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Should I get the fastest broadband speed available?

Blisteringly fast broadband may be tempting, but do you really need to shell out for superfast internet?

Key points

  • The higher the Mbps, the faster your internet will be
  • Advertised speeds aren't always the same as actual speeds, so measure your broadband speed to find out whether it's good value for money
  • Gaming and streaming can require fast broadband to avoid irksome slow loading times

From social media to streaming, the internet has become a huge part of our daily lives. Home broadband is therefore a necessity, especially if you want to avoid overspending by using more than your monthly mobile data allowance on your phone or tablet.

One of the main things to consider when choosing your broadband is speed. Although faster speeds are appealing, you'll need to consider whether the more expensive prices associated with superfast broadband are worth shelling out for.

How is broadband speed measured?

Broadband speed is measured using megabits per second, or Mbps. A megabit consists of one million bits. That means if your broadband is running with a download speed of 3Mbps, you'll be able to download approximately 3 million bits of data per second.

It might sound like a lot, but 3Mbps would be considered practically sloth-like nowadays. The average UK home broadband speed was 28.9Mbps in 2015, according to Ofcom.

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In the olden days (just after the dinosaurs became extinct) 56k modems were used to get online and as the name would suggest, they delivered internet speeds of 56 Kbps.

Kilobits are much smaller than megabits: 1,000 bits, as opposed to one million. That's more than 500 times slower than today's average speed. Technology moves pretty fast, eh?

Uploading and downloading

Download speeds and upload speeds on your broadband are both measured in Mbps, but uploading is usually slower than downloading.

In other words, it'll take longer to upload your video clip than to watch someone else's on YouTube. Bad news for any budding vloggers out there...

Most internet service providers (ISPs) prioritise downloading over uploading. Whereas download speeds of 25Mbps and above are common, the average upload speed in the UK is 3.7Mbps, according to Ofcom.

If you're only uploading the odd photo, video or email attachment, this sort of speed should be sufficient. But if you know that you'll need to upload lots of large files on a regular basis, it's worth investing in a package that offers faster upload speeds.

Advertised speed versus actual speed

When shopping around for broadband, you're likely to encounter a variety of advertised speeds, ranging from 3Mbps to over 100Mbps.

Unfortunately there's no guarantee that you'll actually experience the speeds being advertised, thanks to a couple of innocuous-sounding words that most broadband companies sneak into their product descriptions: 'up to'.

Certain activities, such as online gaming or using streaming services like Netflix and BBC iPlayer, will benefit from a high speed connection

You could be paying for a home broadband package that promises speeds of 'up to 50 Mbps', but only ever experience paltry speeds of 5Mbps. It's infuriating, but surprisingly common.

Currently, broadband providers are allowed to advertise a top headline speed as long as 10% of their customers will receive it. Pretty poor, right?

However, in May, 2017,  the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) announced a consultation on upping the threshold to 50% in the future, making it fairer for customers.

copper and fibre optic cable speeds

One of the most common reasons for slower speeds than advertised is due to the type of broadband connection you have.

Fixed line broadband services, which use copper telephone wires to connect you to the web, are affected by the distance that a signal will have to travel along the wire in order to reach your house.

The further you live from your local telephone exchange, the slower your broadband will be.

Fibre optic connections claim to get around this problem by using faster wires, but they still use slow-speed copper wires to connect your home with the nearest broadband street cabinet.

So while you may be paying for lightning fast speeds from the telephone exchange to the cabinet, the last few metres between your house and the cabinet could slow things down considerably.

If this is a problem that affects you, then there's no point in paying for an advertised broadband speed that your home can't achieve due to its location.

Using a broadband speed checker will inform you of the speed that your home currently experiences.

If it's lower than the speed you're paying for, contact your ISP asking them why, and consider switching to a cheaper plan that offers you the same speed for less money.

Image of a woman looking at a tablet

What speed do you need?

Before you splurge on the fastest broadband speed available, consider what you actually use the internet for.

Certain activities, such as online gaming or using streaming services like Netflix and BBC iPlayer, will benefit from a high speed connection.

However, if you're a more casual internet user, you may be able to save money by choosing a cheaper broadband package that fulfils your online requirements.

Here are a few pointers on how many Mbps you'll need for different levels of internet use.

Light use

You won't need much speed if you only plan on using your broadband to check the odd email or browse basic web pages.

Activity like this was possible when we were all using dial-up, so a cheap broadband package will be able to handle it.

Any package offering speeds between 3Mbps to 10Mbps should be enough to satisfy your needs.

Medium use

If you're someone who uses social media, watches online videos and occasionally downloads large files, consider investing in a faster broadband package.

You don't need the most expensive service to comfortably accommodate these kinds of tasks, but slow broadband might struggle.

Between 10Mbps and 25Mbps should be fast enough.

Heavy use

Multiplayer gamer, livestreaming junkie or boxset binge-watcher?

You'll need superfast broadband to take care of these megabit-guzzling online activities.

While it's more expensive, the faster loading times will prevent you from encountering endless media buffering and laggy online gameplay.

You'll want at least 25Mbps, and may even consider upgrading to rapid speeds of 100Mbps or above.

By Matt Ayres