Ofcom research reveals increase in UK’s average actual broadband speed - But consumers still not achieving advertised speeds

27 July 2010

The UK's most comprehensive broadband speeds research reveals that the UK's average actual fixed-line residential broadband speed has increased by over 25 per cent over the past year from 4.1Mbit/s to 5.2Mbit/s as internet service providers ("ISPs") increasingly move to offer higher speed broadband packages.

Ofcom's broadband speeds research, conducted in partnership with broadband monitoring specialists SamKnows, shows that nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of UK fixed-line residential broadband connections had a headline or advertised speed of above ‘up to’ 10Mbit/s in May 2010, compared to just 8 per cent in April 2009.

However, the move to faster headline speeds has led to a growing gap between the actual speeds delivered and the speeds that some ISPs use to advertise their services. Differences between headline and actual speeds are often caused by broadband being delivered over copper lines which were originally designed for phone calls; hence speeds slow down over long and poor quality lines, and because of electrical interference.

Headline (Advertised) speedAverage actual speed
'Up to' 8/10Mbit/s DSL packages*3.3Mbit/s
'Up to' 20/24Mbit/s DSL packages6.5Mbit/s
'Up to' 10Mbit/s cable services8.7Mbit/s
'Up to' 20Mbit/s cable services15.7Mbit/s

In April 2009, average actual (or download) speeds were 4.1Mbit/s, 58 per cent of average advertised 'up to' speeds (7.1Mbit/s). In May 2010, average download speeds were 5.2Mbit/s, 45 per cent of average advertised 'up to' speeds (11.5Mbit/s).

ISP performance

The research found that cable broadband services delivered significantly faster actual (or download) speeds than comparable DSL services:

  • Virgin Media's 'up to' 10Mbit/s and 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable services delivered average download speeds around twice as fast as DSL packages with the same or similar headline speed (see table below).
  • Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s cable service was the fastest service tested, delivering average download speeds of around 36Mbit/s with single thread tests and around 46Mbit/s with multi-thread tests conducted between 4 and 6am. A single thread test involves downloading a single file, while a multi-thread test involves conducting three file downloads simultaneously, which is more typical of the way heavy internet users consume broadband.
The impact of the length and quality of a consumer's telephone line on DSL services led to wide variability in speeds received:
  • Of panellists on 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s DSL services, almost two thirds (65 per cent) had an average download speed of 8Mbit/s or lower, while only 2 per cent received average download speeds of more than 14Mbit/s. No DSL panellists on 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s received average download speeds of more than 18Mbit/s.
  • Of panellists  on 'up to' 20Mbit/s cable services, 80 per cent received average download speeds of more than 14Mbit/s and 4 per cent received average download speeds of 8Mbit/s or below, with 19 per cent receiving average download speeds of more than 18Mbit/s.
Actual speeds also slowed down in busy periods as heavier internet traffic leads to congestion on ISPs' networks:
  • The cable broadband service on average delivered higher download speeds at all times of the day than comparable DSL services, however it showed a greater slowdown during peak periods than some DSL providers.
Average download speed during May 2010 (Mbit/s)
ISP package24 hours(single thread)8-10pm weekdays(single thread)4-6am every day(multi-thread)
'Up to' 8/10Mbit/s packages
AOL Broadband 'up to' 8Mbit/s+3.6 to 4.73.4 to 4.44.0 to 5.2
BT 'up to' 8Mbit/s3.8 to 4.53.4 to 4.14.0 to 4.7
O2/Be 'up to' 8Mbit/s4.3 to 5.04.2 to 5.04.6 to 5.4
Orange 'up to'8Mbit/s+3.3 to 4.22.6 to 3.44.1 to 5.3
Plusnet 'up to' 8Mbit/s3.3 to 4.23.0 to 3.93.4 to 4.4
Sky 'up to' 10Mbit/s3.9 to 4.93.8 to 4.94.1 to 5.2
TalkTalk 'up to' 8Mbit/s3.6 to 4.33.4 to 4.13.8 to 4.7
Virgin Media 'up to' 10Mbit/s8.6 to 9.07.5 to 8.09.1 to 9.5
'Up to' 20/24 to 'up to' 50Mbit/s packages
BT 'up to' 20Mbit/s6.1 to 7.65.6 to 7.06.4 to 8.1
O2/Be 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s++8.1 to 9.77.9 to 9.48.9 to 10.8
Sky 'up to' 20Mbit/s7.0 to 8.66.9 to 8.57.5 to 9.3
TalkTalk 'up to' 24Mbit/s6.5 to 8.45.9 to 7.67.3 to 9.7
Virgin Media 'up to' 20Mbit/s15.2 to 16.513.4 to 14.917.4 to 19
Virgin Media 'up to' 50Mbit/s33.4 to 36.731.8 to 35.245.9 to 47.4

Ranges published above represent the margin of error in terms of the 95 per cent confidence interval around the mean (or average value) - see note 7; they do not represent the range of speeds delivered, which are much greater than the ranges shown above. All data refers to single-file download tests (average speeds are higher using multi-thread tests), except for 4-6am every day.

+ Caution small sample under 50.

++ Caution normalisation less effective due to low number of respondents with line lengths above 2km.

