Who is the UK's fastest broadband provider?

julia kukiewicz
By Julia Kukiewicz

fibre optic speed

IF we're talking about widely available broadband from a major provider the answer is simple: Virgin Media.

The provider's top deal now offers connections of up to 300Mb.

This isn't the UK's fastest overall broadband (for that, see down the page) and it may not be the fastest service available to our building (find that here) but there's a good chance it is.

Get the fastest
Check availability and compare deals
on Virgin Media's 300Mb broadband
here.

How fast?

SamKnows speed tests from May 2017 showed that on average over a 24-hour period, customers with Virgin Media's up to 300Mb broadband service received speeds of around 296.04Mb.

That's just under 99% of the headline speed. This drops to an average of 281.02Mb during peak hours, 8pm to 10pm weekdays, but both figures are very impressive and far faster than the speeds the majority of competitors can provide.

For example, Ofcom's research, also compiled using data by SamKnows, found that BT's fastest option (up to 76Mb) was delivering between 57.9Mb and 60.7Mb on average over 24 hours.

Although it's important to note that this research is based on data collected in November 2016 and providers may have improved speeds during this time.

Yet they are unlikely to have changed significantly and even if they achieved the maximum 76Mb, they'd still be way off Virgin's 300Mb service. See our full review here.

How much?

Here are the fastest broadband packages from Virgin Media and BT, as well as those sold by Plusnet and TalkTalk (who both resell BT Infinity), with their current prices:

Package Broadband Contract terms Upfront price Monthly Price
virgin media Vivid 300 + Talk Weekends Up to 300Mb
Unlimited
12 months £20 £47
for 12 mths,
then £55
bt infinity Unlimited Infinity 2 + Weekend calls Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
12 months £9.99 £44.99
for 12 mths,
then £53.99
plusnet Unlimited Fibre Extra + Line Only Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £30
for 18 mths,
then £37.98
talktalk Faster Fibre (up to 76Mb) Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
18 months Free £32
for 18 mths,
then £37

To search for the fastest broadband provider in your area visit this page.

So Virgin really are wiping the floor with their competitors - offering much better speeds while staying competitive on price, even though BT and their resellers are offering faster speeds than we saw a few years ago.

We look into Virgin's flagship broadband service in more detail in our full review, available here.

Those already convinced might want to visit Virgin Media to take advantage of one of their current special offers, via the links below:

What's on offer? When you join online for: Need to know:
virgin media TV, broadband and phone bundles from £32 a month Virgin's TV, broadband and phone bundles.12-month contract.
£20 activation fee.
virgin media Broadband and phone from £32 a month Virgin's broadband and phone bundles.12 month contract.
£20 activation fee.

The UK's fastest

But if we open up the field a little to include less widely available connections, it gets more competitive.

Speeds up to 300Mb using BT's fibre to the premises (FTTP) service, available on demand, were also being sold to people served by about 300 exchanges from March 2014 to early 2015 - although they cost a huge amount.

Smaller providers have also created pockets of superfast broadband.

These projects are happening at all levels: individual homes; small community groups; town councils and through agreements with large ISPs.

For example: in Hambleton, Leicestershire local pressure has bought an up to 1Gb line; 1Gb broadband from Hyperoptic - reviewed here - is arriving one fancy apartment block and office at a time in more and more UK cities; ultrafast broadband deals of up to 1Gb are now being sold in York in a move funded and supported by Sky and TalkTalk, the latter of whom have previously said they're keen to extend the service further in the future.

The fastest broadband where you are

In short, superfast and ultrafast broadband is frustratingly dependent on location, and not everyone will be able to choose from a headline grabbing pool of options.

But even when we're choosing from a less than inspiring selection, there are a few pointers worth keeping in mind.

It might not be possible to get the UK's fastest broadband, but we can still make the most of what we can get.

Here are the three things we think are worth keeping in mind when looking deeper into broadband speeds.

1. Cable beats fibre beats ADSL

Virgin Media are the UK's only cable provider. They can offer the fastest widely available broadband because not only do they have an extensive network of fibre optic cables, but the vital "last mile" from the street to the house comes through a coaxial cable.

BT also have an extensive physical fibre optic network for their Infinity service, but their "last mile", from those green cabinets to our homes, comes through a copper phone line which is less efficient.

This is also true of the providers that resell BT Infinity under their own names: Plusnet fibre, Sky fibre, TalkTalk fibre, John Lewis fibre, EE fibre, and Zen fibre.

Having reached more than 90% coverage with their FTTC network, BT are now starting to upgrade that network.

