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Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

In the UK’s superfast broadband game of thrones, Virgin Media still holds the crown according to Ofcom’s latest report. 

For the first time, data from Virgin Media’s 120Mbps service was included in Ofcom’s most recent UK fixed-line broadband performance report, helping it stay on the top spot. 

But BT and Plusnet are giving chase with their FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet)-based services offering faster broadband to more people. The Openreach network, used by BT and Plusnet and several other ISPs, is now available to over 15 million premises across the UK. The last time Ofcom posted a survey like this, the figure stood at 13 million. BT hasn’t been sitting around. 

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

While the 100Mbps and 120Mbps packages from Virgin Media lead the pack, both BT and Plusnet’s 76Mbps services racked up a better overall performance than the Virgin Media 60Mbps service. 

Given the headline speeds of the BT and Plusnet packages are higher than both of the nearest Virgin Media counterparts it’s almost a given that they’d score better in terms of speed. If you look at the table above however you can see that the FTTC-based services aren’t leading by much. If anything, they should be faster. 

In terms of upload speeds, BT and Plusnet win again, but it’s a given as the top upload speeds of the 38Mbps and 76Mbps packages – 9.5Mbps and 19Mbps – outstrip those of the respective Virgin Media packages, offering top upload speeds of 3Mbps and 6Mbps. 
But there’s more to assessing broadband quality than just looking at speeds. Ofcom’s reports also focus on latency, packet loss and DNS failure as other ways of measuring quality. We’ll take a look at Ofcom’s findings below to see how the superfast packages of each provider measure up. 

What are the average superfast broadband UK speeds? 

Average speeds for superfast broadband in the UK now stand at 45.3Mbps, a slight increase from the previous figure (44.6Mbps). Ofcom attributes this to Virgin Media’s Speed Doubling programme, but notes that the majority of connections reported in this survey are 30Mbps. Virgin’s most recent figures show that just over 40 per cent of its customers take 60Mbps or higher.  

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

Increased availability of FTTC broadband on the Openreach network could be a factor in increasing speeds, but Ofcom does not mention this in its report.  

Who’s got the fastest superfast broadband download speeds? 

Virgin Media once again takes the top spot for fastest provider of broadband services with customers can enjoy speeds of up to 120Mbps. 

The average maximum download speed enjoyed by Virgin Media 120Mbps subscribers was 125.1Mbps, actually slightly higher than the headline speed, while average download speeds over 24 hours weighed in at 109.7Mbps. At the all-important peak time (weekdays 8:00PM-10:00PM) average was 104.5Mbps. 

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

In second place was Virgin Media’s 100Mbps package. Average top download speeds checked in at 102.9Mbps (again, slightly higher) and over 24 hours the average download speed was 85.9Mbps. During peak hours the average download speed was 76.9Mbps, which as you can see from the figures above is faster than both the average maximum speeds recorded by either of the 76Mbps BT and Plusnet services. 

In terms of average speed, both of these packages are only slightly better than the Virgin Media 60Mbps service. 

Further down the scale you can see that BT and Plusnet’s entry level superfast services outstrip the Virgin Media 30Mbps package by a wider margin. 

Who’s got the fastest superfast broadband uploads? 

As has been the case in previous reports, Virgin Media might be the king of downloads but BT and now Plusnet, included for the first time, steal the show when it comes to upload speeds. 

Overall it’s Plusnet that comes out on top here, racking up an average top speed of 16.8Mbps on the 76Mbps package. BT panelists recorded 15.9Mbps by contrast. 

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

Virgin Media customers typically get uploads roughly 10 per cent as fast as their download speeds. However Ofcom notes that customers who have benefitted from speed doubling have yet to see their upload speeds upgraded. This means the data recorded here won’t be representative of Virgin Media’s upload speeds in the future. 

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. As an analogy, a single carriageway that was well maintained would be better to drive on than a busy motorway pull of potholes. 

Aside from looking at speeds, Ofcom’s broadband reports examine things like latency, DNS response times, jitter and web page loading times to give a more comprehensive and accurate report. 

A high jitter rate means that streaming video on Netflix or BBC iPlayer could suffer and for things like multiplayer gaming then you’re going to want to consider latency, the lower the better. Page load times and DNS failure rates give you an idea of how reliable your web connection will be for general web browsing, shopping and using social networks. 

As these sections are all split up, we’ve added links to make navigating the page easier. 

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

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

All of the packages surveyed were reporting page load times faster than 600 milliseconds. Broadly speaking, this is pretty fast. 

