Average broadband speed is still less than half advertised speed

02 March 2011

  • Average UK broadband speed is 6.2Mbit/s, average advertised speed is 13.8Mbit/s
  • Cable and fibre services fastest and closer to advertised speeds
  • Ofcom sets out its view on broadband speeds advertising

Average download speeds remain less than half of 'up to' speeds advertised by some Internet Service Providers (ISPs), particularly for current generation copper-based ADSL services, new Ofcom research reveals.

The research shows that the average broadband speed increased from 5.2Mbit/s (May 2010) to 6.2Mbit/s (November/December 2010)* but was less than half (45 per cent) of the average advertised broadband speed of 13.8Mbit/s.

The findings come as Ofcom submits its response to the current Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee for Advertising Practice (BCAP) consultation on broadband speeds advertising.

Ofcom is recommending that if speeds are used in broadband advertising they should be based on a Typical Speeds Range (TSR), so consumers have a clearer idea of what speeds to expect. Ofcom also recommends that the TSR must have at least equal prominence to any maximum 'up to' speed, and that a maximum speed must be used only if it is actually achievable in practice by a material number of consumers. Ofcom is also setting out what the TSR might be for each technology used to provide fixed-line broadband.

Differences between technologies

Next-generation superfast broadband services - available to a growing number of households - were significantly faster than current generation services. Broadband services delivered by fibre-to-the-cabinet were measured for the first time and, along with cable services, delivered faster average speeds much closer to advertised speeds than was the case for current-generation broadband technologies.

The research looked at 11 packages provided by the seven largest ISPs in the market, representing over 90 per cent of residential broadband subscribers in the UK. Over 18 million separate service performance tests were carried out in over 1,700 homes during November and December 2010.

*Caution: Small sample size (<50)
** Results should be treated with some caution as normalisation may not be as effective for O2/Be due to the lower incidence of panellists with longer than average line lengths

These ranges reflect the speeds that would be achieved 95 times out of 100 if the exercise was repeated with different panellists. If the range of two operators overlap, then these operators offer comparable performance. They are not a description of the range of speeds actually measured.

BT Infinity experienced a fault during three days of the testing period when all panellists had their speeds capped at a maximum of 2Mbit/s during the weekday evening periods of 6pm-12am. The results collected during this period are: 24 hours - 29.4 to 27.7Mbit/s, 8-10pm weekdays - 24.3 to 27.8Mbit/s.

Copper-based ADSL services

[Digital technology that allows the use of a standard copper telephone line to provide high speed data communications]

The research showed that speeds for ADSL services over copper lines varied widely and were typically much lower than advertised speeds.

  • The average download speed received for 'up to' 20/24Mbit/s DSL packages was 6.2Mbit/s (29 per cent of average advertised 'up to' speeds). For 'up to' 8Mbit/s DSL services, it was 3.4Mbit/s (42 per cent of average advertised 'up to' speeds).
  • Very few ADSL broadband customers achieved average actual download speeds close to advertised 'up to' speeds. Just three per cent of customers on 'up to' 20 or 24Mbit/s DSL services received average download speeds of over 16Mbit/s, while 69 per cent received average download speeds of 8Mbit/s or less.

Fibre-to-the-cabinet services

[Fibre-to-the-cabinet uses high speed VDSL technology. Data is transmitted via a fibre optic cable to the street cabinet. It then uses standard copper telephone wire from the cabinet to customers' homes]

  • BT's Infinity service, tested for the first time and currently available to 15 per cent of the population, also performed better than ADSL services. Average download speeds were 31.1Mbit/s, 78 per cent of the advertised speeds.

Cable services

[Cable uses DOCIS technology. Data is transmitted via a fibre optic cable to the street cabinet. It then uses coaxial cables from the cabinet to customers' homes]

  • Virgin Media's cable services, available to 48 per cent of the population, delivered average download speeds that were much closer to advertised 'up to' speeds than ADSL services, delivering between 90 and 96 per cent of the advertised speeds. Virgin Media's highest speed 50Mbit/s package delivered an average download speed of around 46Mbit/s.

BT Infinity service delivers better upload speeds than other packages

Download speed is typically the most common way of comparing broadband performance. However, upload speeds are also important, particularly for users that send large files, such as uploading videos and high quality photographs. The research shows that BT's Infinity services delivered average upload speeds of around 8Mbit/s - significantly higher than any other service measured in the research. Virgin Media's 'up to' 50Mbit/s service delivered average upload speeds of around 2.5Mbit/s while all other ISP packages delivered average upload speeds of less than 1.5Mbit/s.

Advertising broadband speeds

Ofcom believes that a change in how broadband services are advertised is necessary to ensure that consumers can compare services effectively.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has responsibility for advertising in the UK and last year asked the CAP and BCAP (the committees which write the Advertising Codes) to conduct a review of advertising practices in the area. Their objective is to issue new guidance to the industry.

Ofcom is submitting its response to the CAP/BCAP consultation, published in January 2011, alongside this research report.

To inform its response, Ofcom conducted qualitative research, which indicated that consumers would welcome more information on broadband speeds to allow them to make effective and informed choices.

Ofcom recommends that:

  • a TSR representing the range of speeds actually achieved by at least half of customers (around the median) should be used when using speeds in broadband advertising;
  • if a maximum 'up to' speed is used in an advert, then the TSR must have at least equal prominence. The theoretical maximum 'up to' speed stated must also be a speed actually achievable by a material number of customers;
  • advertisers should include a qualification alerting consumers that they can confirm the likely speed that they will receive when buying their service, and, where it is the case, must also explain in the body of the advert that actual speeds depend on line quality and distance from the exchange; and
  • any reference to broadband speed in advertising (for example, words such as "fast", "super-fast" or "lightning") must be accompanied by a TSR, which should have at least equal prominence to these words.

Typical speed range by technology

Ofcom has also responded to the CAP/BCAP consultation on the use of the term 'unlimited' in broadband advertising. Ofcom recommends that this term only be used when a service has no usage caps implemented through a fair usage policy.

The response to the CAP/BCAP consultation on broadband speeds advertising can be found here.

Voluntary Broadband Speeds Code of Practice

The new, strengthened Code of Practice comes into force in July 2011. ISPs who have signed up to the Code have committed to explain to new customers the access line speed they are likely to achieve at home, and to try to resolve problems for those customers whose access line speed is significantly below the estimate provided. If the problem cannot be resolved, then customers will be able to leave their provider within the first three months of their contract without penalty.

Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said: "It is encouraging that new technologies are being rolled out across the UK and faster speeds are being achieved. However, the research shows that ISPs need to do more to ensure they are giving customers clear and accurate information about the services they provide and the factors that may affect the actual speeds customers will receive.

"It is important that the rules around broadband advertising change so that consumers are able to make more informed decisions based on the adverts they see, and that advertisers are able to communicate more clearly how their products compare to others in the market."

The full research can be found here.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. * The majority of this increase was due to a change in methodology designed to be more representative of the way in which data is downloaded by consumers.

2. Advice for consumers on improving broadband speeds can be found at: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/telecoms-research/broadband-speeds/speeds/.

3. The research collects performance data from a volunteer panel who connect broadband monitoring equipment to their routers. 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 and BT Infinity's 'up to' 40Mbit/s service). Ofcom is keen to 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.

4. Details on the technical and statistical methodologies are available as annexes to the report.

5. The research was conducted in partnership with broadband monitoring specialists SamKnows. For more details, visit www.samknows.com.

6. 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).