Early in 2016, Openreach announced that they were making a new tier available, offering download speeds of up to 52Mb, partnered with up to 10Mb uploads. So far though only BT are offering the new tier, with resellers still offering up to 38Mb as their cheaper fibre deal.

Want Virgin?
If Virgin isn't in your area yet,
you can request it here.

For a time this tier brought BT's entry level fibre up to par with Virgin's slowest deal. Yet Virgin have regained their authority by bumping up their 52Mb package to 100Mb.

At the other end of the scale, we'll have to wait until BT's planned G.fast rollout - under which they say users will get up to 300Mb as standard - to see if BT can give Virgin a run for their money.

There's more on choosing between fibre providers in this guide.

Virgin's 300Mb broadband is being rolled out to everyone on the Virgin Media cable network - more than 12 million UK households, with another four million expected to be added by 2019 thanks to a huge investment and expansion programme.

To see whether it's possible to get either Virgin Media cable or BT fibre, use our quick postcode search below.

Postcode:
Enter your postcode above to check availability in your area.

Between fibre/cable connections and broadband that comes down a phone line (ADSL), however, the competition is less fierce.

The aluminium and copper cable combination used in phone lines simply can't carry as much information as fibre. They are more likely to suffer from interference and have high attenuation rates - which means the service gets slower (and considerably so) the further away we are from the exchange.

In short, they'll always offer the slowest speeds.

2. Fastest broadband on a BT phone line

If phone lines are all that's available, the fastest broadband providers will use ADSL2+ technology.

Note the 2+. This indicates extra equipment at the exchange which improves the connection and, in particular, decreases attenuation.

Since late 2012, according to Ofcom tests, Plusnet have been providing a consistently fast ADSL2+ broadband service, often the fastest, but recently it's seen tough competition from EE and Sky.

Ofcom average speeds, published April 2017
Advertised speed Over 24hrs Peak time
(8-10pm weekdays)
BT up to 17Mb 9.1Mb to 10.8Mb 9.0Mb to 10.6Mb
Plusnet up to 17Mb 9.6Mb to 11.4Mb 9.5Mb to 11.3Mb
Sky up to 17Mb 10.1Mb to 11.5Mb 9.9Mb to 11.4Mb
TalkTalk up to 17Mb 8.6 Mb to 10Mb 8.6Mb to 9.9Mb

SOURCE: Ofcom, UK Home Broadband Performance, April 2017. Available here [pdf].

As the table below shows, the differences in average speeds over ADSL2+ are really quite small - but comparing these figures with those for the fibre services, it's clear how big a difference the cable materials make.

See Plusnet's deals here and Sky's here.

There are alternatives coming online in a few places - where ADSL2+ is very slow, or where users can't upgrade to fibre, for example - like home broadband over 4G. In these areas, many will find the mobile broadband signal actually offers a better connection.

Early speed tests are encouraging, and where 4G is being offered as a serious home broadband solution - including in rural Cumbria and the centre of London it seems to be fairing well.

But it's yet to gain any real momentum as a widely available alternative to fixed line broadband.

3. Don't rely solely on adverts

"Up to" speeds used to be theoretical maximums that very few people could ever receive. They were ideals, based on the absolute top speeds capable on the lines - with little regard for real world factors like distance, contention, time of day and so on.

Since April 2012, industry guidelines have demanded that "up to" speeds must represent the real world speeds achievable by at least 10% of a provider's customer base.

For a full explanation, see our guide to speed advertising here - but note that the providers mentioned above now insist up to 17Mb is perfectly possible again, after advertising speeds of up to 14 and 16Mb for a while.

Given that an ADSL2+ line can technically provide a 24Mb connection, the speeds advertised since 2012 are much more realistic - but they're still a way off real world averages.

Ofcom's recent report also shows that average speeds delivered by an "up to 17Mb" ADSL2+ connection range from just 6.4Mb to 12Mb, depending on the time of day.

Meanwhile, cable/fibre customers receiving headline speeds of up to 38Mb get maximum average speeds of up to 32.1Mb, while those with "up to 76Mb" services get average speeds ranging from 47.5Mb to 62Mb.

There's considerable variation in average speeds between providers, even taking into account that all 38Mb and 76Mb fibre services are resold BT fibre.

As suggested above, a household's actual connection speed will be affected by a number of factors. Some, like distance from the exchange, we can't do anything about. Some, like a provider's traffic management policy, are easier to work around.

All the major providers are obliged to supply an estimated line speed when we enter our postcode and phone number on their websites.

