The great broadband swindle

Apparently advertised broadband speeds are a load of nonsense. Tell us something we don't know...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

BT Wholesale, the UK’s biggest broadband supplier, says customers are getting increasingly fed up that they’re being sold a lightning-fast broadband connection, but can never actually get anywhere near this speed in practice. And it’s got a point – if you’ve ever sat there in front of your laptop for half an hour waiting for the latest Amy Winehouse track to trickle though iTunes onto your hard drive, or attempted to download anything through the BBC iPlayer, you’re probably among the disaffected.

BT has called for the industry to agree a set of rules with the regulator to make sure that customers have a better idea of what they’re actually buying – an admirable example of a turkey apparently voting for Christmas. Athough since its own service was described as ‘totally average’ in a recent Sunday Times survey, perhaps it has a vested interest in undermining the competition.

The problem, according to providers, is that the potential speed your line can technically handle is one thing, but the speed it will achieve in practice is something entirely different. The actual speed will depend on all kinds of other factors – like the number of people online at the same time, your distance from the exchange, the quality of your kit, interference from other electrical devices in the vicinity, and the number of vowels in the month. 

So although you might have signed up for 8Mbps connection, the chances are you’ll never actually get it – in the Sunday Times test, UK evening users enjoyed a measly average speed of just 2.3Mbps. BT reckons 35% manage to hit the maximum speed of 8Mbps, but this sounds improbably high to us. Frankly, we’ve never met anyone with a broadband package that does exactly what it says on the tin.

And that’s not all the providers have to worry about. As speeds creep up (albeit slowly) we’re starting to use the internet more and more to stream and download video and music. That means the demands on the creaking infrastructure are rising all the time – if you believe one ISP, the iPlayer’s launch in December led to a massive 65% jump in internet traffic. So that’s only going to slow the service down further. What’s more, most of us are on packages that have pretty meagre download limits – so we’ll soon be asked to pay more too.

Paying more for a service that’s getting slower than the advertised speed? Bring back carrier pigeons and telegraphs, we say.

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