UK experiences superfast broadband surge but challenges remain to address speed mismatches

15 April 2014

One in four UK residential fixed broadband connections is ‘superfast’, according to latest Ofcom research.

The proportion of superfast connections – those offering headline speeds of 30Mbit/s or more – has risen from 5% in November 2011 to 25% in November 2013.

And the average superfast connection speed has continued to rise, reaching 47.0Mbit/s by November 2013 – an increase of 47%, or 15.1Mbit/s since May 2010.

These are some of the findings from Ofcom’s tenth report measuring consumers’ actual broadband connection speeds, as opposed to headline advertised speeds. As well as looking at superfast broadband, the report considers ADSL broadband, which accounts for 69% of UK residential broadband connections.

Average UK broadband speed revealed

The report reveals that at 17.8Mbit/s, the average actual fixed-line residential broadband speed in the UK is almost five times faster than it was five years ago when Ofcom first began publishing the data (up from 3.6Mbit/s in November 2008). See graph below.

Differences across the country

While the growth in average speeds show that investment in broadband technology is delivering benefits for most consumers, the UK picture is uneven. A significant number of households especially those in rural areas, can experience considerably slower speeds.

Ofcom’s indicative analysis suggests that:

  • the average urban download speed in November 2013 was 31.9Mbit/s, a 21% increase since May 2013;
  • the average suburban download speed in November 2013 was 21.8Mbit/s, a 22% increase since May 2013.
  • The research also suggests that average speeds in rural areas increased from 9.9Mbit/s to 11.3Mbit/s between May and November 2013. The sizes of the rural samples from which these averages were taken, however, are not large enough for the change to be deemed statistically significant. As such, the figures should be treated as indicative only.

One key reason for the slower speeds in rural areas is the limited availability of superfast broadband services. In addition, broadband speeds over ADSL, a technology that uses the copper wire telephone network, are generally slower in rural areas because of the longer distances to the telephone exchange.

Problems with slower broadband speeds are not just confined to rural communities but can also affect urban areas. Ofcom will be publishing research into the important issue of urban broadband variability during the course of this year and seeking to explore with operators any barriers to roll out of higher speed services.

Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards said:

“The growth in superfast broadband and the rise in average speeds is testament to the investment in the sector. But the benefits are not shared evenly across the UK.  There is more work needed to deliver wider availability of broadband and superfast broadband, particularly in rural communities but also in some locations within cities to enable wider access to fast internet.”

Improving speeds in rural areas is a priority for the Government which has committed funding to ensure superfast broadband is more widely available across the UK. It has reported it is on course to reach 90% superfast coverage by early 2016 and recently announced an extra £250 million investment to extend superfast coverage to 95% of premises by 2017.

Fastest download and upload speeds over a 24 hour period

Of the ISP packages included in the report, Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 120Mbit/s service, which delivers broadband using cable technology, achieved the fastest download speeds over a 24 hour period, averaging 114.9Mbit/s.

This was followed by ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s fibre packages (which include BT, Plusnet, TalkTalk, Sky and EE). which delivered average download speeds of 64.8Mbit/s.

Ofcom’s research also examines upload speeds, which are particularly important to those consumers wishing to share large files or use real-time video communications. The research found that fibre connections with headline download speeds of ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s  delivered the fastest upload speeds at 17.4Mbit/s on average.

Average download speeds by ISP package

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

Measuring speeds at peak times

Ofcom’s report also looks at some aspects of broadband service reliability. Speeds can fall at peak times due to everyone trying to access the ISPs network simultaneously.

The research found that the extent to which speeds were maintained during peak periods (8pm to 10pm) varied significantly between providers. Average speeds delivered during peak times ranged from 86% to 96% of maximum speeds.

Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 120Mbit/s experienced the greatest variation between peak-time download speeds and maximum speeds. The average peak time speed for this type of connection was 108.8Mbit/s – 86% of the maximum speed (126.3Mbit/s).

Fibre connections were less affected by peak time contention. The peak time download speed on ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s fibre connections, for example, was 64.0Mbit/s – 96% of the maximum speed (66.7Mbit/s).

Advertising and promoting broadband speeds

In April 2012, guidance on the use of speed claims in broadband was introduced. This was produced by the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. The guidance states that advertised speed claims now have to be achievable by at least 10 per cent of the relevant ISP’s customer base. Many ISPs have since stopped promoting their services primarily on the basis of speed.

