Is 9Mb broadband fast enough?

WHEN Ofcom started speed tests in November 2008 the average residential broadband speed across the UK was 3.6Mb.

Since then it has slowly increased: just last week the average speed was 9.1Mb, 2.5 times faster than almost four years ago.

But just how good is this news?

Data inflation

'Old money' is a familiar concept: when your grandma tells you she used to get a slap up meal for 2p, you adjust the monetary values against inflation and remain unimpressed.

The same is true of broadband speeds, although in a slightly different way.

3Mb may have been extremely useful to consumers in 2008. Does that mean that 9Mb is three times as useful today? Not quite.

Growing files

Let's use an example based on a practice that sucks up a lot of household broadband speed: streaming a TV show online.

Four years ago that TV show would likely have been streamed in standard definition. The norm for downloading a programme today, however, is increasingly high definition.

The size of the BBC iPlayer Olympic closing ceremony show in standard definition is 2.1GB; in HD it's 3.9GB.

Ofcom's findings are indeed a reason for celebration, then. The size of files people want to download have almost doubled but the average broadband speed has more than doubled too.

More devices

However, the size of files we're likely to download is just one way of assessing data inflation.

In 2008, not only were computers accessing the internet but so were games consoles and smartphones.

Even after taking into account the household proliferation of these devices in the past four years you must also add in internet accessing television boxes such as Apple TV and TiVo, new 'smart TVs' themselves, as well as the impact using these devices to access YouTube, Netflix and Lovefilm has on a broadband connection.

An important factor in this is also how many of these devices passively check the internet when no one is using them; think how many smartphones, computers, and games consoles in your house check your emails, Facebook, and Twitter every fifteen minutes.

Who's getting 9Mb speeds?

There's another issue to take into account when analysing Ofcom's research, just how 'average' that 9Mb speed average is.

The extremely fast broadband speeds some consumers enjoy skews the data higher than it should possibly go.

This writer must assume that Ofcom used a mean average to calculate the final figure of 9Mb when a mode average would perhaps reflect the experience of UK consumers more accurately.

Ofcom's research does cite the increase in the number of consumers paying for high-end 'superfast' broadband packages such as BT's Infinity and deals provided through the same network and Virgin Media's up to 100Mb deal, reviewed here.

The fact that superfast packages are selling better than ever clearly shows that standard packages are insufficient for many customers yet, as of May 2012, just 8% of households actually accessed superfast deals.

Similarly, speeds in rural areas remain extremely low. To these outliers, the average is more or less meaningless.

Another speed issue is closer to home. Many consumers in the UK complaining about their broadband speed fail to take into account their own wireless routers.

Routers from four years ago, the 3Mb world, may not be able to handle today's '9Mb' services.

One analyst has likened this to having a much larger water pipe entering your house but still only one tap.

There are many external factors that affect broadband speed including distance from the telephone exchange and quite how much of your street's internet your neighbours are using.

Still a conundrum

There is no SI unit of data inflation and so it is hard to quantify whether UK broadband speeds have increased against consumer needs.

The only real measure is whether you are more or less satisfied with your broadband speeds than you were four years ago.

Have you more or less times this year been disappointed because a programme has not downloaded or torn your hair out in frustration because a website won't load?

The real question for the future is whether the broadband infrastructure in the UK will increase at a rate above or below that of consumer needs.

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