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Testing UK Broadband Speeds for Downloading PC Games via Steam

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018 (8:42 am) - Score 7,234

Internet speed analyst firm SamKnows has conducted an interesting study, which examines the performance differences of major UK broadband ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Sky Broadband, Virgin Media and Vodafone) when being tasked with downloading PC games from Valve’s popular Steam digital distribution platform.

Steam was first launched in 2003, albeit initially more as a tool to help keep their most popular games updated (Counterstrike, Half Life etc.), but it soon evolved into a fully-fledged digital distribution platform. Today the combination of high-speed broadband and the demise of physical media means that services like Steam are in more demand than ever and some games are reaching 75GB (GigaBytes) in size.

The platform’s peak network utilisation currently tends to hover near 6Tbps (Terabits per second) and last year around 18% of PC game sales were made using the service (c.$4.3bn in revenue), although we should mention that they also handle titles for MAC and Linux users too. Popular video game platforms like Xbox (Microsoft) and PlayStation (Sony) have similar distribution services.

Broadband ISPs have to be very mindful of such demanding but popular services, particularly as Steam can simultaneously harness multiple different Content Delivery Networks (e.g. Level3, Akamai, EdgeCast, Stackpath), as well as their own CDN. One of the ways it does this is by breaking downloads up into “chucks” via multiple parallel TCP sessions, which can then be sent via several CDNs (useful for avoiding congested paths).

The platform can also adopt a different approach for different countries and may even have special arrangements for certain ISPs. For example, SamKnows states that Steam splits the United Kingdom into two cells – London and Manchester. “Both are primarily served by Valve’s own CDN, with what appear to be backups using Stackpath (in Amsterdam) and Edgecast (in London).”

Luckily in the UK we have quite an open and healthy market for peering between ISPs and content providers, which means that the multiple CDN approach shouldn’t make a lot of difference. As such the main restriction in any performance analysis is likely to be limited to the capabilities of your physical connection and any natural restrictions related to Steam’s own servers.

In choosing to test this (over a 4-day period) the analyst wisely opted to remove the negative impact of older / slower connections, which they achieved by only focusing upon customers with either the top 80Mbps FTTC (VDSL2) tier (c.60-65Mbps average speed) or a 200-350Mbps package on Virgin Media’s cable DOCSIS network.

The sample size of 200 is small but this represents homes where their customised router-based measuring units were installed, which is a costly but also highly accurate way of testing internet connection performance (i.e. it can remove the influence of slow WiFi etc.). The key result is below, which contrasts the normal multi-thread download speed of the connections with those of content downloaded via Steam.

Average DL Speed Over Steam vs Samknow’s Dedicated Servers (Mbps)

samknows_steam_download_performance_uk_isp

The good news is that all of the ISPs were found to have performed similarly. “The Steam measurements for all ISPs recorded 50–70% of the speed of the regular download speed test. This suggests that the Steam CDN can struggle to saturate the link completely at higher speeds. Of course, in terms of absolute speeds, Virgin unsurprisingly rules the roost with their 200Mbps and 350Mbps products (50% of 350Mbps is a lot faster than 50% of 76Mbps!),” said the analyst.

On the other hand it would have been nice to see how Steam managed when testing Gigabit connections, since at present it’s unclear whether the c.140Mbps seen on Virgin Media represents the current average peak capability of Steam’s servers to send data. Meanwhile Vodafone’s FTTC based home broadband service seemed to struggle a bit more than their rivals with the same technology, although a bigger sample size may be required to establish if a trend exists.

Now back to waiting for Half Life 3 πŸ™‚ .

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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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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34 Responses
  1. CarlT says:

    Interesting. I get a constant ~47MB/s via Steam, however I’m in a city that’s very well connected to both London and Manchester cells and indeed is just a hop across the VM backbone to Manchester.

    1. Simon says:

      Here in Deepest wales we get the same – But get 45.5MB/S on FTP and HTTP – ?

      Still it’s awesome – and if VM never went above the 385Mbps we get now – would be happy πŸ™‚

    2. Archie says:

      Simon – it’s awesome isn’t it? I’ve lived in rural England for most of my life and even now Virgin are reaching out right into the county and rural villages with their FTTP Project Lightning.

      Love having FTTP.

      I was on ADSL Max 7 meg until 2015

  2. A_Builder says:

    Very good to see a different measuring schemes being tested.

    This is very interesting as we all suspect that SpeedTest data etc is prioritised/throttled according to certain criteria on certain networks. So there will be/was an element of gaming for best headline performances.

    The only measure I trust is FTP of either single and then multi thread of some good big files. To be totally fair to the ISPs and CPs that I deal with the differences between FTP and SpeedTest performances have narrowed over the last few years as backhaul has got better across all of them. As @MJ says there is very healthy backhaul competition in the UK which is undoubltely helping to drive real and measurable improvements in performance.

  3. James Blessing says:

    Data transfer is hard, especially as you go over 1gbps – we (my network development team at Jisc) have been doing a lot of work with researchers that transfer PBs of data on a monthly basis – http://www.ses.ac.uk/2018/05/03/high-speed/

    1. A_Builder says:

      @ James Blessing

      I totally agree.

