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Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady

Virgin Media’s cable broadband remains the fastest ISP for the majority of UK homes while Openreach fibre-based lines lag behind. 

But while FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) services available from the likes of BT, Plusnet, Sky and TalkTalk might not be able to match Virgin Media’s speeds, they make up for it by being more stable and reliable. 

The latest speed report from telecoms regulator Ofcom shows that if you want the fastest broadband in the land – and you don’t happen to live anywhere where BT, Hyperoptic or Gigaclear provide FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) – then Virgin Media’s 120Mbps service is your weapon of choice. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre more steady
Spoiler: Coaxial cable is copper too.

Echoing previous reports, Ofcom shows that Virgin Media 120Mbps outstrips the fastest service you can get from a 76Mbps Openreach FTTC line at any time of day. That’s largely because Virgin Media’s cable broadband which uses high-quality coaxial cable instead of older copper phone lines, to make up the so-called ‘last mile’ of a fibre-based broadband. 

Tom Mockridge, Virgin Media’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “We all live in an increasingly connected world and today’s Ofcom report shows copper broadband is failing to keep up with the pace. Virgin Media households get the fastest internet connections around, all day, every day, and we believe in superfast broadband as standard.” 

It’s a point Virgin Media is keen to hammer home with its cheeky PR stunt, getting people dressed as snails to pose within spitting distance of the iconic BT Tower in London’s Cavendish Square.  

This ignores the fact that Virgin Media’s last mile connections are also made of copper – just a different type of copper. It also ignores the fact that Virgin Media lines also suffer more from contention – how many people share the line – at peak times, compared to Openreach connections. 

While it’s true that 30Mbps is now the basic download speed offered to Virgin Media broadband customers, how does that compare to BT’s up to 38Mbps product? How does Virgin Media’s 60Mbps and 120Mbps products fare against an up to 76Mbps service from EE or Zen Internet? 

Ofcom: ‘We couldn’t provide a closer look at FTTC this time’

Before we take a closer look at Ofcom’s findings, we should point out that for the first time, Ofcom has not compared services from indivdual ISPs using Openreach FTTC lines, although in the past it’s compared BT and Plusnet’s products independently alongside Virgin Media’s cable broadband. 

Ofcom says that it’s been unable to draw any conclusions on each ISP’s performances, but it hasn’t really explained why.  

It may be that ISPs have not been happy with the methodology in the past, so for this report, Ofcom has include average figures across all FTTC providers. By the time Ofcom conducts its next report in May 2014, it hopes to have resolved whatever issues it’s faced this time around.  

What are the average superfast broadband UK speeds? 

While the average overall broadband speed in the UK has jumped up to 17.8Mbps up from 14.7Mbps six months before, superfast surfers are enjoying average download speeds of 47Mbps. 

Ofcom puts this down to wider availability of FTTC services from the likes of BT, TalkTalk, Sky and other ISPs using the Openreach network as well as Virgin Media’s speed doubling programme. By this logic, avergae superfast speeds shout increase even more after Virgin’s 50Mbps, 100Mbps and 152Mbps speed boosts start to kick in

 

 

Who’s got the fastest superfast broadband download speeds?

The top level 120Mbps service from Virgin Media provides the fastest download speeds over 24 hours, during evenings on weekdays (8:00pm-10:00pm). 

The average maximum download speed enjoyed subscribers – 126.2Mbps – actually exceeds the stated headline speed, as do the 60Mbps and 30Mbps services. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre more steady

 

The second-tier and entry-level Virgin Media packages aren’t too far off the up to 76Mbps and 38Mbps services in terms of speeds at any time of day either.  

Check out Ofcom’s full breakdown of the recorded download speeds:

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre more steady

 

Who’s got the fastest superfast broadband upload speeds? 

Virgin Media might give you the edge in terms of download speeds but both of the FTTC-based connections recorded displayed much faster upload speeds. 

Upload speeds on Virgin Media’s packages are generally a tenth as fast as the downstream speed, whereas on the 38Mbps and 76Mbps FTTC packages, they’re around 9Mbps and 19Mbps respectively. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre more steady

 

What else does Ofcom’s superfast broadband speed report measure?

It’s not just about how fast your broadband connection is, but how good it is. Like a motorway, it doesn’t matter how wide it is if your high-speed road is full of potholes and loose chippings. 

Aside from looking at speeds, Ofcom’s broadband reports examine things like latency, DNS response times, jitter and web page loading times. This gives you a better idea of how well services like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Prime Instant Video and Skype will work in the real world. 

If you want to stream media, make video calls or play multiplayer games, then you want to avoid services with high rates of jitter and latency. Generally speaking, any service which provides rates of latency (also known as ping) that’s higher than 20 milliseconds (ms) may cause problems. 

 

Who’s got the best superfast broadband web browsing times?

