Alongside price, speed is one of the critical factors to consider when choosing a broadband deal. It impacts what you can do with the broadband service, how long it takes to complete a task, and how many people can use the connection at the same time.
All internet service providers (ISPs) quote broadband download speed as a major part of their advertising. But it’s not always clear what speed you need. And then there are upload speeds, bits and bytes, speed tests, fibre, cable and a multitude of other technical terms.
In this guide, we’ll explain what broadband speeds mean, what broadband is available, and how to tell if a package has a good broadband speed for your requirements.
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How are broadband speeds measured?
Broadband speed is measured in bits per second (bps), which describes how quickly data is transferred to or from your home.
The vast majority of home broadband speeds you’ll see when choosing a broadband package will be megabits per second (Mbps or Mb) or Kilobits per second (Kbps/Kb). Kb is most commonly used when talking about upload speeds, though a small minority of premises - especially those in rural areas - may find their download speed is so slow it’s measured in Kb rather than Mb.
You may also be lucky enough to have the option of broadband with speeds of gigabits per second (Gbps/Gb), though this accounts for a very small percentage of broadband services.
If you’re interested in learning more about the technical jargon we’ve got a breakdown of what it all means below.
But for the purposes of comparing and buying broadband there are two things you need to know: Gb is faster than Mb which is faster than Kb, and a bigger number means a faster connection.
Bits and bytes: what’s the difference?
In the context of broadband, bits are used to tell us the speed at which data is transferred while bytes show data size or capacity.
The simple rule is if there's an uppercase B (KB, MB, GB) then it's bytes, while a little b (Kb, Mb, Gb) is referring to bits.
It's an important distinction because while broadband speed is almost always shown as bits per second, file sizes (such as songs, pictures or videos) and broadband data allowances are described in bytes.
There are eight bits in a byte. If your broadband download speed is eight megabits per second (8Mbps) then the connection is capable of transferring 1 megabyte (1MB) of data per second.
So to recap; bits (b) for broadband speed, and bytes (B) when talking about file sizes and download caps.
Download speed is the pace at which data (websites, programmes, music, etc.) is transferred to you.
The more bits per second you have, the faster you can download. This not only means you can download a file much quicker, but you will be able to stream higher quality video and audio. The connection will also be able to handle more simultaneous users.
For home broadband, the advertised download speeds for most providers typically range from an average of 10Mb to just over 500Mb. Pretty impressive considering that not too long ago a 2Mb download speed was seen as cutting edge.
However, broadband download speed doesn't have to be a big factor in your decision on which Wi-Fi deal to choose. If you're simply going to be leisurely checking your email and surfing around a few web pages, the slowest unlimited internet packages available through Broadband Genie will comfortably suffice.
But, if you're going to be sharing the broadband between several people, downloading a lot of files, gaming, or listening and watching a lot of streaming music and video it will be more of a concern.
A slow internet download speed can become very annoying if your downloads take forever and the video clip you're trying to watch keeps stalling. As a general rule, if you're going to be downloading or streaming often, or play a lot of online games, it is definitely worth looking at the fastest connection you can comfortably afford.
Upload is data going in the opposite direction to download. Upload speed is the rate at which data (such as your fab new holiday pics and videos) is sent to the internet - perhaps to put onto a social networking site such as Facebook.
Home broadband upload speeds are generally much slower than download speeds. The reason for this is that we typically do far more downloading than uploading, so downloading is given priority by the ISPs (who regulate how their networks deal with the various types of traffic).
Upload speed is more important to people doing large amounts of uploading, such as someone who works from home and wants to exchange files with a remote network, or people who play a lot of online games - especially if they're hosting.
If upload speeds are important to you, be sure to choose an ISP that takes its upload speed seriously. Both the Openreach (BT) fibre network (used by Sky, TalkTalk, EE and others, as well as BT) and Virgin Media's fibre offerings claim upload speeds of 10-20Mb, while ADSL is usually restricted to 512Kb or 1Mb.
One caveat to the above is that many cheaper fibre packages come with a reduced download speed which could be far below 10Mb. So if upload speed is critical, be sure to confirm this with the provider.
Dedicated business broadband can include even better upload speeds. Again, distance from your telephone exchange, as well as other considerations such as old household wiring, can also be factors in slowing down your upload speed.