A closer look shows that page load times fluctuated the most on the Virgin Media 60Mbps service. Despite this package at times reporting faster speeds than the nearest BT equivalent, it also reported some of the slowest speeds overall.

Generally, the Virgin Media services are less consistent than BT or Plusnet in terms of page load times. Oveall, Plusnet’s 76Mbps service looks to be the best. 

Who’s got the best superfast broadband latency?

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

Latency is the time it takes a single packet of data (a ‘packet’) to travel from a user’s PC to a third-party server and back again. It’s used to measure how effective a broadband connection is for simple web browsing as well as a good measure for how good your connection will be for gaming. Call of Duty fans take note…

Ofcom found that Virgin Media’s 120Mbps service reported the lowest levels of latency at any time of day. Second best for latency was the 76Mbps Plusnet package. The table shows that there’s not a great deal of difference across the lower tier packages, with Virgin Media 30Mbps beating BT and Plusnet’s 38Mbps slightly.

Who’s got the best superfast broadband packet loss?

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

Packets, the tiny bits of data sent between devices, can get lost over internet connections, resulting in real-time applications like VoIP, video calls and gaming suffering from temporary slow down. 

Though only lasting for a few second temporarily, this can make for frustrating video calls with friends and you could get up getting pwned by a low-level noob all thanks to your internet connection. Things like video and audio streaming services can suffer as well.

Packet loss is generally not great across Virgin Media’s services compared to BT and Plusnet, the worst culprit being Virgin Media 30. 

Plusnet’s 76Mbps service consistently reported packet loss less than 0.2 per cent of the time. While the BT 38Mbps package reported rates close to zero during peak hours it also reported higher loss during the same time period.

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

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

DNS response time is the time is takes for your broadband connection to match a website address (like to an IP address. High DNS response times equal slow browsing and page loading times. 

Virgin Media’s 120Mbps and 100Mbps services reported the best rates overall here, followed by Plusnet 76Mbps and BT 76Mbps. Virgin Media’s 60Mbps and 30Mbps were fifth and sixth best respectively with the 38Mbps from BT and Plusnet sitting at the bottom of the class. 

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

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

DNS failure rates refer to times when your ISP fails to match a URL to an IP address and results in your browser giving you an error message saying ‘host not found’ or ‘server is unavailable’ or something similar. 

Plusnet was the worst offender here by quite a margin, followed by Virgin Media and BT, setting an example with some exceptionally low DNS failure rates.

Who’s got the worst superfast broadband jitter rates?

Virgin Media hangs on to superfast broadband crown, BT and Plusnet give chase

Jitter is the rate of change of latency. Latency, the time it takes to send and receive information, 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 streaming experience one day, you could get a poor service 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.

Virgin Media’s packages report higher levels of jitter than either BT or Plusnet on download and upload packages. 

Ofcom notes that VoIP services often include a ‘jitter buffer’ of around 20 milliseconds. This effectively allows for up to a 20 millisecond jitter, with no noticeable effect for the end-user. With this in mind, note that while Virgin Media’s packages are worse for jitter than the others, none of the packages recorded rates of jitter higher than 8 milliseconds.

Conclusion – So what does this all mean?

While Virgin Media is top for download speeds it’s not as sharp as the competition in other areas. 

Virgin Media is best for latency, but loses out to Plusnet and BT in packet loss and jitter. This suggests that gamers might want to reach for Plusnet’s 76Mbps service instead of Virgin Media 120. As noted above, this doesn’t mean that Virgin Media is drastically worse than the others. 
For all the high rates of jitter, it didn’t stop Virgin’s top level 120Mbps package being ranked best for page loading times and DNS response rates.

In terms of the bigger picture, Virgin Media keeps its crown as the fastest provider of domestic broadband for now.

With the FTTP (Fibre to the Premises)-bases BT Infinity 3 and 4 now live, future reports could well take a different shape. Both of these packages provide download speeds of up to 160Mbps and 300Mbps respectively. Ofcom’s reports have shown that the Openreach network is better able to deal with things like DNS failure rates and jitter, which should be as important to discerning broadband customers as headline speeds. 

The introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology on Virgin’s network, which could happen in 2015, could offer download speeds as fast as 10Gbps, without having to replace the copper coaxial last mile of its network. For everyone to get BT Infinity 3 and above, the last mile would need upgrading, a process that’s not available to consumers at the moment and is pretty darn expensive anyway. 


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