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When you’re trying to decide which broadband provider to go for, speed is often a deal breaker. And if you opt for a superfast package, then you’d expect a quick connection. In reality, though, what’s advertised can vary quite a bit from the speed you’ll actually get.

Read on to understand how broadband speed is measured, what providers really mean by their advertised speeds, why your connection might dip at certain times of day and what to do if you’re experiencing lower speeds than you signed up for.

How is broadband speed measured?

When it comes to measuring broadband speed, what we're really talking about is how quickly data is being transferred. Say, for instance, you're shopping online and click 'buy now,' the speed of data transfer will determine how fast the subsequent payment page loads.

You'll have noticed WiFi speeds are advertised in Mbps, which stands for megabits per second. This is easily confused with megabytes, which're a measure of storage. Megabits are a measure of speed; the more megabits you have per second, the quicker you can get stuff done online.

A megabit is one-eighth of a megabyte, so if you wanted to download a 1MB file in one second, you'd need a speed of 8Mbps.

What’s the meaning of upload speed?

While your download speed is about how quickly you can get information from the internet to your device, upload speed is the opposite: it's how quickly you can move stuff from your device to the internet. Things like uploading photos, files and videos.

Upload speed is often viewed as secondary and so broadband providers advertise download speeds rather than upload speeds. They also prioritise downloads over uploads, for home broadband users at least.

But as more of us rely on the cloud to store and share our files and photos, the speed at which we're able to upload is more of a concern these days.
Currently, upload speeds are relatively low on ADSL connections. For instance, a 16Mbps download speed may only achieve a 1Mbps upload speed. If you live in the countryside, you may struggle to achieve even a 0.5Mbps upload speed.

On average, internet service providers (ISPs) allocate just 5% of the download speed to uploads. And the faster the download speed, the lower the share for upload speeds; providers tend to allocate far more capacity to downloads than to uploads.

Why do broadband speeds vary?

Where you live is a major factor in how fast and consistent your broadband connection is. And, of course, it dictates which internet providers you can pick in the first place.
If you live in a town or city, you'll almost definitely have access to fibre-optic broadband - the fastest type of connection. Some home broadband providers offer speeds of up to 1Gig, if not faster.

If you live in the country, it's a different story. There's less demand for internet services generally so fibre availability is reduced. You'll be more likely to only have access to copper wires - known as ADSL broadband. This service is widespread and still provides a decent download rate, but it is slower than fibre. You're also more likely to encounter dips in the connection.

When you use WiFi is another factor for fluctuations in speed. You may experience a much slower connection in the evening, for example, as more people are logging on after they get home from work.

Just how sluggish the internet gets depends a lot on your provider and whether you have an ADSL, fibre-optic or cable connection. An ADSL connection will be the most impacted by the contention ratio - the ratio of users compared with the coping capacity of BT's exchange. Fibre-optic and cable connections tend to be more resilient to heavy traffic on the network but can still slow down.

What broadband speed do I need?

What speed you need really boils down to what you want to use the internet for.

If you're just a casual user who likes to browse, stream a moderate amount and occasionally upload photos and files, then you'll be fine with a speed of under 20Mbps.

People who would be better off with a high-speed wifi package include:

  • Families with multiple internet users and devices
  • Someone who often downloads films and TV shows and likes to have regular Skype calls
  • Gamers who need a consistent connection with no buffering

For more advice on which broadband package to choose, see our guide: how to choose broadband.

What do providers mean when they say speeds ‘up to’?

Years ago, many providers would advertise the maximum speed available for a broadband connection that might theoretically be possible but, in reality, would never be achieved. You'd see providers boasting of speeds 'up to 24Mbps' for ADSL deals and 'up to 80Mbps' for fibre-optic packages.

Back then, a provider could supply slower WiFi speeds than a competitor at peak hours and still advertise their service with the same or higher 'up to' speeds, even if the competitor had a better peak performance.

This is no longer the case. Since 2012, ISPs are required to advertise speeds that at least 10% of customers can achieve. As a result, 'up to' speeds have dropped significantly to a more realistic level.

Generally, if the provider offers a lower speed compared with its competitors, it means you're likely to experience a slower connection at peak hours.

How can I tell what broadband speed I’m actually getting?

It's easy to check what speed you're getting, simply type into Google Internet speed test. A box will then pop up asking you to 'run speed test.' Press the blue button and Google will soon tell you how fast your Internet is.

Compare this with your current broadband deal. If your actual speed is much slower than what you thought you'd get, speak to your provider. It may be able to offer you a faster product or allow you to exit the contract early without having to pay a penalty.

What broadband speed do I need?

Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, requires providers to work with you and offer advice to improve broadband speed.

If you've done the internet speed test mentioned above and believe your speed is below what was originally estimated by your provider, then jot down the speeds you're receiving. If you then decide to complain you can refer back to your notes and explain to customer services how long it's been too slow.

If you feel your speed is unacceptable, be persistent when you contact your provider - it may not be willing or able to resolve the issue straight away. If that's the case and you feel that you haven't been treated fairly, you should make a complaint in writing to your provider.

Before the gloves come off, though, consider whether there're other factors that could be causing your connection to falter. It might be worth going through our guide to speeding up slow broadband before you heap all the blame on your provider (as tempting as that might be).