Who is the UK's fastest broadband provider?
IF we're talking about widely available broadband from a major provider the answer's simple: Virgin Media.
The provider's top deal now offers connections of up to 200Mb.
Ofcom's latest speed test results, released in March 2016 and looking at performance in November 2015, showed that on average over a 24 hour period, customers with the up to 200Mb service received speeds of 168.0Mb to 179.9Mb.
That's just under 90% of the headline speed - although we need to take into account that the service had only just been announced and many users were on the 200Mb service in name only, as Virgin began to upgrade their 152Mb subscribers.
Even so, the new averages were still far faster than the majority of the competition can provide.
For example, the same research found that BT's fastest option (up to 76Mb) was delivering from 57.4Mb to 61.1Mb on average over 24 hours.
Here are those packages (and those sold by Plusnet and TalkTalk, who resell BT Infinity) with their current prices:
To search for the fastest broadband provider in your area visit this page.
So Virgin really are wiping the floor with their competitors - offering much better speeds while staying competitive on price, even though BT and their resellers are offering faster speeds than we saw even a few years ago.
We look into Virgin's flagship broadband service in more detail in our full review, available here.
Those already convinced might want to visit Virgin Media to take advantage of their current special offer, via the link below:
Virgin Media Latest Offers
The UK's fastest
But if we open up the field a little to include less widely available connections, and the UK's fastest broadband is a lot faster.
Speeds of up to 300Mb using BT's fibre to the premises (FTTP) service, available on demand, were being sold to people served by about 300 exchanges from March 2014 to early 2015 - although they cost handsomely.
Smaller providers have also created pockets of superfast broadband.
These projects are happening at all levels: individual homes; small community groups; town councils and through agreements with large ISPs.
For example: in Hambleton, Leicestershire local pressure has bought an up to 1Gb line; 1Gb broadband from Hyperoptic - reviewed here - is arriving one fancy apartment block and office at a time; ultrafast broadband deals of up to 1Gb are starting to be sold in York in a move funded and supported by Sky and TalkTalk, the latter of whom say they're keen to extend the service further in the future.
The fastest broadband where you are
In short, superfast and ultrafast broadband is frustratingly dependent on location, and not everyone will be able to choose from a headline grabbing pool of options.
But even when we're choosing from a less than inspiring selection, there are a few pointers worth keeping in mind.
It might not be possible to get the UK's fastest broadband, but we can still make the most of what we can get.
Here are the three things we think are worth keeping in mind when looking deeper into broadband speeds.
1. Cable beats fibre beats ADSL
Virgin Media are the UK's only cable provider. They can offer the fastest widely available broadband because not only do they have an extensive network of fibre optic cables, but the vital "last mile" from the street to the house comes through a coaxial cable.
BT also have an extensive physical fibre optic network for their Infinity service, but their "last mile", from those green cabinets to our homes, comes through a copper phone line which is less efficient.
Having reached more than three quarters of us with their FTTC network, BT are now starting to upgrade that network.
Early in 2016 their infrastructure arm, Openreach, announced that they were making a new tier available, offering download speeds of up to 52Mb, partnered with up to 10Mb uploads. So far only BT and Plusnet are using the new tier.
you can request it here.
While it theoretically brings BT's entry level fibre up to par with Virgin's slowest deal, the difference in delivery gives Virgin Media the edge on speeds.
We'll have to wait until BT's planned G.fast rollout - under which they say users will get up to 300Mb as standard - before copper will be able to challenge cable at the fastest speeds.
There's more on choosing between fibre providers in this guide.
Virgin's 200Mb broadband is being rolled out to everyone on the Virgin Media cable network - more than 12 million UK households, with thousands more being added thanks to a huge investment and expansion programme over the next few years.
To see whether it's possible to get either Virgin Media cable or BT fibre, use our quick postcode search below.
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
Between fibre/cable connections and broadband coming down a phone line (ADSL), however, the competition is much less close.
The aluminium and copper cable combination used in phone lines simply can't carry as much information as fibre, are more likely to suffer from interference, and they have high attenuation rates - which means the service gets slower (and rapidly so) the further away we are from the exchange.
In short, they'll always offer the slowest speeds.
2. Fastest broadband on a BT phone line
If phone lines are all that's available, the fastest broadband providers will use ADSL2+ technology.
Note the 2+. This indicates extra equipment at the exchange which improves the connection and, in particular, decreases attenuation.
Since late 2012, Plusnet have provided the fastest broadband over ADSL2+, overtaking Sky, according to Ofcom speed tests.
