Cable operator Virgin Media often wins awards for being the fastest national consumer broadband provider, at least in terms of average download speed, but this overlooks the contribution of considerably faster services from smaller ISPs that are frequently shunned. We take a closer look at the real-world performance of these providers.
Firstly, it’s important to stress that Internet service speeds can be affected by many different factors including network congestion, your choice of package, the quality or type of your line (e.g. copper, coax cable, fibre optic etc.), local wifi network performance, faulty hardware and so forth. Performance is thus highly variable and varies from location to location.
Secondly, the scale and availability of a particular service can also impact an ISPs average speed. For example, a smaller number of superfast “fibre broadband” subscribers would have a disproportionate impact if the ISP is also selling significantly slower ADSL connectivity (i.e. significantly faster “fibre” lines will push the ISPs average speed up even if they’re in the minority).
Unfortunately most of the performance studies that we tend to see focus upon only the largest 6 or 7 broadband providers because these are the ones that typically produce a statistically relevant level of data from speedtests. Thankfully Ookla’s Speedtest.net service, which is the most popular system around the world, does allow us to present a different perspective thanks to its wealth of data.
But first let’s take a look at how the country’s largest ten fixed line consumer broadband ISPs compare by using Ookla’s results for download speed. Take note that we’ve sourced data from January 2014 so that it can be used for a comparison of change at a later date.
Top 10 Fastest Major Home Broadband ISPs (Average – Megabits / sec)
1. Virgin Media – 41.90Mbps
2. BT – 24.46Mbps
3. PlusNet – 19.25Mbps
4. Zen Internet – 18.82 Mbps
5. KCOM (KC) – 18.61Mbps
6. TalkTalk – 16.90Mbps
7. Eclipse Internet – 14.35Mbps
8. Sky Broadband – 12.61Mbps
9. EE (Orange Home) – 11.94Mbps
10. Tesco – 9.21Mbps
Ookla’s output is typically more optimistic than most data sources due to the way they drop “the slowest 30% and fastest 10%” of tests (here), which is intended to give a more realistic approximation of throughput speed but also skews the results slightly. Never the less it’s enough to gives us a good idea of where everybody stands.
As mentioned briefly there’s also a technology and uptake split involved in the outcome. For example, Virgin Media comes top because its strong cable (EuroDOCSIS / DOCSIS3) based network is available to roughly half the country and can already deliver top speeds of up to 152Mbps. But Virgin’s average is 42Mbps because most subscribers have until recently taken their slower 30Mbps+ packages (currently being upgraded to 50Mbps+).
By comparison most of the other top ten ISPs offer a mix of up to 20-24Mbps+ ADSL2+ technology, which is dependent upon slower copper lines, and up to 40-80Mbps FTTC (VDSL) that is similar to ADSL2+ but reduces the length of copper by using a high capacity fibre optic cable between the telephone exchange and your local street cabinet. Crucially ADSL2+ is still dominant in the market and this forces the overall average for each ISP down.
Finally, some of the big operators (e.g. KC and BT) also offer a small amount of true fibre optic (FTTH/P) connectivity to deliver top download speeds of 300Mbps+. But the uptake and or coverage levels for these services is so low that they only have a minimal impact on the average score and, with the exception of KC, we don’t expect this to change much over the coming years.
As we’ve seen it’s Virgin Media that dominates the mass consumer broadband market, at least in terms of average download speed, due to the wide availability of their cable platform and its broadly superior performance versus the next most dominant Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband technology from BT (i.e. FTTC).
However the market is also home to a variety of smaller residential focused ISPs like Hyperoptic, B4RN and Gigaclear among others (note: we couldn’t find enough data for some of the other ISPs). Each of these claim to offer maximum Internet download speeds of 1Gbps (1000Mbps), although they’re usually only available in certain areas and most also offer slower packages for cheaper prices (except B4RN where the default is 1Gbps). So how do these stack up against the likes of Virgin Media and BT? Ookla’s data might offer some insight.
The Fastest Small (Altnet) Home Broadband ISPs
It’s immediately apparent that the average speed at this end of the scale is superior thanks to the use of a pure fibre optic network. But it’s notable that B4RN only scores 265.77Mbps despite promoting a headline speed of 1000Mbps, which could be down to the way that Ookla weights it results.
Other issues, such as network congestion and or the checkers inability to provide a reliable reading for 1Gbps capable lines, might also be playing a part. In the case of Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, which both offer 1Gbps packages, it must be noted that they also sell sub-1Gbps speed packages and this can impact the results.
Sadly coverage remains a significant caveat. For example, B4RN are extremely impressive, especially given their rural Lancashire focus, but initially they’ll only pass around 1,400 premises and the data above comes from just 350 speedtests (in Jan 2014 this was roughly equal to their subscriber total). Meanwhile Gigaclear’s focus is a little bit wider and their data is also only based off around 1,000 speedtests.
Hyperoptic are the only one of the bunch with a national-scale ambition of reaching 500,000 homes across 10 UK cities by 2018 and they aim to have passed 80,000 premises by the end of this year, although at present their data is similarly based off 1,500 tests. By comparison BT has around 570,000 tests to its name and Virgin Media were on 634,000, although this must be taken in proportion because the big ISPs have millions of subscribers and the smaller providers tend to only work with hundreds or a few thousand.
The performance of the United Kingdom’s various fixed line broadband networks has improved a lot over the past few years and the on-going FTTC network expansion by BT is only going to improve matters.
Going further it’s possible that future technologies like DOCSIS3.1 from Virgin Media and G.fast (aka – FTTC2) from BT could add another boost but those aren’t likely to surface in the wild until after 2015 and even then they’re unlikely to best what the smaller full fibre optic ISPs have already achieved.
On the other hand operators and politicians often argue that most consumers don’t yet need real-world speeds of 100Mbps+ and a recent, if controversial, study from the Broadband Stakeholder Group certainly doesn’t expect that dynamic to change for quite a while (here).
Never the less we can still recall the excitement when the first v.92 dialup modem standard (narrowband) was introduced in 1999, which promised improved download speeds of up to 56Kbps (0.05Mbps). Since then the quality and quantity of online content has only improved and there will come a time when even the dizzy heights of 1000Mbps suddenly start to look as old hat as that dialup modem does today.
In the meantime it’s good to know that some ISPs are already thinking way ahead of the pack and offering tomorrows service at an affordable price. After all, if you can get a 1Gbps capable link for a good price today then why not? Sure you might not need or even be able to use all that speed but at least it’s there for when everything else finally catches up and related ISPs aren’t likely to need to replace their infrastructure anytime soon.. if ever.
But you never know what tomorrow may bring.
I thought we’d add the most recent results for the fastest small ISPs (note: the big ISPs haven’t moved much so we won’t include them again).
The Fastest Small (Altnet) Home Broadband ISPs – March 2014
1. B4RN – 157.11Mbps
2. Gigaclear – 140.72Mbps
3. Hyperoptic – 100.48Mbps
Not much has changed with no.2 and 3, yet B4RN seems to have lost a lot of speed since the start of this year and probably because they’re serving more customers than before. However it’s always important to remember that speedtests like this can be affected by all sorts of other factors, such as if they’re being conducted over a slow wifi link.