We’re bombarded by publicity from internet service providers Sky and Hyperoptic Broadband promising the earth when it comes to download speeds. Their adverts shout about fibre optic and superfast download speeds, and now ultrafast broadband is here - but what does it all really mean? And is it worth the ultra price tag? Read our guide to understand the high-speed internet jargon and figure out what speed broadband you really need.
- What broadband speed do I need?
- What broadband speed can I get?
- Measure your broadband speed
- How to increase download speed
- Is there superfast broadband in my area?
What broadband speed do I need?
It all depends on what you use the internet for. Don’t be fooled into thinking you must have the most advanced technology with the speediest connection. Just because you can get ultrafast broadband doesn’t mean you have to have it; you could end up paying over the odds for something you don’t really need. How do you figure out what internet speed you need? Let's take a look at how you use the internet.
Downloading and streaming
The number one thing you probably use the internet for is downloading and streaming, especially if you’ve got one of the broadband bundles that includes on-demand TV. Before we get into the details of what speeds you need, we need to understand the difference between downloading and streaming.
Downloading a film or TV show is what you do when you save it to a device so you can watch it later, when you’re offline. Streaming means watching the film or TV show while you’re online; effectively, you’re downloading and streaming simultaneously.
Here’s an example of the difference between streaming and downloading in terms of internet speed:
- Streaming a film from Netflix requires a download speed of at least 5 Mbps
- With that same speed of 5 Mbps, it takes about 53 minutes to download a two-hour film to watch later. With a faster download speed of 24 Mbps, it only takes about six minutes.
To figure out the minimum download speed you need, think about how many devices are in your house, all connected to the internet and all doing different things at the same time. A busy household might have all of these online activities happening at the same time:
|Activity||Download speed required|
|Basic internet use, sending emails, online shopping||Less than 2 Mbps|
|Streaming: BBC iPlayer||At least 5 Mbps|
|Streaming: Netflix||Standard quality 3 Mbps|
|HD 5 Mbps|
|Streaming: music||1-2 Mbps|
|Skype video calls||High quality 0.5 Mbps|
|HD 1.5 Mbps|
|3 person video call 2 Mbps|
|Online video games||At least 3 Mbps download speed
At least 1 Mbps upload speed
Less than 150 ms latency/ping time
|Total download speed required||~15 Mbps|
In a family household with all of these activities going on at the same time - streaming TV shows on two different devices, streaming music, making Skype calls and playing video games - you’ll need a download speed of about 15 Mbps. A shared house, or a student flat for exmaple, where each person uses the internet independently as well as occasionally sitting down together for a Netflix session, will also need at least 15 Mbps download speed.
On the other hand, a download speed of around 5 Mbps is all you would need if you're a one-person household with only a couple of devices, maybe your smartphone for social media and your smart TV for occasional streaming. The same goes for couples with no kids and little interest in online gaming.
For people who regularly post videos and images online, you’ll want to know about upload speeds. This is the amount of data transferred from your device to the server, so if you want to livestream on Instagram, for instance, you generally need your upload speed to be about 1.5 Mbps.
Let’s put all this into perspective with some examples of the real connection speeds people receive in their homes from different broadband providers:
|ISP and product||Average download speed
(peak time 8pm to 10pm)
|Average upload speed
(peak time 8pm to 10pm)
|Hyperoptic Fibre 1 GB||1 Gbps||1 Gbps|
|Virgin Media VIVID 50||53.6 Mbps||3.0 Mbps|
|Sky Fibre||36 Mbps||9 Mbps|
|Vodafone Superfast 1||35 Mbps||10 Mbps|
What broadband speed can I get?
Getting fast broadband depends on where you live but the good news is you can probably get faster broadband than you think. The government’s Go Superfast campaign is taking effect and now 95% of UK households can receive superfast broadband.
Basically, internet connection speed comes down to how your home is connected to the network. Until quite recently, most broadband connections were 'standard', i.e. using ADSL technology but now most households can get faster broadband via fibre optic cables. The infographic below shows the different broadband speeds you get with different types of connections between homes and telephone exchanges.
If you’re lucky enough to have FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) you can expect it to be considerably faster than if you have ADSL. FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) is now the most common type of internet connection in the UK; most internet service providers (ISPs) use fibre technology between the telephone exchange and the cabinet on the street.
