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Fast, faster, superfast, ultra-fast broadband – what do they mean?

Broadband speeds in the UK range hugely from around 1Mbps to 100Mbps, and sometimes they’re all described as broadband, which isn’t much help.

It’s partly historical: when broadband started it was anything better than 56k dial-up internet, and that’s still an improvement for some people in rural areas.

Yet when politicians are describing 2Mbps as a ‘universal broadband commitment’ we should be happy to look forward to by 2015 and fibre-to-the-home evangelists claim we should all be able to get 100Mbps or more this decade, we need to know exactly what they’re talking about.

For reference, we’ve used Ofcom’s November 2011 survey of UK broadband providers, which is the most recent reliable and independent data available (our graphs come from the same report).

Average UK broadband speeds, Ofcom November 2011

Broadband: 500kbps to 8Mbps

This covers typical ADSL connections, and can be anything from 500kbps to 8Mbps, with the UK average for these connections at around 5.3Mbps for downloads and 400kbps for uploads.

This range is what most people will get if they’re on an unbundled BT exchanged that hasn’t been upgraded to ADSL2+.

Virgin’s 10Mbps broadband service also fits into this category, although it’s being discontinued this year as Virgin establishes a new minimum of up to 30Mbps across its network (and like most cable connections achieved its advertised top speed most of the time).

Average download speeds vs headline speeds, Ofcom November 2011

Fast or faster broadband: up-to-20/24Mbps

This is the ‘up to 20Mbps’ or ‘up to 24Mbps’ service that comes from most ADSL2+ exchanges and most unbundled exchanges.

However, the average speed for ‘faster’ broadband connections is 7Mbps, and the average maximum speed is 7.6Mbps, so it’s not much faster than the average for ADSL lines. Upstream speeds average 800kpbs (and are often sacrificed for better download speeds).

Virgin’s 20Mbps service – now upgrading to a 30Mbps mimimum – was also in this category, but again it delivered on its headline speed for the majority of connections.

Average broadband speeds by time of day, Ofcom November 2011

Superfast broadband: more-than-24Mbps

Above 24Mbps is the general definition of superfast, and refers to either a cable connection or fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC).

It’s a general term that can mean anything from 30Mbps to 80Mbps, but the technology used means that it delivers more than 90 per cent of the time. BT’s standard fibre-optic connection on Infinity is up-to-76Mbps; with Sky, TalkTalk and others offering a two-tier choice of up-to-40Mbps or up-to-80Mbps.

Upstream speeds are significantly improved, with BT now settling on up-to-9.5Mbps and others likely to offer both 2.5Mbps and 9.5Mbps options.

FTTC relies on customers being near a streetside cabinet to get their headline speed, so as BT extends its FTTC network to more homes, the overall performance FTTC connections is likely to be dragged down as the average distance of homes from the cabinets rises. Yet even this is unlikely to speeds slipping away from the headline speed as it did with the extravagant claims for ADSL2+.

Virgin’s network is becoming entirely ‘superfast’ as it goes through a speed-doubling programme in 2012 that sets a minimum speed of 30Mbps, with a higher tier at 60Mbps, with uploads at 3Mbps and 6Mbps.

Average UK broadband speeds by percentile, Ofcom November 2011

Ultrafast broadband: over 100Mbps

This is the new category for 100Mbps broadband delivered either by fibre-to-the-home (FTTP) or cable.

It’s possible that a lucky few FTTC customers living very close to their streetside cabinet may also get 100Mbps, but usually ultra-fast refers to the slowly-growing few who are able to get fibre-to-the-home or premises (FTTH or FTTP).

BT’s FTTP network is expected to cover 10 million addresses by the end of 2012, and around 18 million by 2014. Other broadband providers are also building FTTP networks in rural areas and new developments that bypass BT’s network entirely. It’s being upgraded from 100bps to 300Mbps  by Spring 2013, although installation can be expensive.

Ultra-fast also includes a potential seven million homes and businesses passed by Virgin’s cable network, which is now capable of delivering 100Mbps wherever it goes. The Virgin media ‘speed doubling’ campaign will accelerate this to 120Mbps across the network by early 2013.

Beyond ultra-fast broadband

Many large businesses have direct internet connections using Ethernet or other technologies that provide hundreds of Megabits or even Gigabits of capacity, but you won’t see those advertised.

Virgin has also tested its network at up to 1.5Gbps, but that’s more a way to flex its muscles in the face of BT than advertising a tariff we’re likely to see advertised to most customers in the near future.

Even so, the mad men of broadband suppliers’ marketing departments are already looking for a new way to describe the next generation of broadband speeds.