As the table below shows, the differences in average speeds over ADSL2+ between providers are really quite small - but they make it clear how big the difference is between the performance over copper and fibre cables.
|Ofcom average speeds, published March 2016|
|Advertised speed||Over 24hrs||Peak time
|BT||up to 17Mb||8.9Mb to 11.1Mb||8.8Mb to 11.0Mb|
|Plusnet||up to 17Mb||9.3Mb to 10.8Mb||9.2Mb to 10.7Mb|
|Sky||up to 17Mb||8.7Mb to 10.4Mb||8.6Mb to 10.3Mb|
|TalkTalk||up to 17Mb||7.5 Mb to 9.3Mb||7.4Mb to 9.2Mb|
There are alternatives coming online in a few places - where ADSL2+ is very slow, or where users can't upgrade to fibre, for example - like home broadband over 4G. In these areas, many will find the mobile broadband signal actually offers a better connection.
But it's yet to gain any real momentum as a widely available alternative to fixed line broadband.
3. Don't rely solely on adverts
"Up to" speeds used to be theoretical maximums that very few people could ever receive. They were ideals, based on the theoretical maximums capable over the lines - with little regard for real world factors like distance, contention, time of day and so on.
Since April 2012, industry guidelines have demanded that "up to" speeds must represent the real world speeds achievable by at least 10% of a provider's customer base.
For a full explanation, see our guide to speed advertising here - but note that the providers mentioned above now insist up to 17Mb is perfectly possible again, after advertising speeds of up to 14 and 16Mb for a while.
Given that an ADSL2+ line can technically provide a 24Mb connection, the speeds advertised since 2012 are much more realistic - but they're still a way off real world averages.
Ofcom figures show that average speeds delivered by an "up to 17Mb" ADSL2+ connection range from just 7.4Mb to 12.1Mb, taking into account the maximum speeds found by the regulator as well as those registered at peak times.
Meanwhile, cable/fibre customers receiving headline speeds of up to 38Mb get maximum average speeds of up to 36.4Mb, while those with "up to 76Mb" services get average speeds ranging from 53.8 to 66.4Mb.
There's considerable variation in average speeds between providers, even taking into account that all 38Mb and 76Mb fibre services are resold BT fibre.
The reasons for this, however, are a little clearer.
As suggested above, a household's actual connection speed will be affected by a number of factors. Some, like distance from the exchange, we can't do anything about. Some, like a provider's traffic management policy, are much easier to work around.
All the major providers are obliged to supply an estimated line speed when we enter our postcode and phone number on their websites.
It's strongly recommended that people thinking of switching check and make a note of this speed before committing themselves, no matter what the headline speed being offered, or who's offering it. Most people don't.
It's also worth noting that some factors that affect the actual speeds we experience, like a provider's traffic management policy, are much easier to change.
Speeds aren't everything
The speed of our broadband is, undeniably, one of the easiest ways to measure the quality of the service we're getting, and what we can realistically do online.
Many popular services have minimum speed requirements: BBC iPlayer programmes stream at 1.5Mb in SD and up to 2.8Mb for HD streams, and the broadcaster recommends having "a little more bandwidth" to be able to stream smoothly; Netflix recommend a connection of at least 3.0Mb for their SD content, and 5.0Mb for HD streams.
These speeds might seem pretty low, and therefore highly achievable. But faster connections can mitigate against the freezing, hanging and buffering caused when multiple devices all try to use the limited amount of bandwidth available to us.
Ofcom suggest that most households need speeds of at least 10Mb. Despite those speed requirements rising a little each year, the 2013 Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) study found that most households don't actually need very high speeds.
What's more, broadband speeds aren't everything.
For example, since 2013, when Plusnet reported a significant increase in online gaming, the number of us playing online has continued to grow.
Gamers actually don't need much more in terms of connection speed than other users - but they are more affected by jitter and lag, which can be bigger problems over ADSL than fibre (there's more on the best broadband for gaming in our guide).
But the fastest broadband isn't necessarily the least jittery: Virgin Media users, in particular, have complained of problems caused by the network routing traffic inefficiently in the past.
Then there's how a provider's traffic management and fair use policies can affect our online experience, depending on the kind of activities we indulge in when we're online - but we can at least look into these, and try to pick a provider whose policy best suits us.
Gamers and those with serious upload and download habits will find themselves seriously limited by throttling and soft limits, even on some of the broadband deals that would most seem to appeal to them.
Speed does have a bearing on this - those with the fastest connections do tend to get through more data per month - but even so, more of us are becoming data hogs.
Ofcom's Connected Nations 2015 report showed a huge leap in average data consumption from the previous year - up to 82GB per month from 58GB.
There's more danger for uploaders than downloaders - not just gamers, but VoIP users and those who make video calls, for example - and there's more on the various providers' traffic management and fair use policies in our full guide here.
Broadband customer service is also a major concern for many, more even than speed - and we've an assessment of the best and worst providers available here.
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