      Hence my comment that different methods of measurement being interesting.

      I suppose that as not many people had anything 1Gb+ until very recently this was not a problem that attracted much attention outside of data centre replication?

      I would assume that one of the issues is mixed technologies being used in different parts of the chain. Or the same technologies with different rule sets.

      Now with 1Gb becoming relatively common and 10Gb not that rare this will focus a lot more attention on the problem.

      Anecdotally I would say that anything around 300Mb/s works pretty flawlessly but as soon as you get close to the 1Gb/s or start bonding or doing anything that goes over that limit then it goes non linear.

    2. James Blessing says:

      If you have a look at the presentations from the event we came to a series of very clear recommendations about how the edges of networks need to be built in order to get the best performance.

      Specifically using stateful firewalls and NAT devices has a major negative impact on throughput as the state tables expiring cause small amounts of packet loss which in turn leads to throughput reduction (https://fasterdata.es.net/assets/20131212-PacketLoss.png) especially on higher latency links. One of the reasons that FTTP is better than FTTC which is better than ADSL even with the same bandwidth available and that local CDN caches perform better than downloading from the other side of the planet

      That’s before you start looking at things like using wred and CoDel to improve the queuing in the routers in the path (if you have OpenWRT on your router turn fq-codel on it’ll improve your wifi performance) http://deliveryimages.acm.org/10.1145/2210000/2209336/nichols5.png

  4. Pete says:

    I could fairly consistently max out a large Steam download on the Virgin Media 350Mbps service in Surbiton. I’d definitely be interested to see how something like Hyperoptic does though (even if I’m unlikely to get FTTP where I live for another decade+!)

    1. Simon says:

      Same Here!

  5. mike says:

    “This suggests that the Steam CDN can struggle to saturate the link completely at higher speeds”

    I’m surprised by this. Every download I do on Steam is blazing fast at 48MB/sec. I have my Steam client configured to prefer London.

  6. thomas lynch says:

    I have virgins 350mb package which connects me to a pc in France that is using gigabit internet. Everything but steam and origin get 800mbps+ however when using steam and origin I’m limited to 17mbps on average. I’ve raised the issue with both companies and they tell me its my own broadband a problem.

    1. CarlT says:

      Could you please elaborate on what use Origin / Steam are when you’re connecting to a machine in France?

      You still have to download the games to your local machine to use them as RDP won’t provide a good experience?

    2. JamesMJohnson says:

      I read Thomas’s comment and came to the possible conclusions
      a) He remotes to France – if so it’s a mute comment as we’re talking about Steams CDNs in the UK – not France. In this case it would have nothing to do Virgin and more likely is an issue of his French located steam client using UK CDNs due to his profile.
      b) He’s routing from France to the UK – no idea why – it provides no benefit and only makes it worse.
      c) He’s bad at case sensitivity… it’s MBps or Mbps. Steam by default reports MBps which is 136 Mbps if the 17mbps is actually 17MBps.

      More info would be appreciated.
      (Also… CarlT you’re right… game streaming services tend to be poor when outside of the country due to latency and jitter… and thats professionally optimised. I hate to think about RDP for it.)

  7. Rahul says:

    Interesting to see this kind of article!

    I was going to mention the same frustration that I have with one of my games on Steam. I have NBA 2K15 PC and Payday 2 that are over 50GB in size. The download time with my 12Mbps connection would require between 23-24 hours while my PC is on all night. With steam you cannot just pause, shut down your computer and recontinue the download, you are forced to wait out the whole time for the download to finish or the progress will be aborted and will have to be re-downloaded all the way from the beginning!!

    This is a major frustration given the fact that me as a 100% PC Gamer can no longer buy Retail DVD PC games. They are very few and far between. When I bought the so-called physical version of NBA 2K15 PC there were no DVDs in it! It was simply a scratch card in a shiny box with the Steam serial number to register on Steam. I felt deceived about that because I had to wait for the postman to send me a box only with a CD Key which I could’ve bought online at that time and save my time.

    Until NBA 2K13, 2K14, FIFA 14, 15 and 16 as far as I can remember you could buy disk versions of these games from Retail online stores like Amazon, GAME UK, BASE, etc.
    The download size of FIFA and NBA 2K on PC were only 15GB, now it has shot up to 50GB! And since download size will also be big, game developers need to fit into several DVD’s as there is space capacity limit which makes things trickier.

    NBA 2K19 PC on steam will require 80GB available disk space if you look at the latest system requirements. You can only imagine how much longer it would take to download that with just ADSL connections.

    Only Fibre Broadband will solve this long term problem.

    1. Peter T says:

      “With steam you cannot just pause, shut down your computer and recontinue the download, you are forced to wait out the whole time for the download to finish or the progress will be aborted and will have to be re-downloaded all the way from the beginning!!”

