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Ofcom Reveals True UK Broadband Speeds

Gordon Kelly


Ofcom Reveals True UK Broadband Speeds

This should be nice and controversial.

Ofcom has followed up its UK 3G coverage assessment with its own real world test of the country's broadband speeds. Determined to see just how much we are being short changed by supposedly faster 8-10Mbit packages the industry body trialled the nine largest ISPs.

To make its figures beyond reproach over 60 million separate performance tests were carried out in more than 1600 UK homes between November 2008 and April 2009. The results were staggering with Ofcom making the following conclusions:

  • The average broadband speed in the UK in April 2009 was 4.1 megabits per second (Mbit/s). This compares to an average 'up to' headline speed of 7.1 Mbit/s.

  • The actual speeds received varied widely. Fewer than one in ten (9 per cent) of our sample on 8Mbit/s headline packages received actual average speeds of over 6Mbit/s and around one in five (19 per cent) received, on average, less than 2Mbit/s.

  • Those living in urban areas received significantly faster speeds than those living in rural areas. The average speed delivered to urban consumers was 4.6Mbit/s, compared to an average of 3.3Mbit/s delivered to rural consumers.

  • Consumers with all ISPs experienced a slowdown in actual speeds during peak evening hours (8-10pm), with speeds in this period around 20 per cent slower than over a 24-hour period.
The breakdown per ISP (including margin of error) was as follows:

ISP and package - average speed

AOL ('up to' 8Mbit/s) - 3.3 to 3.9Mbit/s

BT ('up to' 8Mbit/s) - 3.8 to 4.2Mbit/s

O2 ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 4.1 to 5.1Mbit/s

Orange ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 3.8 to 4.5Mbit/s

Plusnet ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 3.8 to 4.9Mbit/s

Sky ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 4.0 to 4.7Mbit/s

TalkTalk ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 3.8 to 4.6Mbit/s

Tiscali ('up to' 8Mbit/s) 3.2 to 3.7Mbit/s

Virgin Media ('up to' 10Mbit/s) 8.1 to 8.7Mbit/s

Ultimately it's a pretty sorry sight with the notable exception far and away being Virgin Media with its minimum speed roughly double that of any of its rivals. If this doesn't show the benefits of cable over DSL at this moment in time then nothing will.

Funnily enough, despite these huge discrepancies, Ofcom found "the majority of consumers were happy with the speeds they received" with just 26 per cent admitting "the speed they received was not what they expected when they signed up to the service." all in all however, it's not really good enough, is it?


Ofcom Report


July 28, 2009, 8:15 pm

How did my little BE come out? D'you know? I never get their 'up to 13 meg' either, but like the average complacent consumer, I'm still pretty happy with their service.


July 28, 2009, 8:16 pm

granted, most people only use youtube, and think faster internet means that their web pages load faster, so they'd be happy as long as a website loads.

bring on HD streaming to the masses (iplayer), and then the masses will satrt to complain.


July 28, 2009, 8:25 pm

Virgin's cable service may be excellent - I wouldn't know, as like many people I can't get it (and no, I do not live on a farm in the middle of nowhere). So I just have to choose the best of a bad bunch.

I am amazed however that only 26% would admit to being disappointed. Presumably a lot of these people only use basic text-based websites? Certainly anyone hoping to download large files or stream media cannot be happy with the status quo... forget HD streaming when our ISPs think traffic shaping is an acceptable alternative to improving infrastructure.


July 28, 2009, 8:28 pm

I'd imagine that they come under O2 as they're owned by Telefonica.


July 28, 2009, 8:30 pm

I point blank can't stream high quality (not the HD) down my line despite living relatively close to the exchange and not being in a rural area. I was really hoping for 5mb/s connections atleast in the digital Britain report since it wouldn't cost significantly more than the initial investment, whilst reducing future upgrade costs that would be needed in the future.


July 28, 2009, 8:47 pm

Virgin may offer decent speeds but the management/capping policies are ridiculous. With streaming video/media the way it is at the moment I think most people would be happy with a 4-5MBits/s and I think the providers should be moving towards making unlimited downloads a reality instead of a marketing slogan right now (and no stupid network 'management' policies), then when HD content becomes even more prevalent work towards faster speeds.

Peter A

July 28, 2009, 8:47 pm

"just 26%". "Just"? Seriously? 1 in 4 people. That's customer satisfication that would make Pol Pot blush.


July 28, 2009, 9:00 pm

The CEO of Ofcom was on the BBC news this morning. It was a complete sham. The reporter asked "Is there any way a consumer can test their own individual connection speed?" and the CEO said that people should ask their own service providers! Talk about an opportunity missed! He should have told people to search for any one of a whole host of independent speed checking web hosted tools.

To make matters worse, on further questioning, it emerged that Ofcom are actually powerless to do anything about the situation, with the CEO blethering on about natural competition and consumer choice. Ofcom can't even intervene in the false marketing claims, as this is the jurisdiction of the ASA.


