Choosing the best broadband - do I need fast broadband? What broadband speed do I need?

In this guide

You might think all broadband is fast...if only that was true!

Broadband is an internet connection that’s quicker than old "narrowband" dial-up services, but dial-up is painfully slow and that loose definition doesn’t mean a particular broadband service is fast by today’s standards.

If we talk about fast broadband now it’s usually referring to superfast or ultrafast fibre broadband with speeds of 30Mb+. This is the kind of broadband that lets you do whatever you want on the internet without being hindered by limited bandwidth.

But how do you know whether you need fast broadband, or what speed is fast enough for you? That's what we're going to explain in this guide.

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Do I need fast broadband?

Whether or not you need fast broadband comes down to how you use the internet. Many of the things we do online - such as general web browsing - do not see a huge benefit from faster broadband speeds. But any time you’re dealing with lots of data (streaming a TV show in HD from iPlayer or downloading large files for example) then fast broadband is welcome.

It’s also important to consider how many people are going to be sharing the connection and how many devices you have connected at once. Even simple web browsing could choke a standard broadband connection in a busy family home.

What broadband speed do I need?

To work out a suitable broadband speed you need to consider what you do with the internet and how often, and how many people might use the connection at the same time.

Below are some examples of common online activities with information on typical data usage and bandwidth requirements to help get you started. Some of these are official figures provided by the services, others are our own estimates. These numbers are a guideline rather than a strict limit, so it's not necessarily a problem if your broadband seems a little too slow for some services.

(We’re going to be taking about bits and bytes here - if you’re not sure what this all means you might want to check out our internet speed guide for an introduction).

Web browsing, email and social media

Web browsing (including social media) is how we spend a lot of our time online so it’s fortunate that it doesn’t generally require a very fast connection. The average size of a web page is around 3MB and most pages will load quickly even on a slower standard broadband connection.

But if you’re visiting sites with large images or embedded video and audio then web browsing can put a lot more strain on the broadband.

The speed requirements for email will depend on whether you’re frequently sending or receiving large attachments. Any broadband service can manage this, but faster connections will let you transfer data rapidly so there’s less waiting around. A simple text email is tiny and doesn’t require fast broadband.

Instant messaging and VOIP (Skype, WhatsApp)

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other chat tools aren’t dependent on fast broadband, even if your whole family is chatting at the same time. Sending or receiving video, audio and animations is more demanding but you’re unlikely to be transferring very big files this way.

Making voice calls with Voice Over IP apps (such as Skype, Apple Facetime or WhatsApp) does not need a fast connection either - Skype recommends an internet speed of just 100Kb for voice chat. That means you can comfortably make calls on a relatively slow standard broadband service. Having a stable connection is more important.

Video calling (Skype, Facetime)

To use video calling you’ll need extra speed compared to the requirements for voice calls.

Skype recommends a speed of 300Kb (download and upload) for basic video calling or screen sharing, but at least 500Kb is recommended for HD video calls. The recommended speed increases as you add more people: to chat with five people Skype says you should ideally have a speed of at least 4Mb download and 512Kb upload.

Streaming video (Netflix, iPlayer)

Here’s where fast broadband starts to become more useful as streaming video can put a much greater strain on the broadband.

Netflix specifies a minimum speed of 0.5Mb, which is easily achievable for most of us. But the requirements increase if you want to enjoy higher quality video. To stream HD content from Netflix it’s recommended that you have a speed of at least 5Mb, or 25Mb for Ultra HD.

And of course you need to factor in other people in your home. If everyone in your family is trying to stream from Netflix at the same time a fast fibre broadband connection is going to be necessary.

Netflix

  • Minimum: 0.5Mb
  • Recommended: 1.5Mb
  • SD quality: 3Mb
  • HD quality: 5Mb
  • Ultra HD quality: 25Mb

BBC iPlayer

  • Minimum: ~2Mb
  • High quality: ~3Mb

Amazon Prime Video

  • SD quality: 0.9Mb
  • HD quality: 3.5Mb
Streaming audio (Spotify, Apple Music)

Audio streaming is nowhere near as taxing as video streaming because the amount of data is much smaller. Where iPlayer could be streaming at a rate of megabits per second, Spotify only needs to send kilobits per second to play your favourite tunes.

Spotify does not specify minimum or recommended internet speeds. However it does have three different quality settings: low (96Kbps), normal (160Kbps) and high (320Kbps).

Kilobits per second (Kbps) is the bitrate - the amount of data sent every second. Higher bitrates mean better sound.