In July 2011, Ofcom introduced a strengthened voluntary broadband speeds code of practice to help ensure consumers are aware of the likely broadband speed they can get on their line from an ISP, before signing up to a service.

Last year, Ofcom conducted mystery shopping to check ISPs’ compliance with the code which found that, overall, it is working effectively.

Ofcom has, however, identified areas where the code might be strengthened further to better serve consumers and has discussed improvements with providers. Ofcom expects to publish a revised code of practice in the coming months.

Ofcom broadband speeds research

This is Ofcom’s tenth report into fixed-line residential broadband speeds using data collected by research partner SamKnows.

The research examined packages provided by the seven largest ISPs by subscriber numbers. There were 735 million separate test results recorded in 2,391 homes during November 2013.

The report is intended to help consumers understand the significant variations in the performance of ISP packages and, when considered alongside other factors such as price, to make more informed purchasing decisions.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. The research looked at packages provided by the seven largest ISPs by subscriber numbers. Consumers should note that there are many other services available, some of which may match or better the performance of some of the ISP packages included in this report.
  2. While some consumers are actively choosing to upgrade to superfast broadband packages to achieve higher speeds, many are benefitting from improved speeds as a result of internet service providers’ (ISPs’) network upgrades. In many cases, these upgrades are made at little or no additional cost to the consumer. Virgin Media completed its ‘double speeds’ programme in December 2013 which was a significant driver in the migration to higher speed packages and the overall increase in average speeds. BT recently reported that its fibre broadband network, over which it and other ISPs provide services, is available to 18 million premises – a number the company anticipates will grow further as the BDUK programme progresses.
  3. Fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services use VDSL, a faster form of DSL technology than ADSL, to transmit data from the street cabinet to the end-user’s premises, and available speeds over FTTC are therefore also affected by the length (and quality) of the wiring over which the data signal is transmitted. In previous reports we have not normalised FTTC test results to take into account differing ISP user profiles as we do with ADSL.  However, as the rollout of FTTC reaches more rural areas, there is a possibility that similar systematic biases may arise. We are currently working with BT Openreach and ISPs to assess whether it is appropriate to normalise FTTC test results and, if so, how this should be done. While we do this, it is not appropriate to include individual FTTC service data from the ISP comparisons section of these reports, and instead include average figures across all ‘up to’ 38Mbit/s and ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s FTTC panellists, which are weighted to reflect the market shares of operators within each service. It is not possible to draw any conclusions regarding the performance of any individual ISP’s FTTC services based on the summary ‘up to’ 38Mbit/s and ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s FTTC figures which appear in this report.
  4. Figure 2: Average download speeds by ISP package. Source: SamKnows measurement data for all panel members with a connection in November 2013. Panel Base: 1,878. Notes: (1) Includes only ADSL customers within 5km of the local exchange and in Geographic Markets 2 and 3 and in the Kingston-upon-Hull area for Karoo; (2) Includes on-net customers only for LLU operators (3) Data for ADSL operators have been weighted to ISP regional coverage of LLU lines and distance from exchange; data for Virgin Media’s cable service have been weighted to regional coverage only; (4) Data collected from multi-thread download speed tests; (5) it is not possible to draw any conclusions regarding the performance of any individual ISP’s FTTC services based on the summary ‘up to’ 38Mbit/s and ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s FTTC figures which appear in this report.
  5. Prior to November/December 2010, speed measurements were carried out using “single-thread” tests, which involve downloading one data file. From November/December 2010 onwards “multi-thread” tests were used to reflect the fact that ADSL2+ technologies were configured to handle multiple users/processes at the same time. However, as ADSL1 technologies provide similar results for both test methodologies and before 2010, most consumers were on ADSL lines, broad comparisons of national average speeds are possible between different time periods.
  6. Ofcom published an in-depth study earlier this year outlining the availability of different communications services across the UK. This included an examination of how broadband how availability varies between areas and how it might be improved to inform future broadband rollout strategies.
  7. The research was conducted in partnership with broadband monitoring company SamKnows. For more details, visit www.samknows.com. Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications, wireless communications and postal services.
  8. For further information about Ofcom please visit ofcom.org.uk. Ofcom’s news releases can be found at media.ofcom.org.uk

CONTACT

Lizzi Regan

Ofcom Communications

lizzi.regan@ofcom.org.uk

0300 123 4000