July 28, 2009, 9:06 pm

Like this was ever 'news'...customers have been complaining about this forever and a day!


July 28, 2009, 9:07 pm

I'm on Be Unlimited, "up to" 24Mbps, and I regularly use Speedtest to check the actual speed and it hovers around 8Mbps and has done for months (got 13 once but never since!). Gives me a nice round 1MB/s download rate so that's not too bad really. I don't think of it in a "but I'm supposed to get 24" and instead think of it as "I'm not paying more than others do for "up to 8" yet I *actually get* 8" so I'm happy. Still can't wait until fibre to exchange comes to Cambridge though as that 8 will hopefully jump!


July 28, 2009, 9:29 pm

I think monthly download limitations & so-called "fair usage" policies are more of an issue than bandwidth speeds. There's not much point having a 10 Mb connection if your monthly allowance is used up after an hour or so at that speed!

It might be worth mentioning to anyone getting low speeds over ADSL that fiiting an 'iPlate' to your phone socket can make a huge difference. In my case, I found my connect speed increased from 2.3 Mb up to 4.2 Mb...all for just a £10 investment! For those not aware of what an 'iPlate' is, for once it's nothing Apple can take credit for! It's just a plastic plate which fits over your primary phone socket, which filters out interference from your house's internal wiring. It's an easy DIY job, details of which can be found here: http://www.thinkbroadband.c...


July 28, 2009, 9:41 pm

Excellent point Gnormie. I would be fairly content with 4Mbps, if I always got 4Mbps and the download speeds that should entail. Instead I get terrible speeds during 'peak' times, and the iPlayer is not so much traffic-shaped as traffic-shafted.

Then there's the capping, specifically the capping which isn't supposed to happen. It amazes me that ISPs are still allowed to get away with "unlimited download" contracts saddled with "fair use policies" which are anything but fair. When my last ISP sent me a letter admonishing me for downloading too much, I asked them what they would consider a "fair" amount. They suggested 2Gb per month. Really.


July 28, 2009, 10:03 pm

I'm on the Virgin Cable 10Mbps service and I get about 9.8Mbps, so it's pretty much perfect (by which I mean it is perfectly in line with its advertised speed!). Now if only I could download at that rate for more than an hour. Downloading an HD movie on XBox Live takes all evening after the "traffic management" throttling has kicked in. I suppose it's meant to make me choose the Virgin TV service, but I won't break!


July 28, 2009, 10:10 pm

Presumably ISPs aren't on purpose this bad (well....) - what's the real cause? Sort of dodgy/old cabling? In the UK after hassling my ISP, for my 'upto 24Mbps' service I connect at 9Mbps - a marked improvement on the 4Mpbs I used to get. However, in Germany I subscribe to a 16Mbps service, my router connects always at 17100 and this is the real speed I get when downloading (from somewhere large, e.g. Microsoft). Admittedly it's not yet in so many cities but 50Mbps VDSL has also been available to me for a while....


July 28, 2009, 10:19 pm

@MrGodfrey: Well, you clearly have it worse than I do with Virgin. At least I'm only throttled after downloading 3.5GB in an evening, and only then for the next few hours. It would be hell to be capped after 2GB in a month! That's just absurd. They're essentially saying: "No movies, TV shows, software or W7RC for you!" Or, in other words, "We hate the 21st Century!"

James Reckitt

July 28, 2009, 10:43 pm

I'm on Karoo (Kingston Communications) on one of their old 512Kbps UNLIMITED packages. I would have 'upgraded' to one of their new 24Mbps ADSL2 packages, but the new package at my price point has a stupidly low 10GB monthly limit. The next step up costs a huge £30 a month, twice what I'm paying at the moment, with a 75GB limit which would be more than adequate, but is far to expensive.

Given that KC has a monopoly in my area, swapping to a BT line would cost hundreds in up-front investment, and isn't an option due to my location. It really does get up my nose when people (and Ofcom) are complaining about ONLY getting 4 or 5 Mbps download rates (for a similar cost) when I'm stuck on 512 Kbps (equivalent of around 60 KB/s with no cost effective way out!

m memmory

July 28, 2009, 10:47 pm

I'm on Virgin "up to 10Mbps" and generally get about 7-8Mbps so I'm fairly happy with that. However the traffic management is so annoying. I don't stream too often so the odd time I do I'm usually fine however recently download Win7 RC ... the first 65% took about 30-40 mins. The rest of the file about another 90mins!! Madness.


July 28, 2009, 11:00 pm

I really am starting to think its time for OFCOM to go


July 28, 2009, 11:23 pm

@DavidDB - funnily enough I was just thinking it's nice Ofcom finally became relevant.

Incidentally, I'm on Virgin 50Mbit and outside of peak hours I can get download speeds of up to 58MBit per second. During peak hours this is about 35-40MBps and given this package has no traffic management I'm happy with the £38pm premium I pay out.

