Yes, that’s right folks - internet connections which are advertised as providing ‘up to’ (important proviso that) 8mpbs download speeds actually provide an average connection speed of between 3.7mbps and 4.1mbps. That’s only half as much, as the mathematically gifted amongst you may already have realised. Outrageous, isn’t it?
Well only up to a point, Lord Copper. We live, as we are constantly being reminded, in the age of the informed consumer. Informed consumers do not take the claims of companies trying to sell them their products at face value, they like to find stuff out for themselves. So when they see adverts saying things like ‘eat what you like and still lose weight’ or ‘I made a fortune on the stockmarket, so could you’ or even ‘up to 8mbps for only £10 a month’, informed consumers don’t go all starry-eyed and immediately sign on the dotted line; they shrug sceptically and do a bit of research to see how the claims stack up.
And anyone who has conducted even the most cursory examination of products available on the broadband market will hardly be surprised at these findings. ADSL (and the newer, supposedly even faster ADSL2+) connections – the ones which use your regular phone socket - are the most common ways of getting online in the UK. ADSL is cheap and convenient, not least because nearly everyone already has a phone line.
But technically, ADSL is a compromise which manages to extract a reasonable internet connection from old copper phone lines that were never intended to be used to transmit such large volumes of data. It’s actually pretty clever, but does have numerous well-known limitations, not least of which is considerable speed variation caused by a whole range of factors, including: distance from the local phone exchange, contention ratio (the number of people an ISP allows to share the same main connection) the overall busy-ness of the wider network and even the state of the phone wiring both within and without the house in question.
No wonder then that a theoretical 8mbps maximum deteriorates in most cases to about half that, and often down to below 2mbps at peak usage times. That’s before you even get into the controversial areas of traffic profiling and ‘throttling’ used by some ISPs to keep their networks from being overloaded. Hardly ideal, although as the Ofcom survey – which collected data from 1,600 users over six months – showed very little variation between ADSL providers, it seems that speed variations as experienced by users are fundamental to the technology rather than imposed on customers by some ISPs.
And for those power users who do need reliably higher speeds, there is an easy choice – pay for a faster connection. As Ofcom’s results themselves show, that means cable broadband, using fibre optic cables instead of copper wires, for most people. Virgin’s up to 10mbps cable offering delivered an average 8.1 to 8.7 mbps – still not quite what it says on the tin, but much better than ADSL.
ISPs probably should be a bit more realistic in their marketing, but the same could be said of companies in a lot of other markets. They don’t all get Ofcom, waving its £137m taxpayer-provided budget, breathing down their necks…
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