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UPD Rural vs Urban Gap Closing as Average Broadband Speeds Hit 18.7Mbps

Friday, Oct 3rd, 2014 (10:52 am) - Score 2,988

Ofcom’s latest biannual report into the real-world speeds of fixed line broadband ISP consumers across the United Kingdom reveals that the Internet performance gap between rural and urban areas is still wide, yet their speeds are now improving at a faster rate (+20% rural vs +5% urban / suburban). Overall the average download rate has risen by just 5% to reach 18.7Mbps (up from 17.8Mbps in the last report).

It’s important to stress that the telecom regulators report reflects data gathered to May 2014 and is arguably more accurate than most because it uses real-world information collected via custom SamKnows monitoring routers, which have been installed in homes across the country. But this must be weighed against the fact that only 2,175 homes have installed such a device, which altogether conducted 2.7 billion separate tests.

The report also includes experimental analysis of Internet connection reliability (service disruptions and disconnections), which found that older style ADSL broadband lines experienced an average of 0.5 disconnections lasting longer than 30 seconds per day. By comparison customers on “superfast” (30Mbps+) fibre and cable broadband packages experienced less disruption, an average of 0.1 disconnections lasting longer than 30 seconds per day. Ofcom intends to expand upon this in future reports.

Otherwise it’s no surprise to find that broadband speeds, including the average upload rate that increased to 2.4Mbps (up by just 5% from 2.3Mbps at the last report), have continued to rise. The ever faster speeds being delivered over Virgin Media’s 152Mbps capable cable (DOCSIS) network and the growing availability of BT’s up to 40-80Mbps FTTC lines continue to drive the majority of increases, while older 8-20Mbps ADSL / ADSL2+ services remain fairly flat. But the impact of crosstalk interference might be hurting FTTC, which has seen its average performance (dominates FTTx below) fall to be overtaken by cable.

ofcom average uk broadband isp speeds by technology q2 2014

Meanwhile rural areas are continuing to lag behind their urban counterparts, which is to be expected. The Digital Speed Divide exists because so far most of the broadband performance improvements, even those funded by the state aid fuelled Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme, have predominantly focused on urban and sub-urban areas.

Thankfully that is starting to change and so we are now seeing a more noticeable improvement in rural areas as older ADSL lines are replaced by FTTC and some ultrafast FTTP (BDUK aims to bring 24Mbps+ fixed line superfast broadband to 95% of the UK by 2017). But in terms of raw speed there’s still a big gap to be bridged.

ofcom average uk rural vs urban broadband speeds q2 2014

According to Ofcom’s analysis, rural customers experienced a bigger increase in average broadband speeds (up by 20% to 13.6Mbps) than people in urban and suburban areas (up by 5% to 33.4Mbps and 22.9Mbps respectively).

Specific ISP Performance and Latency

As usual Ofcom’s report, being based on such a small sample size, can only reflect the performance of the largest broadband ISPs, which is an important consideration because smaller ISPs tend to pay more attention to quality and would probably do well; especially in the next few tables that track individual ISP performance by connection technology.

ofcom average download speed by isp q2 2014

As usual there’s not a lot to choose between the ADSL2+ based providers, which all exhibit fairly similar performance because it’s a saturated market and most are already running up against the limits of their existing copper lines, while the superior top speeds of Virgin Media’s cable network clearly lead the big boys corner in terms of download speed.

However the fastest FTTC lines do tend to have better upload speeds (not shown above) of up to 20Mbps, which compares with 12Mbps on Virgin’s 152Mbps option. Meanwhile both Virgin’s cable and the FTTC packages on BT’s infrastructure seem to deliver average speeds that are fairly close or above their respective packages headline (advertised) rate. By comparison the 9Mbps or so from older and less reliable ADSL2+ services remain well below the services theoretical top speed of 20Mbps+.

The next area of performance we’ll look at concerns Latency, which is a crucial measure of the time (delay in milliseconds / 1000ms = 1 second) that it takes for a single packet of data to travel from your computer to a remote server and then back again (ping). A lower score is always best (shortest time) and this measure is especially important for fans of online multiplayer games, where a low ping gives you smoother and more accurate gameplay.

ofcom_average_latency_by_isp_q2_2014
ofcom_average_latency_by_superfast_isp_q2_2014

The good news is that there’s not much to choose between the ISPs here and even older ADSL2+ services deliver reasonable latency (ping) performance. In fact if this chart included an ancient 128Kbps ISDN line then you’d probably still see many of the listed ISPs above being beaten by it because this is one area where pumping out lots of Mbps isn’t as crucial as the efficiency of the underlying digital network.

True fibre optic (FTTH/P) networks also tend to work very efficiently for low latency, although sadly Ofcom’s report doesn’t highlight these connections because none of the big ISPs have a significantly large enough pure fibre optic network (i.e. not enough data for useful statistics).

Speed Complaints

Unfortunately not everybody gets the speed their ISP promises to deliver and thus it’s important to be aware of the rules that could help. Firstly, the Advertising Standards Authority’s guidelines for tackling misleading promotions of “up to” broadband speeds (here) require ISPs to “demonstrate that [their] advertised speeds are achievable by at least 10% of users“. This is why so many providers now promote a “typical” speed (average performance based on that 10%) instead of the technologies theoretical top speed.

At the same time Ofcom’s 2010 Voluntary Broadband Speeds Code of Practice (Version 2) requires member ISPs (Listed Here) to explain to new customers the access line speed that they’re likely to achieve at home, and to try to resolve any problems when speeds fall significantly below the estimate. If the ISP fails to resolve the problem then customers should be able to leave their ISP, without penalty, within the first 3 months of a new contract. But switching ISP without fixing the underlying issue first may not result in better performance, although a new provider may still show more willingness to help.

On top of that the regulator has recently imposed new Quality of Service standards upon BTOpenreach (i.e. faster installs, quicker repairs and making available more information), although the new measures typically focus more on tackling connectivity problems than end-user performance woes (here). Ofcom are also making it easier to switch ISP, but this system won’t be ready until June 2015 and then ISPs will probably be given another year to introduce it (here).

Generally the rules are far from perfect and Ofcom are currently making some revisions to their speed code (here), although we won’t know the outcome of that until later this year (it’s not expected to be a significant change). In the meantime it’s also worth remembering that consumer broadband is very much a “Best Efforts” service, where capacity needs to be shared between many users in order to be affordable. Customers that want something better still have to look towards expensive business leased lines, which aren’t really practical for domestic needs.

Ofcom’s UK Fixed Line Broadband Speed Study (May 2014 Data)
http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/../Fixed_bb_speeds_May_2014.pdf

UPDATE 12:11pm

A quick comment from the Government and Virgin Media.

Ed Vaizey, Digital Economy Minister, told ISPreview.co.uk:

I’m delighted to say that these findings, whilst fantastic news, are not unexpected. Government has taken access to superfast broadband speeds to more than 1 million homes and businesses across the UK through our nationwide rollout, which has been instrumental in average speeds increasing by more than 3 and a half times since May 2010.”

Tom Mockridge, Virgin Media’s CEO, added:

We’re delighted to be officially rated the UK’s fastest broadband provider six years in a row. When it comes to making the most of our increasingly connected lives, speed matters. Virgin Media continues to invest in bringing superfast broadband to Britain at home, at work and on the go.”

Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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