It's strongly recommended that people thinking of switching check and make a note of this speed before committing themselves, no matter what the headline speed being offered, or who's offering it. Most people don't.

We should also be aware of the changes we can make ourselves, that can affect the speeds we get - as we explain in this guide.

Speeds aren't everything

The speed of our broadband is, undeniably, one of the easiest ways to measure the quality of the service we're getting, and what we can realistically do online.

Many popular services have minimum speed requirements: BBC iPlayer programmes stream at 1.5Mb in SD and up to 2.8Mb for HD streams, and the broadcaster recommends having "a little more bandwidth" to be able to stream smoothly; Netflix recommend a connection of at least 3.0Mb for their SD content, and 5.0Mb for HD streams.

These speeds might seem pretty low, and therefore highly achievable. But faster connections can mitigate against the freezing, hanging and buffering caused when multiple devices all try to use the broadband connection at the same time.

Ofcom suggest that most households need speeds of at least 10Mb. Despite those speed requirements rising a little each year, the 2013 Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) study found that most households don't actually need very high speeds.

What's more, broadband speeds aren't everything.

For example, since 2013, when Plusnet reported a significant increase in online gaming, the number of us playing online has continued to grow.

Gamers actually don't need much more in terms of connection speed than other users - but they are more affected by jitter and lag, which can be bigger problems over ADSL than fibre.

But the fastest broadband isn't necessarily the least jittery: Virgin Media users, in particular, have complained of problems caused by the network routing traffic inefficiently in the past.

Then there's how a provider's traffic management and fair use policies can affect our online experience, depending on the kind of activities we indulge in when we're online - but we can at least look into these, and try to pick a provider whose policy best suits us.

Gamers and those with serious upload and download habits will find themselves limited by throttling and soft limits, even on some of the broadband deals that would most seem to appeal to them.

Speed does have a bearing on this - those with the fastest connections do tend to get through more data per month - but even so, more of us are becoming data hogs.

Ofcom's annual Connected Nations reports show a huge leap in average data consumption every year - from 58GB a month in 2014 up to 82GB per month in 2015, and a massive 132GB a month in 2016 - and they show a distinct correlation between increasing data consumption and higher connection speeds.

There's more danger for uploaders than downloaders - not just gamers, but VoIP users and those who make video calls, for example - and there's more on the various providers' traffic management and fair use policies in our full guide here.

With these issues in mind Virgin launched their Vivid 200 Gamer plan, the UK's first broadband package designed specifically for gamers, free from traffic management restrictions, download limits and improved upload speeds.

The ISP also increased upload speeds across it's other packages and removed all download limits as well as amending it's existing traffic management policies. Virgin also exempted the 300Mb package from any such traffic related restrictions.

Virgin Media's gamer plan is looked at in more detail within our wider reviews of their 200Mb and 300Mb services.

Before we finish, it's also worth mentioning that broadband customer service is also a major concern for many customers, sometimes even more than speed is - and we've an assessment of the best and worst providers available here.

Comments

1
1 January 2017
Richard Millington

All British Internet companies are terrible. In China I pay £60 a Year for 100MB fibre Internet direct to my Internet box. Meaning even the wires in my house are fibre. Installation is free and you are connected by an engineer within 24 hours.

2
7 November 2016
Andy Merrett

Love them or hate them, at least BT will service less populous/popular areas (well, they have to). Virgin wouldn't touch the South Wales valleys for example, yet I have 76Mbps fibre running at near 80Mbps (with an apparent potential of over 110 although BT may never actually switch that on). Although it probably helps that I can see the FTTC box just up the road!

Plus reliability / stability is just as important. BT in fairness has been rock solid for most of the time I've been with them (copper thieves notwithstanding). So I'd sacrifice a few megs for a consistent connection, if required. I'd probably go with Virgin if they would stick their noses north of Cardiff, but I don't think that'll happen any time soon as we're just not economically viable.

13 November 2016
Kieron Cashin

Virgin are awful, terrible speeds and stability after 4pm, I'm on Vivid gamer 200 and it drops to a very unstable 5-7 Mb after 4pm and the fix date has been rolled back into next year - people in my area apparently have been complaining for up to a year about this with the fix date just being rolled back each time.

16 February 2017
John

I have to say I'm very happy with Virgin Media having had issues with BT and Sky. I like the fact that VM own the whole network, so they basically take ownership if you have a problem. Anyone unfortunate enough to be on Sky will know that, if you have a problem, they will blame you first, then BT, and only then consider it may just be them. I cancelled a contract with them inside its minimum term as the service was so awful.