Fibre gives you better connectivity than standard broadband (ADSL). Both ADSL and fibre are supplied via telephone lines on the Openreach network, but fibre connections can deliver more data and at a faster speed. FTTC Virgin connections are slightly different since Virgin Media doesn't use the Openreach network to reach people's home. Click below for more details about the differences between cable and fibre broadband.
Superfast versus ultrafast broadband
At the moment there are no fixed definitions of superfast or ultrafast broadband. What we do know is that the fastest broadband currently on the UK market is only available to an extremely limited number of addresses.
We’re talking about the new ultrafast kid on the block, Hyperoptic, an internet service provider (ISP) that’s actually creating its own network of fibre optic cables to deliver ultrafast broadband connections directly to buildings (this is FTTP). Ultrafast broadband can also be delivered through networks used for cable television, which you can get from Virgin Media’s cable internet and TV packages.
Somewhat confusingly, cable broadband can be either ultrafast or superfast, depending on what the service providers choose to call it. Superfast broadband is defined differently by different organisations; 24 Mbps (UK Government), and 30 Mbps (EU, and Scottish and Welsh Governments).
Hang on! What does Mbps mean?
First, let’s be clear about what we mean by broadband speed. It’s measured in megabits per second (Mbps); in other words, the amount of data transferred per second from the server to your device. Technically speaking, this is the download speed (upload speed is different, as explained below).
Every time you access the internet, whether it’s to send an email, read the news or stream a TV programme, you’re downloading content. When you see a broadband advert promising ‘average speed 36 Mb’ what it’s referring to is the download speed.
Measure your broadband speed
Try our broadband speed test to check the speed of your current home broadband connection - it only takes a few seconds. We recommend doing the test at different times of day. Remember in the evenings there is high demand on residential broadband connections and that’s when your internet speed will be slowest.
When you've got your result, think about the various ways you use the internet in your household: if it turns out that your download speed is considerably faster than you actually need, taking into account your real day-to-day internet usage, start looking around for cheaper broadband offers that are a better fit with your life and your wallet. Check out our How to find the cheapest broadband guide to help you make the best choice.
Let's be honest, it's more likely that your broadband speed isn't fast enough. Here are some things you can try to increase your download speed and upload speed.
How to increase download speed
On the other hand, your speed test result might reveal that your download speed isn’t fast enough. If you don’t want to spend more money on upgrading to a faster broadband package, there could be other ways to get the best out your broadband.
Most people demand fast internet speeds in terms of downloading, rather than uploading. You’re more likely to notice a frustratingly slow download speed; anyone who has ever seen the dreaded ‘insufficient bandwidth’ error message when trying to stream a video will recognise that feeling.
To some extent, download speed is out of your control, since you can’t do much about things like the distance of your home to the telephone exchange, but there are some options to think about to optimise the connection speed available to you.
- How many devices are connected at the same time?
- If there are too many devices accessing the internet on your connection, your download speed will slow down. Just like having too many cars on the road causes a traffic jam
- Check that your wireless is password-protected, otherwise your neighbours could be connecting to the broadband service that you’re paying for!
- Think about your router
- Position: if your router is too close to other electrical equipment it might not work as well as it should, and it should be on a shelf or table not on the floor.
- Age: maybe it’s time for an upgrade; ask your provider about replacing your router if it’s an older model.
- Plug the router into the main phone socket in your house, not into an extension lead.
- Are you using the latest version of your browser?
- It sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying: keep your software up to date and it will work better
- Wired or wireless?
- Try an ethernet cable connected directly between your device and your router instead of using wireless
If you've tried all the steps we've suggested and you're still not happy with your download speed, take a look at your internet provider contract or give them a call to ask about the minimum guaranteed speed that they're obliged to provide. Take a look at Ofcom's advice about broadband speeds for more details.
How to improve upload speed
For budding YouTube influencers, Instagram livestreamers or anyone who posts hundreds of holiday photos, upload speed will be important. Fortunately, you don’t need to do anything different to improve your upload speed; the same principles apply to improving both upload and download speeds
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Superfast broadband in my area
Let’s say you’ve thought carefully about your internet usage and you come to the conclusion nothing less than superfast broadband will do. To find out what’s available in your neighbourhood, use Ofcom’s postcode checker.
Before you go ahead and change broadband providers to get a faster connection speed, make sure you read our how to switch broadband guide for more advice.