      This is completely false for every game I own on steam. Been using steam for 8 years, mostly on ~6mbit internet and always relied on downloading in overnight chunks. I remember downloading GTA IV (16GB) every night for a week on a 1mbit connection – it took 130 hours.

    2. Rahul says:

      @Peter T Hmmm, my bad, it seems like Steam download progress stops if I press the cancel button even after pausing, the download then starts from the very beginning. I should not click the X button to cancel the download after pausing, that is what’s causing the progress to get lost. I can’t believe I made that mistake. :/

      But one thing I can however, confirm from an experiment like this with a direct download from google chrome, internet explorer, etc you will see the download progress does not stay if the download is interrupted or you close the web browser.

      Similarly like Steam, cancel button erases download progress even if you paused the download progress.

      This is why I miss physical DVD copies because I’m not dependent on downloading or worrying about data progress. If I get Fibre that will be great, no more dependencies on DVDs. This is why when I bought Max Payne 3 a few years ago, I bought the DVD version by Rockstar which even though I missed out on steam achievements. For me having the reassurance that 30GB worth of download can be saved by just installing from disks is a big relief in itself.

    3. Simon says:

      Just close Steam Brother! The DL will stop and resume when you open it again!

  8. John Willson says:

    Oh how I looked at Virgin’s speeds with massive envy. I work for O’Reach, and often feel depressed than I’m working on such a poor network. The top paltry 76Mb that they do isn’t even available to everyone, only those next to the cabinet!

    1. JamesMJohnson says:

      How do you think I feel…
      I have a non-stable FTTC connection (syncs between 30-40) where the Openreach DSL line checker reports different line capabilities monthly (Good luck explaining line issues to your ISP when OR keep changing what your line should support).
      Living on a ‘hybrid’ new build estate my house has FTTC but the FTTP ducting finishes 3m from my doorstep (serves my neighbour).
      If I order FTTPoD I’ll pay a big markup due to no servable premises passed and yet it would be one of the easier deployments as all of the ground works, except 3m, has already been done.
      It’s like sitting at a feast but being told you can’t eat anything.

    2. Simon says:

      John

      I have 80/20 and 350/20 – I guess I am lucky.

      No g.fast though which I would have preferred for the higher upload. That’s on the exchange in the next part of my town ( under 1 MIle away) and at my now OLD address πŸ™

  9. Benjamin Gilbey says:

    I’m with Vodafone and my router is going at 75mb so it tells me. On steam I always download at my maximum or very near max (7.0 – 7-5mb/s) rarely drops below.

  10. Mark Walker says:

    I’d love to see some research into BT & Openreach installing 5mb copper lines into new build properties.

    The frustration I live with at the lack of investment from them, despite our line rental, is truly tiring.

  11. Cools says:

    You know this is a pointless topic as almost all the content DL from steam is compress an decompress on the fly write to the drive so it will only pull down at a set speed so it can decompress. That’s why I have lancach for the house, and SSD for games, want to know more see Linus tech tips on it there’s a video that explains it all.

  12. Brin says:

    come and live in Michaelston y fedw speed test now
    0 plng (0.4) 935 Mbs down 967 Mbs up
    built by the village for the village
    wwww.myfi.wales

    1. CarlT says:

      Tempting but I’m a bit too much of a city boy now, even if my broadband isn’t as fast πŸ™‚

    2. Simon says:

      I live In Newport – I can’t even be srsed to – so I can see why Carl Can’t be either!

      Can’t wait to see reports of that service being congested and you all bitching about it πŸ™‚

  13. David Pitt says:

    Sky Fibre Pro here and I never see my Steam downloads drop below my maximum 9.3 MB/Sec (75 Mbps), no matter time of day.

    1. Rahul says:

      That perfectly makes sense! : )
      Because 8Mbps=1MB. Therefore if you divide 75Mbps by 8 that equals to 9.375 MB/Sec. That means Steam is downloading at the top speed rate of 9.3MB and you’re consistently getting 75Mbps regardless of time of day. But of-course if you get below 75Mbps the download rate won’t be 9.3MB.

    2. Simon says:

      I get the same and I only get 8.9

      boohoo I need AA to sort my line….*

      *Not – because you are talking GUFF!

    3. David Pitt says:

      I’m not sure if you are trying to be funny or not but I can’t make sense of your comments.

      Speedtest.net shows I get 75 Mbps and when I download in steam/anything else I get 9.3 MB/Sec.

      I’m not sure how else I could’ve expressed that any different

  14. Archie says:

    As a Virgin Media customer on their 350 package (actual download is 390 meg) I can vouch to say that when downloading a game I get the full 48/49 megabytes a second.

  15. Darcy Green says:

    I have the 36MB version of Sky and steam only uses 600kb/s at most . All devices in my house are off anyone know why its so bad for me? ( I know my internet isnt fast at all but 600kb/s is like really stupid!)

  16. Kelly Blackwell says:

    Today I taking a look at how well the UK’s largest ISPs perform when users download games via Steam.

  17. Ashim says:

    Now it is 2019 and I think speed of the internet has increased. Btw I really the Study case you did. Thank you sir, I am from India and and I am From COCMOD

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