What affects broadband speeds?
THERE is more to broadband speeds than the headline, as anyone who has battled for bandwidth come 6 o'clock can attest.
It's easy to get angry at our provider but sometimes other factors can be at play - including how far you live from the local telephone exchange; the type of broadband connection you have and the quality of those cables; and how your home is setup and the router you use.
Of course, providers can be at blame for slow broadband too - including network congestion and fair use policies and we'll look at these issues too.
Read on to find out what could be affecting your broadband speeds.
Actual vs advertised speeds
Before getting into the factors that make up the whole picture on broadband speeds, however, it's important for us to look at why we don't have the whole picture in the first place.
The answer lies in how speeds are advertised and the difference between those adverts and how speeds are actually measured.
How broadband speeds are measured
Broadband speeds are measured based on the number of megabits (basically, blocks of data) downloaded using the connection per second.
On our site we always write this as Mb. Elsewhere, however, you may also see it written as Mb/s, Mbps or even meg.
Speeds under 1Mb are measured in kilobits (Kb) per second: 1Mb is 1024Kb. Speeds over 1024Mb are measured in Gigabits (Gb) per second: 1Gb is 1024Mb.
A broadband speed test will measure both a download speed - which will affect the time it takes to see web pages - and an upload speed - which will affect the time that it takes to upload information, say, photos to a Facebook album - that the connection is currently reaching.
In both cases, the speed test is a snapshot of speeds at a particular point in time.
While it can provide an indication, a single speed test can be unrepresentative of a connection's average capacity and it won't show some aspects of traffic management which mean that some online activities could be slower than others.
Most providers now slow peer-to-peer (P2P) software at peak times, for example, while others may prioritise gaming traffic.
How broadband speeds are advertised
Currently, in Ofcom's broadband speeds voluntary code of practice they say:
"...it is critical that all ISPs explain to consumers that actual throughput speeds are likely to be lower than the headline or advertised speeds..."
So ISPs must also give potential customers an estimated line speed based on the available information about their line and postcode area.
It's the estimated line speed provided at the time of sign up that broadband customers should refer back to if they're trying to get their broadband up to speed, although it's still only an estimate.
What causes slow broadband speeds
When slow speeds are frustrating it's nice to have someone to blame and it can be easy to focus our attention on our provider.
We've yet to hear of a broadband user who hasn't suffered from slow broadband speeds at one time or another, however it's not always the provider at fault. Regardless, we've listed out the top reasons for slow broadband and we explain why they can cause a problem.
#1: Broadband connection type
The truth is that one of the most important factors when estimating broadband speeds - the most important for many users - remains the infrastructure of the broadband connection.
There are five main types of broadband connection in the UK:
- FTTH (Fibre-To-The-Home) - up to 1Gb
- Virgin Media FTTC (Fibre-To-The-Cabinet) - up to 300Mb
- BT FTTC (Fibre-To-The-Cabinet) - Up to 76Mb
- ADSL2+ - Up to 17Mb
- ADSLMax - Up to 6Mb
The fastest - FTTH - is currently only available in the UK from smaller providers including Hyperoptic or Gigaclear and locations are limited. BT and Virgin Media also offer trials but again it's not widely available.
The difference between these networks is partly the providers' decision and partly down to the 'last mile' cables they use: Virgin uses coaxial cable and BT still connect to homes through the original copper phone lines.
Standard broadband - offering up to 17Mb speeds - uses the copper phone line network for the entire journey from the telephone exchange. And it's because of this - distance becomes a big problem for those living in more remote areas.
#2: Where you live
The further away a property is from a telephone exchange the weaker broadband signal can become and the slower the actual connection.
This is due to a combination of attenuation, the signal getting weaker as it moves further away from its source; the quality of the lines themselves and electromagnetic background 'noise' which interferes with the signal.
Fibre optic cable broadband from Virgin Media is less prone to attenuation and noise problems which is why it's so much faster than other broadband services.
When people compare broadband by speed, for example using one of our comparison tables we filter out services that aren't available at the local exchange - in other words leaving the fastest broadband packages available at the postcode provided.
However, only the providers can give a more specific estimate about how well the line should work.
#3: Your provider
Intuitively, the best way to throw some broadband blame is at your service provider: after all, you are paying them.
As we noted above, there's a degree of truth to this.
Not only does the provider affect the cables available (see above) and the hardware and contention ratio (below) they can choose to affect connections directly.
Many so-called unlimited deals actually impose a fair use policy on their users.
People who breach the ISP's fair use policy will be 'throttled': simply this means that broadband speeds are slowed to prevent a small number of users from slowing the service down for everyone else.
Most providers' fair use policies only slow the very heaviest downloaders, you can check your ISP's policy here.
In addition, during busy times, usually evenings during the week and afternoons and evenings at the weekends, some providers manage or shape their internet traffic.
In general, downloads, and in particular peer-to-peer (P2P) activity, tend to be slowed during these peak periods.
Many of the biggest ISPs have, however, now relaxed their traffic management policies, while some have abandoned them altogether, most recently Plusnet.
Almost all broadband providers publish details of their traffic management policies and we cover them here so be sure to have a good read of these before signing up to a new deal to see how your web activity might be affected.
#4 Router and home setup
Often overlooked but broadband speeds can be greatly affected by how your home network is setup and the router you use.
Placing a wireless router downstairs in the living room, and then connecting over wi-fi in the loft room will provide a much slower connection than if you were closer to the router or connected to it using cables instead.
The more walls a wireless signal has to pass through and the greater the distance, the weaker it becomes.
Where you place your router and the cables in your home can have a big impact on improving broadband speeds.
Additionally, the wireless router itself can have an affect.
Newer wireless routers will be using the new 802.11n protocol - which means, while they are back compatible, if the wireless card in your computer or laptop was bought a few years ago and only supports 802.11b/g then you won't benefit from the speed boost and greater range of a wireless 'n' router.
And many of the more expensive routers or hubs also have added features such as automatic channel management, which means they will automatically switch to the least used channel to reduce interference from other nearby networks.
For more on how to check your router see our guide to ways to improve broadband speeds - available here.
#5 Network congestion
The number of people connecting to the Internet at the same time in your local area can have an impact on how fast your broadband is.
Home broadband connections are usually provided with a contention ratio of 50:1 - that means 49 other people will be sharing the same connection as you - and when all these people come online at the same time - which is more likely to happen during peak hours - the network can get congested and slow down.
Peak broadband time is often defined as being between 8pm and 10pm - when people come home in the evenings and are most likely to either stream TV or play games.
Unfortunately there's little we can do about having to share the Internet or that most people log on in the evening. However, if this is the most likely cause of slow broadband, switching to a faster broadband deal may well be the best bet as a dip in speed during peak times is less likely to affect your overall connection on a 50Mb package than it would if you were on 17Mb one.
But be warned, even the fastest packages can be hampered at these times, and actual speeds may be quite a bit slower than those advertised. For this reason, the Advertising Standards Agency is looking to make providers advertise their speeds for peak times.
Yet generally, higher speed packages are the way to go.