to the router via a cable rather than relying on WiFi. Make sure that the cable that you use is high quality CAT 5 Ethernet cable, such as this Belkin cable or check what your broadband provider recommends. Broadband speed decreases over distance so make sure when connecting via a cable that the device is not too far away from the router.

3. The quality of the WiFi connection within your home

If you are using WiFi around your home check that the WiFi hub - usually integrated with the router from your broadband provider is running the 802.11ac protocol. To benefit from the best WiFi speeds you'll also need to make sure that your other WiFi enabled devices are also running 802.11ac. There's quite a lot more to optimising WiFi speed in your home and if you want to read a more in-depth article we'll be creating one soon.

4. The connection from your house to the cabinet also affects your broadband speed.

The usual way that a broadband connection is delivered to your home is via a local cabinet, you may have seen one in your vicinity - they're normally grey or green. Each cabinet serves several hundred properties. It's this connection that can impact your broadband speed the most.

Almost all the broadband providers in the UK use the same physical network which is built and maintained by Openreach, a BT company. Some broadband providers such as Sky and Talk Talk have installed their own equipment at the exchange allowing them to offer differentiated services. There are a few exceptions to this; Virgin Media own and operate a cable network in the UK and they connect to properties using a coaxial cable. Smaller providers such as Gigaclear and hyperoptic provide fibre to the property.

But most connections from the cabinet to homes in the UK use a copper cable, only 3% of properties have a fibre connection directly to the home. This is known as FTTH, Fibre-to-the-Home or sometimes FTTP, Fibre-to-the-Property.

5. The quality of the line from your local cabinet to the telephone exchange.

The local cabinet is connected to a local exchange, most cabinets are now connected to the exchange via fibre, known as FTTC meaning that at least 90% of UK premises can enjoy Superfast broadband speeds of upto 30Mbs.

6. The distance of your house from the local cabinet and from the local telephone exchange.

How far away your house is from the local cabinet and the local telephone exchange can also affect your broadband speed. Signal attenuation means that the further a signal travels from its source the weaker the signal becomes. Signals travelling over long distances can also be susceptible to 'noise' from other cables and technology which interfere with the signal and cause packets to be lost, ultimately slowing the speed of your broadband.

7. Whether your broadband connection is being used for uploading or downloading data.

Most broadband connections are configured to provide more download bandwidth than upload, known as an asynchronous connection. Without getting too technical about data transfer, whenever you download something like a film, some data is downloaded then a small amount of data is sent back as an acknowledgement so that the download knows to continue. But if you're uploading a file to the cloud or a photo to social media, then your download can be slowed down as the acknowledgement data competes with your file upload. Your upload speed is generally only 10% of your download, which is why it doesn't take much uploading to slow everything down.

It's also worth thinking about how many Internet connected devices you have in your home, such as smart speakers, printers and smart sockets as these devices are constantly uploading data to stay in contact with their Internet based servers. Cloud based apps such as Google Drive and Dropbox also use the upload bandwidth to stay synced across devices.

8. The actual capacity enabled at the exchange for your telephone number.

Even though your exchange may have been upgraded to provide FTTC fibre-to-the-cabinet and superfast broadband speeds, there may not be enough capacity to support all households in your area. So there's often a first mover advantage if higher speeds for your area are advertised by your broadband provider.

What is a good broadband speed?

Standard broadband that uses ADSL2 technology can deliver speeds of upto 17Mb, but you may find that your broadband runs slower than this especially at peak times. These speeds may still be good enough if you're just occasionally checking email, posting on social media, browsing the web and watching the odd bit of iPlayer or streaming a film. Remember Ofcom state that 10Mb is the minimum speed required to participate fully in today's digital society. However if you're sharing the broadband with your family or rest of the household then you're likely to benefit from a Superfast connection. If there is constantly a huge amount of online activity in your home then go for the fastest connection that you can afford, conversely if you live alone, don't overpay for speed that you may not need.

What broadband speed can I get in my area?

Most broadband providers ask for your postcode so that they can determine what technology is available in your area and therefore what broadband speed you can get.

According to Ofcom's 2016 figures superfast broadband is available to around 92% of UK households but only around half currently subscribe to a superfast service, so it's worth checking to see if higher speeds are available in your area.

If you live in a rural area, then the fixed network may not have been upgraded or your local exchange may only support a few connections at higher speeds. But there are some specialist providers delivering fibre to the home such Gigaclear and hyperoptic so check out what they have to offer in your area. For very rural spots there are also some high speed wireless connections to deliver broadband from providers such as Rural Broadband.

As we've discussed in this article there are many things that answer the question 'What broadband speed can I get ?', some within your control but many in the control of the broadband providers and their technology. If you're finding that the broadband performance in your home is usually slow and frustrating, then analyse what activities you're doing, whether you want your broadband, telephone and TV services wrapped up in the same bundle and then take some time to read through the various offers from different broadband providers to find out what best matches your needs.