A broadband speed of 0.5Mb would allow you to stream everything up to and including high quality audio, so we don’t need to worry about fast broadband if high quality music is the only concern.

Spotify

  • Minimum: 120Kb
  • Recommended: 0.5Mb

Apple Music

  • Minimum: 300Kb
  • Recommended: 0.5Mb

Amazon Music

  • Recommended: 0.5Mb
Gaming

When it comes to gaming there are two considerations: the speed you need to play an online game, and the time it could take to download a game.

Many games are only available from digital storefronts; even when you purchase a boxed copy it could still require a large download. That could take many, many hours if you don’t have fast broadband. For example:

Assassin’s Creed Origins (Xbox) - 43.2GB

  • Standard broadband (10Mb): 576 minutes
  • Fibre broadband (35Mb): 165 minutes
  • Virgin Media broadband (362Mb): 16 minutes

Grand Theft Auto 5 (PC) - 69GB

  • Standard broadband (10Mb): 920 minutes
  • Fibre broadband (35Mb): 263 minutes
  • Virgin Media broadband (362Mb): 25 minutes

Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4) - 47GB

  • Standard broadband (10Mb): 627 minutes
  • Fibre broadband (35Mb): 179 minutes
  • Virgin Media broadband (362Mb): 18 minutes

For playing online games you don’t need a fast download speed, however upload is quite important as the game needs to constantly transmit data. Ideally you should have an upload speed of at least 500Kb-1Mb.

Gamers are best off with a fibre optic broadband service, especially if the connection is shared. This will reduce the waiting time for downloading games and ensure the broadband is more than fast enough for online play.

What’s the right broadband speed for your household?

To work out what broadband speed you need it helps to categorise yourself as a light, medium or heavy user by thinking about what you do on the internet, how frequently you use the broadband, how many people are sharing it and how many connected devices are in your home. Below is a very rough guide to help you get started, but adjust it to suit your requirements: you may find that your usage demands a very fast connection even if you don’t share the broadband with anyone else.

Light

  • 1-2 users
  • <5 devices
  • Mainly web browsing, social media and email
  • Some voice or video chat
  • Occasional audio or video streaming

Recommended broadband: standard 10-11Mb broadband

Medium

  • 1-4 users
  • Up to 10 devices
  • Daily web browsing, social media and email
  • Frequent video or voice chat
  • Frequent audio or video streaming
  • Gaming

Recommended broadband: 30Mb+ fibre optic broadband

Heavy

  • 5+ users
  • 10+ devices
  • Daily web browsing, social media and email
  • Very frequent video or voice chat
  • Very frequent audio or video streaming
  • Gaming
  • Frequent large file transfers

Recommended broadband: 100Mb+ fibre optic broadband

Do I need unlimited data?

Not everyone needs unlimited data, but we would recommend it anyway.

Limited broadband packages can be cheaper, but they come with the added risk of extra fees or service restrictions. It’s not always easy to monitor usage, especially with a shared connection.

Unlimited broadband is commonplace, even on very cheap deals, so it’s usually best to opt for unlimited and never have to worry about how often the broadband is being used.

And if you’re planning on getting a fast fibre optic broadband package there is really no good reason to go with anything other than an unlimited broadband deal. If you don’t very quickly exceed a usage cap due to the higher speed, then you didn’t need fast broadband in the first place!

Broadband speed FAQs

How fast is my internet?

Use our broadband speed test to see what speed you’re getting right now. Run the test a few times throughout the day for an accurate picture of the actual performance. When testing the speed you should shut down other devices and apps which may be using the internet.

What is the fastest broadband available?

The fastest home broadband available right now is an ultrafast gigabit fibre optic service from a provider such as Hyperoptic or Gigaclear. However only a very small number of premises can get this kind of broadband. For most of us the fastest broadband available is a 362Mb fibre optic package from Virgin Media.

How do I speed up my broadband?

Improve the Wi-Fi signal: your broadband might feel slow because of weak Wi-Fi signal. Try repositioning the router, use signal boosters or upgrade to a new router.

Check Wi-Fi security: Wi-Fi should always be protected with a password to stop neighbours using the connection. You can also view connected devices via your router’s management panel to check that there’s no unauthorised use.

Upgrade to fibre: if you’re currently on standard broadband you’ll get a very noticeable speed boost by switching to a fibre optic service.

Switch off unused apps and devices: check that you don’t have any software trying to download a large amount of data, and always switch off unused devices to save bandwidth.

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