Broadband speed

An explanation of why broadband speed matters and how to get the right package for your needs.

Broadband has now largely displaced dial-up in the UK as the method of connecting to the internet as it offers many advantages, including faster speeds for downloading and uploading.

This means that you can enjoy a much richer, more interactive internet experience.

Examples of downloading include:

Broadband speed is measured in kilobits per second (Kbps) and megabits per second (Mbps)
  • Viewing web pages
  • Reading and sending emails
  • Music downloads
  • Video clip downloads
  • Watching TV programmes
  • Online gaming

Examples of uploading include:

  • Sharing photos on social networking sites
  • Sharing videos on YouTube or similar sites

Broadband speed is measured in kilobits per second (Kbps) and megabits per second (Mbps). The higher the number of bits you're able to download per second, the faster the connection.

The typical download speed for a dial-up connection is 56Kbps, while broadband speeds in the UK can be over 30Mbps.Laptop

Broadband packages with faster download speeds normally cost more, and the speed that's right for you will largely depend on the type of internet user you are.

Always remember that the speed advertised is the maximum you could get - in reality it may be considerably slower. Distance from the exchange and contention rates (the number of users sharing a connection) are just two of the factors that could affect actual speeds.

What broadband speed do I need?

Just because super-fast broadband speeds are available it doesn't mean that you need them. To help decide what package is right for you, consider this theoretical breakdown of some typical internet usage types:

A heavy user spends over 20 hours a week online, or there may be several members of the household using the connection

Light usage

A light user spends less than 10 hours online in a week and typically uses the internet for surfing, emailing and uploading a small number of photographs.

A low-cap usage should be sufficient as such a person would be unlikely to reach these limits and download speeds would be of little importance. The very cheapest broadband deals may well be suitable for the needs of such a person.

Medium usage

A medium user normally uses the internet for a few hours every day, or there may be several members of the household using the connection. Typical usage includes surfing, emailing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling, visiting social networks, uploading photographs and video clips, plus regularly downloading music and video files and playing online games.

A moderate download limit should be sufficient for the needs of such a person, and most broadband providers offer a suitable middling package.Broadband

Heavy usage

This could be classified as using the internet for five hours or more each day, and/or if there are other members of the household who also use the internet heavily.

Typical usage would include surfing, emailing, VoIP calling, visiting social networks, uploading photographs, and video clips plus frequently downloading music, films, video files and playing online games, particularly with multi-player sessions. Using streaming websites to watch films and television would also fall into this sort of category.

An unlimited download limit or a usage cap tailored for a heavy user would probably be suitable in this sort of case to allow, for example, for the speedy download of films and music and to avoid buffering.

Broadband data allowance

As well as speed, when choosing an appropriate service you'll also have to think about how much content you download from the internet. You can choose from capped services with a set limit or unlimited services.

The advertised speed is likely to be the maximum speed - and this is unlikely to be the actual speed that you get

Download cap

A download cap - also known as a download limit or restriction - is the maximum usage permitted by your broadband provider over a set period, usually a month. This is ideal for those who don't download frequently.

If you reach or exceed your limit, your provider may charge you extra for any further downloads. If you consistently go over your data allowance you may want to consider swapping to a different or unlimited pacakge. This will probably be more expensive, but not when compared to the amount you may be paying in added charges.

Unlimited broadband

Most broadband providers offer unlimited downloading but remember that, in reality, unlimited plans are still subject to fair usage policies and will usually incur restrictions on access for users who are well over the average download limit.

While these restrictions are unlikely to affect the average user, they may hamper users who consistently download large files.

What affects broadband speed?

It's very unlikely that you'll actually receive the speed of broadband advertised as part of your package. This can be very frustrating, especially when you're paying a premium for faster internet.Mobile phones

To find out your internet speed, simply do a broadband speed test. The factors that could mean you're not getting the maximum advertised speed include:

Distance from the exchange

Distance from the exchange will affect broadband delivered through a phone line (ADSL) and this can be a major determining factor. The closer you are to a telephone exchange, the faster your broadband connection can be.

Exchange contention ratio

If your telephone exchange is busy or is being used for a number of large downloads, you may find your broadband speed is compromised.

Number of connections in your home

The speed of your service will depend on how many people are using your internet connection at any one time. If your household has multiple users on multiple devices, from laptops to mobile phones to tablets, your speed could be slower.

Time of the day

Download speeds slow down during peak internet times, usually between 18:00-23:00.

If you have an older modem or cables there may be a limit on what speed of upload you can receive

Weather

Rain, wind and extreme weather conditions can affect both your speed and connection.

Quality of cables/modem

If you have an older modem or cables there may be a limit on what speed of upload you can receive. When you update your broadband or switch suppliers, many providers will update your hardware as part of their package. If they don't do this as a matter of course, it may be worth your while asking.

Disconnections

If your broadband has been recently disconnected then this could affect your broadband speed. Reconnect to resynchronise your connection with your provider.

Viruses/Spyware/adware

These will not just slow down your internet but your browsing device in general, and may well compromise your online security.

By Emily Bater