Technology changes, and so sho

July 28, 2009, 11:43 pm

For heaven's sake.

I can see why people are surprised by this, but that's your problem stemming from your own misunderstanding of what's possible and the way it is sold, not the underlying technology.

'THEORETICALLY' it is possible to get UP TO xMb/s on any particular connection, but this is precisely the same as 3G operators claiming HSDPA performance UP TO 7.2Mb/s (or whatever): you'll practically NEVER see it in real life.

Then you have to factor in that this is the raw data rate and that overheads in the communication protocol (forward/backward error correction, encoding, headers, re-transmission if it's really bad, etc.) all reduce the actual throughput (HSDPA is roughly 80% of data rate, Wi-Fi is approximately 30-40% of data rate).

I'm amazed that rural rates are as high as they are what with the transmission lengths involved. Is there any data on the latency (ping times)?

So, what's the problem here? Are you being ripped off?


The problem is that high data rate transmission over long distance is inherently complicated, and if you don't understand it then you can't sell it or buy it in an informed manner.

I supposed the ISPs could advertise a much lower rate and then you'd have a jolly nice surprise when your rate exceeded it, but then you'd be in uproar that you could only buy packages 'up to' half of what was previously on offer.

The other option is to rip out the entire infrastructure and replace it with one that is more robust and faster.

That costs money, and LOTS of it. You lot still whine about mobile packages being expensive when the telcos are still paying off the 3G licence auction, and paying to upgrade the infrastructure too (and barely being able to keep pace with YOUR demands).

Oh yes, and even when the infrastructure is upgraded, you still have to take into account that many users will want to use the service at the same time, and the upstream bandwidth would have to be exponentially larger than the rate you get (which is unfeasibly expensive) and so you're still going to be subject to traffic management and throttling. This is the prime reason why the UK lags so badly compared to other European countries: are you telling me that France or Germany have anywhere near the population density?


July 29, 2009, 12:18 am

Well, I must be lucky then... I live in a very rural area, at least a mile from the village exchange, as the crow flies. I have, with some tinkering and some software to tune the noise margin, got the full 8 meg. - 90% of the time. Wet, cold weather seems to affect it! And, I have a wonderful ISP. They are small and give excellent customer service. I know them by name and they know me by name. Not a 'Smergin' customer care department to be seen. Dumped them long ago...

So the moral of this story? Do a little research on your router, software available and of course ISP's. I PAY for a decent service. - A case of you get what you pay for I suppose....


July 29, 2009, 2:06 am

I have the 24Mbps Be Unlimited service too, however, I live about about a kilometer from the exchange. I regularly get speeds of about 10mbs, fortunately I'm moving in a month 100 yards from the exchange.

Which is nice.


July 29, 2009, 2:14 am

Quite frankly, most of the UK population, doesn't know and doesn't care. My theoretical is 25mb (Be), however I get 5 maybe 6 on a good day. Any downloads I do are scheduled out of hours which is considerate. I think I'm unusual in that I download anything larger than an MP3. Techy's have the voice in this, but everyone else is probably more than happy (70+% judging by Ofcom's survey).

The Government is so concerned with faster broadband speeds, that they're forgetting that many people can't afford a computer, don't have the skills to use one, and if they did, wouldn't know what to do with all that speed.

I was taught patience as a child, maybe people should (re)learn that. Concentrate on getting broadband to the whole population, then worry about making sure people know what to do with it before harping on about speed.


July 29, 2009, 2:41 am

It's an interesting report, while some of the choices like only using light users are understandable, if limiting of the conclusions, others are more puzzling (gathering data for a smaller highly rated ISP for a comparison would have been useful) and some are downright bizzare (no efforts to investigate contract length in the survey).

Overall, I think we can say that the broadband network is looking rather healthy. With the maximum average speed being around 6.4Mbps after contention having the average average speed being around 4-4.5Mbps is pretty good. Of course, we still need a survey for heavier use to show how bad the throttling/traffic shaping is.

The people using it, on the other hand, definitely need better education. When 43% of people surveyed can't even tell you the speed they signed up to I'm not surprised some people are disappointed with what they get - a fair number obviously haven't understood the technology. Of those on Virgin 10Mbit/s only 53% were extremely or very satisfied with the speed they got. 'Somewhat Satisfied' isn't given explicitely but if it's similar to the 21% of over 8Mbps in general then that means 26% aren't satisfied with the speed of their virgin cable connection!


July 29, 2009, 3:58 am

The most important thing to come from this is that Virgin have come out smelling of roses. Now many more ISP's will sign up to the "Cap the crap outta them" mentalita.

Im on virgins 10mb line and its fast enough, for about an hour then slows to a crawl.

Cant even stream smoothly from the iplayer in HD when capped. Says it only needs 3-4 meg to do so. Im a media/gaming freak and every evening I can consume a gig easily so im capped often, I also share my line with flatmate.

Get ready for this capping on a line near you

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