Twice a year, Ofcom publishes detailed research into the speed and quality of broadband services from the UK’s biggest ISPs, which account for around 90 per cent of all home connections.
The average speed of the dominant copper-based technology, ADSL2+, has fallen to 6.5Mbps, compared to 8.1Mbps in November 2012, because rural exchanges are pushing the technology to its limits.
Though Ofcom insists there’s no effective difference between the big ISPs, in national terms Plusnet’s marginally faster, with maximum speeds of 9.1-11.3Mbps.
At the other end, Sky and TalkTalk have maximum speeds from 7.7-9.7Mbps, but it’s in the details below that you’ll find out who really performs.
- UK average ADSL2+ speeds
- Who’s fastest in ADSL2+ broadband?
- Who’s got the fastest ADSL2+ uploads?
- Who’s got the fastest ADSL2+ web browsing times?
- Who’s got the best ADSL2+ latency?
- Who’s got the best ADSL2+ packet loss rates?
- Who’s got the best ADSL2+ DNS response times?
- Who’s got the worst ADSL2+ DNS failure rates?
- Who’s got the worst ADSL2+ jitter rates?
What does ADSL2+ broadband mean?
ADSL2+ is the type of broadband used by most people in the UK today and provides a theoretical top speed of 24Mbps. ADSL2+ is delivered over the old copper telephone lines provided by BT Openreach and Kingston Communications, who operate the Karoo service in Hull.
Ofcom and SamKnows have measured speeds for more than 1,500 customers of BT, Karoo, EE, Plusnet, Sky, and TalkTalk during May 2013, to deliver the latest report. For the ADSL2+ survey, there is no data for Virgin Media, as it uses a different technology to deliver its broadband services (and now has few customers below 30Mbps).
The average download speed for ADSL2+ services is now 6.5Mbps, a sharp drop on the 8.1Mbps average seen in November 2012’s survey.
As Recombu’s weekly (mostly) Rollout Roundup features have noted, BT Openreach was very busy in late 2012 and early 2013 upgrading exchanges to support ADSL2+, as well as the more-publicised fibre upgrades. This has seen many of BT’s own retail customers upgraded very quickly to faster speeds.
The problem is that many of these exchanges are in rural areas, where the distance from the exchange is significantly higher, as the chart below shows. Rural ADSL users get just over half the average speeds of urban users.
Meanwhile, TalkTalk and Sky have been particularly busy over the past six months in continuing to fit their unbundling kit into the upgraded exchanges, allowing them to offer faster speeds and unlimited downloads to customers.
Following the 10 per cent rule laid down by advertising watchdogs, many ISPs, including BT, Sky and TalkTalk, can and do now claim ‘up to 16Mbps’ for their ADSL2+ broadband, even if the reality doesn’t match up for most customers.
The graph may tempt you to put Plusnet ahead of the other providers, but Ofcom notes that only Karoo manages to pull significantly ahead compared to Sky, but overall there’s nothing between any of the six surveyed.
It looks like ADSL2+ speeds may have peaked, however, with the average speeds for EE, Plusnet, Sky and TalkTalk all falling by around 500kbps since Ofcom’s last round of tests in November 2012. Only Karoo managed to improve, boosting its average by more than 1Mbps.
Peak-time slowdowns can be an issue on ADSL, but overall more than 60 per cent of Ofcom’s panellists had average peak-time speeds that were higher than 90 per cent of their maximum speed. The best performers were EE and TalkTalk, the worst was Sky, suggesting a higher level of contention.
Upload speeds are more important than ever in our sharing-obsessed world, and while the average remains around 1Mbps for ADSL2+, there are differences between providers.
EE and Karoo were both significantly faster than anyone else, with BT faster than Plusnet, Sky and TalkTalk.
SamKnows measured the time it takes to download the main HTML, text, code, and images, audio or video from three test pages to find out who’s best for browsing the web – the faster the better.
The clear laggards are Sky and TalkTalk at around 1.5 seconds, although EE didn’t fare any better than either at peak times.
The time it takes for a packet of data to travel to server and back can be vital to the performance of online gaming, and even make web browsing feel smoother.
EE outperformed everyone except BT and Plusnet, but Sky and TalkTalk were again the slowest of the bunch, and notably so.
Packet loss slows down web browsing because your computer has to request the data be re-sent, but high rates of loss can really degrade gaming, internet phone and video calling, and streaming audio and video.
None of the ISPs tested perform terribly, but BT, EE and Plusnet are ahead of the pack, while Sky and Karoo perform worst of all, and Sky is let down more by its peak-time performance.
DNS servers translate friendly domain name addresses like recombu.com into numerical IP addresses that are the web’s real currency, such as 126.96.36.199. ISPs DNS servers must be able to quickly translate domain names to IP addresses to maintain a responsive experience while browsing.
Plusnet comes out ahead over a 24-hour test, with TalkTalk and Sky at the back, but overall it’s a close field with no clear winners or losers.
Error messages such as “this server is unavailable” or “host could be found” are often the result of a DNS server failing to translate a domain name to an IP address. A high rate of errors makes for frustrating surfing.
BT, EE and TalkTalk manage a very low error rate at or below 0.1 per cent, while Sky is slightly worse, but Plusnet’s DNS failure rate is worrying over 24 hours and a full one per cent of errors is unacceptably poor at peak times.
High jitter, or the rate of change in latency, can be a severe problem for online gaming and internet phone experiences, as the software has to constantly adjust how much it compensates for delays.
Ofcom treats 20ms of jitter as a severe problem, and fortunately none of the six ISPs tested get much worse than 3ms, either upstream or downstream. If you’re being picky, EE’s best of the bunch, but there’s no obvious loser.
So what does this all mean?
Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what broadband services are best for you. It’s not just about how fast your broadband service is but how reliable and stable it is too, depending on what you want. Things like latency and jitter are important things to consider if you’re looking at getting broadband for gaming or you want to make Skype calls to relatives or friends overseas. On the other hands if you’re after broadband for checking emails and surfing the web and shopping online then you’ll want to look at page loading times and DNS failure rates.
You should also note that this survey, based on data gathered from subscribers living five kilometers away from BT exchanges, doesn’t give us a wholly accurate picture of the state of broadband services in the UK, so people living further out from an exchange will have different experiences.
We’ve also taken a similar look at Ofcom’s findings of the superfast cable and fibre broadband services now available from all of the major ISPs.