Strengthening the Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds

Ofcom has strengthened the Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds ("the Code") which it introduced in 2008. ISPs who sign up to the revised Code commit to give consumers a more accurate and consistent estimate of the maximum speed likely to be achievable on their line.  ISPs also commit to help consumers improve their speeds and give consumers the option to leave their contracts early without penalty (within three months of signing up to the service) if they receive a maximum line speed that is significantly below the estimate they are given at point of sale and the ISP is unable to resolve the problem.

The revised Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds can be found here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/telecoms/codes-of-practice/broadband-speeds-cop-2010/.

Advertising broadband speeds

Some ISPs have in the past year moved away from advertising their services on the basis of 'up to' headline speeds but others continue to do so.  Ofcom has discussed this issue with the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") and the Committee on Advertising Practice ("CAP") who are currently undertaking a review in this area.

Ofcom has made two suggestions to the ASA and CAP.  We have recommended that:

  • Speeds should only be advertised if at least some consumers are actually able to achieve the advertised speeds.
  • Those who advertise according to "up to" speeds, should also include a "typical speed range" (or TSR) based on a standard currency to be developed, similar to those in other industries (for example, APR in financial services, and MPG in motoring).

Advice for consumers on broadband speeds and services

Many consumers could take some relatively simple steps to improve their broadband performance. Ofcom provides advice for consumers on the factors to take into account when choosing a broadband provider and how to improve broadband speeds at home.

Ofcom’s updated consumer guides can be found here: http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/guides/.

Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive said: "Ofcom's research shows that average speeds have increased which is good news, but there is scope for a further step change in the quality of the UK communications infrastructure."

"Actual speeds are often much lower than many of the advertised speeds which makes it essential that consumers are given information which is as accurate as possible at the point of sale; this is what the new Code is designed to deliver."

"We are delighted that all major ISPs have signed up which is a major step forward."

The research

The research provides independent, robust data on the actual speeds that UK residential consumers are getting on average from the broadband services included in the research. Over 18 million separate service performance tests were carried out in over 1,500 homes during May 2010. 

The research sample allowed Ofcom to robustly compare the performance of those ISP packages with more than 250,000 residential connections (as well as Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s cable service, where the characteristics of its user base made it possible to recruit sufficient panellists). The research is continuing, and Ofcom is planning to publish a report every six months, with the next report scheduled for January 2011. We are keen to also include smaller providers in the future research, if feasible, and would note that while at present the research only includes the larger operators, there are many other smaller operators available, many of which may match or even better the performance of some of the packages in the report. The research collects performance data from a volunteer panel who have connected broadband monitoring equipment to their routers. Ofcom is looking for more volunteers to expand the research.

For further details, see: www.samknows.com.

The full research report, which includes a glossary of terms, can be found here: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/telecoms-research/broadband-speeds/broadband-speeds-2010/.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  • * Broadband is delivered to homes and businesses via a number of different technologies. Virgin Media's cable services are available to around 49 per cent of the UK population. Other providers use copper wires and Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), a digital technology that allows the use of a standard copper telephone line to provide high speed data communications.
  • In order to ensure like-for-like comparison, the ISP package comparison only includes on-net customers for local-loop unbundling (LLU) operators and Virgin Media and, for DSL packages, only includes panellists who are connected to a local telephone exchange which is within 5km and in which at least one LLU operator is present.
  • The Communications Act 2003 requires Ofcom to make arrangements to find out about consumers' experiences of electronic communications services, which includes broadband services, and the way they are provided (section 14). We do this by carrying out research into their experiences of these services. Subject to certain exceptions, we have a duty to publish the results of our research and to take account of it in carrying out our functions (section 15).
  • The Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds came into force on 5 December 2008: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/telecoms/codes-of-practice/broadband-speeds-cop/voluntary-codes-of-practice/.  Mystery shopping published on 29 March 2010 revealed among other things that ISPs were falling short in providing adequate broadband speeds information to consumers at point of sale, as required by the Code: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/telecoms/codes-of-practice/broadband-speeds-cop/voluntary-code/.
  • ISP packages with less than 250,000 residential connections across the UK were not included in the research due to insufficient sample sizes (with the exception of Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s cable package).
  • The ranges published above include the margin of error given in terms of the 95 per cent confidence interval of the mean. In statistical terms, if the research was carried out repeatedly then the results would fall within the expected range at least 95% of the time. The data was weighted to ensure that the results were representative of the population as a whole. The data includes only on-net customers for Virgin Media's cable services and for DSL operators who provide retail services via LLU (AOL Broadband, O2/Be, TalkTalk, Sky). The ISP package-specific results were adjusted to take into account the fact that panellists varied in terms of distance from the exchange, thereby allowing a consistent comparison.
  • At the end of 2009, there were 18.2 million residential and SME broadband internet connections in the UK, 8.3 million (119 per cent) more than at the end of 2005. Separate Ofcom research showed that 65 per cent of UK homes had a fixed broadband connection in Q1 2010, up from 31 per cent in Q1 2005. A further 6 per cent of households used a mobile broadband connection as their sole broadband connection in Q1 2010.
  • Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services.
  • For further information about Ofcom please visit: www.ofcom.org.uk. Ofcom's news releases can be found at: http://media.ofcom.org.uk.

CONTACT

Media & Corporate Relations Ofcom ofcomnews@ofcom.org.uk 0300 123 4000