Ping and latency
Ping is the reaction speed of a broadband connection - the time it takes to receive a reply after sending data. This latency (or lag) is measured in milliseconds (ms).
Generally, this is not something you need to worry about as even the cheapest home broadband can provide a fast ping rate. The one exception is satellite broadband, which has very high latency due to the delay in the signal coming to and from the satellites. That makes it unsuitable for online gaming or other tasks reliant on rapid back and forth communications.
What broadband speeds are available?
There are terms for different types of broadband you may see advertised when buying a broadband deal. These aren’t official names, and the definitions can vary, but they do provide a rough guide to the kind of broadband services and speeds you can find.
Standard broadband may be used to refer to ADSL broadband up to 8Mb, a service which uses copper telephone lines and is available at every broadband-enabled exchange in the country.
This used to be known as ADSL Max. It has been superseded by faster ADSL2+, and many homes can now get fibre, though there are still some places where 8Mb ADSL is the fastest broadband available.
ADSL2+ broadband with an average download speed of around 10Mb and upload up to 1Mb. Most homes and businesses will be able to get an ADSL2+ service. The speed is heavily dependant on the quality of your lines and distance from the exchange and can be much slower than average if you are in a remote location.
Ofcom defines superfast broadband as a connection with a download speed of 30Mb+. Many homes will be able to get superfast broadband with a fibre optic (specifically FTTC) broadband deal from either Virgin Media or an Openreach (BT) network provider such as Sky, BT, TalkTalk and EE.
Ultrafast broadband may be used to refer to a connection with a download speed of 100Mb+; however Ofcom defines it as a connection speed of 300Mb+. Either way, it’s the next step up from the superfast fibre services most of us have right now.
You may already be able to get ultrafast broadband from Virgin Media. The Virgin cable network covers more than 60% of premises and can provide average download speeds up to 518Mb.
BT also offers several Ultrafast broadband packages with average download speeds of 150Mb or 300Mb though availability is very limited at present. In the next few years, coverage will improve as Openreach/BT deploys more broadband services using Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) and G.fast technology.
There are also independent fibre broadband providers who operate their services outside the mainstream Virgin Media and Openreach networks, but their coverage is small in comparison to the national networks.
Hyperfast and gigabit broadband
Hyperfast and gigabit broadband are the next generation of high-speed internet. Hyperfast may refer to a connection speed of 500Mb+. Gigabit broadband is any service with a speed of 1Gb+.
At present, an FTTP or “full fibre” connection is required to achieve these speeds. But this is expensive, and fibre providers do not want to install fibre lines in areas where it’s not financially viable. They may identify particular streets where there’s a known or estimated demand, allowing nearby homes to have a fibre line run to their property relatively cheaply. They may also provide a fibre optic connection to new blocks of flats so all residents can sign up for a high-speed connection.
Very few homes will be able to get gigabit or hyperfast broadband right now. Although Virgin Media and Openreach are experimenting with these speeds and have long term plans, most gigabit and ultrafast connections are provided by small, specialist providers such as Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, the Sky/TalkTalk venture UFO and the Hull-exclusive KCOM.
What broadband speed do I need?
The right broadband speed for you depends on how you’re using the internet, and how many people may be using the connection at the same time.
Web browsing, email and social media: Standard broadband with an average speed of 10Mb will suffice. General web browsing does not require a very fast connection. Email is not especially demanding either unless you very frequently send or receive large files. The same applies to social media; browsing Facebook doesn’t need a superfast connection. However you may benefit from a faster speed if you often upload large video or audio files.
Streaming audio (e.g. Spotify): A standard broadband connection can comfortably stream high-quality music.
Streaming video (e.g. Netflix, iPlayer): A broadband connection that can maintain 2-3Mb will be able to stream video from Netflix and other services, though for the best experience you want a speed of at least 5Mb. Netflix recommends 3Mb for standard definition, 5Mb for high definition and 25Mb for ultra HD.
Downloading files: Any broadband service can download files. For occasional or non-urgent downloads then standard 10Mb broadband is sufficient. If you very frequently download large files, a superfast connection will make the transfer much quicker.
Uploading files: Upload speed matters for anyone who regularly sends files to the internet. Superfast broadband is very beneficial here as standard broadband has very low upload speeds.
