Fixed-line broadband

Speeds are meaningless

In the good old days (well, just over a year ago), everybody knew where they stood with broadband. You were running at 512Kb/sec, 1Mb/sec or – if you were really lucky – 2Mb/sec, and you paid more for the faster connection speeds. Simple.

Then, in April 2006, ADSL Max rolled into town and the entire broadband market was thrown into disarray. Services were, and continue to be, sold using the weasel phrase “up to 8Mb/sec”. In reality, that means your connection speed can vary between anything from 200Kb/sec to 7.6Mb/sec, but the ISPs have that convenient “up to” clause to fall back on if your actual speeds aren’t anywhere close to the theoretical 8Mb/sec maximum.

ISPs privately admit that ADSL Max has created unprecedented levels of customer anger, because people are furious they’re not getting the speeds they pay for. In some instances, the ADSL Max speeds are even slower than they were before. “I’m with BT Broadband 8Mb/sec and today I did a bandwidth test, and it said I had a download speed of 436Kb/sec and upload speed of 345Kb/sec,” writes PC Pro forum member, Jinx 26. “About six months ago, with the same provider I had about 6Mb/sec, which I thought wasn’t too bad, but a slow speed of 436Kb/sec is just silly.”

Industry experts say the level of contention – the number of people sharing a single connection – is a major source of the problem. “A 50-1 contention ratio for residential is just ridiculous,” says Jason Lloyd, broadband manager for comparison website Lloyd predicts that providers will soon have to offer a new premium contention ratio of 20- or 30-1 to appease customers who are struggling to achieve decent connection speeds at peak hours.

Amazingly, telecoms regulator Ofcom doesn’t believe connection speeds are a major problem at present. “Is there an issue as to the kind of speeds you typically have access to? That’s a good question, that’s one for the industry to look at,” a spokesperson told us. “Are we considering any major policy review of this at the moment? The answer is no. It isn’t something that’s on our radar as an urgent issue where consumers are being harmed.”

The regulator claims that today’s speeds are perfectly sufficient for the majority of people. “How much is enough? Arguably, when you’re used to 2Mb, 2Mb is enough. As soon as you get used to 3Mb, 3Mb is necessary,” Ofcom claims. “8Mb is more than enough for most users. It’s a case of shopping around and finding the ones [ISPs] that do it best… and let competition do its job. People look to regulators far too quickly. We always look to industry to provide an answer to customer needs before we weigh in.”

Overseas-based PC Pro readers say even 8Mb/sec is a cause for national embarrassment. “As an ex-pat, I’m really ashamed of the UK sometimes! I live in Sweden, where I pay £18 for 100Mb/sec down and 10Mb/sec up,” says forum contributor Engelkott.

Solution: Although almost all ADSL ISPs sell their services based on the theoretical maximum of up to 8Mb/sec, it’s possible to get a clearer indication of the speeds your line will realistically achieve by using BT’s ADSL checker ( Beware, however, that even the speeds suggested are a best-case scenario.

Zen Internet’s Exchange Checker ( reveals whether your local exchange is performing within BT’s published performance thresholds. If your Exchange Status is red, there are potential speed problems afoot.

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