For all of Virgin Media’s headline-grabbing top speeds, as you can see from the table below when it cmes to browsing the web, there’s not much difference between the quality of service you’d get from Virgin’s 120Mbps package and an up to 76Mbps FTTC line – in fact the latter product is slightly better, going by Ofcom’s figures here. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre more steady

Who’s got the best superfast broadband latency?

Latency is the time it takes a single piece of data (a ‘packet’) to travel from a user’s device to a server and back again. It’s a good way to measure how good a broadband service is for simple web browsing as well as more demanding tasks such as video calling and multiplayer gaming. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady

 

Who’s got the best superfast broadband packet loss?

Packets can get lost over internet connections, resulting in real-time applications like streaming media suffering from temporary slow down. 

Though only lasting for a few seconds, packet loss can make for frustrating video calls and episodes of your favourite TV show could be ruined – right at the moment when the tyrannical inbred boy-king gets assassinated, the episode stops playing.  

Packet loss rates on all packages here are low – less than half a per cent. Overall the Virgin Media 30Mbps and 120Mbps services were the worst offenders. Curiously, the mid-tier 60Mbps Virgin service didn’t suffer from as much packet loss, but it wasn’t as reliable as either of the FTTC-based services. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady

Who’s got the best superfast broadband DNS resolution times?

DNS response time is the time is takes for your broadband connection to match a website address (like recombu.com) to an IP address. In a nutshell, high DNS resolution times equals slow browsing times. 

The 76Mbps FTTC packages displayed the lowest resolution time overall, but also reported slower times than the 120Mbps Virgin Media package. 

Both the 30Mbps and 60Mbps Virgin Media services outstripped the 38Mbps FTTC packages. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady


Who’s got the worst superfast broadband DNS failure rates?

DNS failure is when your ISP attempts to match a URL to an IP address and fails. Instead of seeing the site you wanted to see – whether that’s recombu.com, netflix.com or redtube.com – your browser instead gives you an error message saying ‘server is unavailable’ or ‘host not found’ or something equally awesome. 

The 38Mbps FTTC services recorded the highest level of DNS failures overall. Generally speaking, all ISPs performed the worst at peak times, when the most people are using the web. The lowest DNS failure rates overall were recorded by FTTC 76Mbps connections. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady


Who’s got the worst superfast broadband jitter rates?

Jitter is the rate of change of latency. Latency can either be low or high but a high rate of jitter means that the rate varies wildly. While you might get a smooth video streams one day, you could have a bad experience later. Low latency on its own doesn’t mean anything if the rate of jitter is high.  
Ofcom identifies jitter and packet loss as the two biggest culprits of poor video call and gaming experiences. 

Jitter affects downstream and upstream traffic – so if you’re more interested in streaming media than say video calls and gaming you only need to worry about the first chart, as streaming is a one-way thing. Applications like video calling are a two-way process, so you’ll need to consider jitter rates on both directions of traffic. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady

A quick look at both tables shows that generally, the Virgin Media services were worse for jitter on upstream traffic, suggesting that there could be problems with two-way services. The FTTC 38Mbps packages surveyed were the worst for downstream jitter, suggesting that the service is not ideal for streaming media. 

Ofcom notes that VoIP services like Skype often include a ‘jitter buffer’ of around 20 milliseconds. This effectively allows for up to a 20 millisecond jitter, with no noticeable effect for user. With this in mind, note that while Virgin Media’s packages appear worse off this might not have any real-life consequences. 

Virgin Media still the superfast-est, Openreach fibre still more steady

 

Conclusion – So what does this all mean? 

While Virgin Media is still the king in terms of download speeds, Ofcom’s report shows that it’s not all about the big numbers – packet loss and jitter are important factors to consider when shopping around.

That said, rates of latency and jitter are in most cases low enough not to cause any major problems – at least based on the evidence on display here. In some cases the difference between an Openreach FTTC line and a Virgin Media cable broadband line might seem like splitting hairs for all the difference it’ll make. 

All of the services listed here are high-end premium products. That said, they don’t come without their own problems not covered in depth by Ofcom’s report. 

Virgin Media services typically suffer more from contention at peak times than Openreach lines, meaning the more people that are using the Virgin network at peak times, the slower your service will be. 

The top speeds possible on an Openreach FTTC line also vary greatly based on your distance to the nearest street cabinet. If the last mile of an FTTC line is more than 2 kilometers long, there’s no great difference between FTTC and ADSL2+ in terms of speed. As the figures above show, Virgin’s headline speeds are close to the advertised maximum, even slightly above. 

Other things you should consider when shopping around for broadband include proximity to a BT street cabinet and your web browsing habits – will peak time slowdown affect your ability to Skype relatives abroad? How much bandwidth do you need?  

You can read Ofcom’s broadband speed report for here for information on the research methodology and sample sizes. 

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