Remember that the more people you have sharing the connection, the greater the demand on the line. If you have a busy household, then even simple web browsing could require a superfast connection to provide an enjoyable experience for everyone.
What is the average broadband speed in the UK?
According to Ofcom, the UK has an average download speed of 46.2Mb and an average upload speed of 6.2Mb.
What is the fastest broadband in the UK?
The fastest broadband provider will be a hyperfast or gigabit fibre ISP such as Hyperoptic, Gigler or TalkTalk’s UFO. However, these services are only available to a tiny number of premises.
For most of us, the fastest speed will be a superfast fibre optic provider. The fastest national broadband provider is Virgin Media. At present Virgin offers speeds up to an average of 518Mb.
In our last home broadband survey, Virgin Media customers had an average download speed of 71.5Mb/s while Vodafone, the fastest Openreach network provider, had 24.9Mb/s.
How fast is my broadband connection?
You can find out your current broadband connection speed right here on Broadband Genie by using our free broadband speed test. It is compatible with both desktop and mobile browsers and will take just a minute or two to give you an accurate measure of current performance.
There are a couple of things to note with a broadband speed test: before you do a test, make sure you have closed any other applications using the internet such as email and instant messaging programs. Secondly, your broadband speed can vary wildly at different times of the day depending on external factors, such as the number of users online in your building, your street, and even your country. Also, as more people are online, some ISPs deliberately slow down lines in busy periods of the day - this is called 'traffic shaping'.
For these reasons, make sure you do several broadband speed tests at different times of the day - and on different days - to get a better picture of the kind of broadband speeds you are receiving.
What can affect my broadband speed?
Sometimes your broadband may be slower than usual. There can be various causes, including:
- Other people or devices using the connection. Got family or housemates? They might be downloading or streaming video. If your connection isn’t shared, check that your Wi-Fi is secure as it might be a neighbour using your broadband.
- Peak time slow-down. Broadband can get slower at busy periods when more people are using it.
- Poor Wi-Fi signal. A strong Wi-Fi signal will give you the best speeds.
- Apps and updates. Software on your devices may be using the broadband to download or upload. Software updates, in particular, can be substantial.
- Traffic management. Some providers have traffic management policies which prioritise different types of usage and slow down other tasks.
What impact can my Wi-Fi router have on internet speed?
Weak Wi-Fi signal can have a very significant impact on broadband speed. But it can be solved by ensuring the router is optimally positioned in your home, installing signal boosters or upgrading to a better quality router.
For the best performance situate the router in a central location, away from walls and sources of interference such as cordless phones, microwaves and fridges.
But even with a strong signal Wi-Fi can still limit broadband speed. If your broadband Wi-Fi router is using an older type of Wi-Fi technology which has a data transfer rate slower than the broadband, the difference in speed can be noticeable. For the best performance use a router which supports the latest specifications, and ensure that all connected devices also meet the same standard.
Can my ISP slow down my broadband speed?
Some broadband ISPs use traffic management (aka throttling) to restrict the speed of particular activities to maintain consistent performance for the majority of customers.
However, this is becoming rarer. Numerous providers no longer use traffic management and instead offer a truly unlimited service.
When searching for the best internet deals on our comparison table, check the offer details to see if there may be additional restrictions. This should not necessarily put you off choosing a particular package as it typically impacts only a small minority; check the small print or read our broadband provider reviews for more information.
How are broadband speeds advertised?
When advertising deals, broadband providers are required to use an average speed, based on the performance of 50% of their customers. This means that when you see a broadband speed advertised in a deal, you have a realistic expectation of how it can perform.
Will I get the advertised broadband speed?
There is no guarantee you’ll receive the advertised speed. Broadband performance varies depending on factors such as your location, quality of the lines and network traffic. Of course, it’s not always a bad thing - you might end up with a faster connection too!
What can I do if my broadband speed is too slow?
When signing up to a broadband deal, your chosen provider should always supply an accurate estimate based on your location. If your broadband service cannot achieve the estimated speed, you should contact the ISP for assistance.
Some providers are signed up to Ofcom’s voluntary code of practice for broadband speeds, which states that when someone complains about the speed, they must attempt to rectify the issue. If they are unable to deliver what was promised, then you may have a right to cancel the contract early without penalty or switch to a cheaper package.
For more information, read our guide to complaining about broadband.