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Ofcom 2021 Study – Median UK Broadband ISP Speeds Hit 50Mbps

Thursday, September 9th, 2021 (12:24 pm) - Score 1,488
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Ofcom has published their annual study into UK fixed line home broadband ISP speeds, which reports that the average (median) download rate has risen from 50Mbps last year to just 50.4Mbps now (uploads are unchanged at 9.8Mbps). Meanwhile, the performance gap between urban and rural areas remains a problem.

The regulator’s study is based off data gathered during March 2021 via custom modified routers from SamKnows, which were installed in around 2,580 homes for a national sample. This method of testing is extremely accurate, but the limited sample size does limit their report to focusing on only the most common broadband technologies, packages and providers.

NOTE: Testing was conducted at router level during idle periods, which removes the negative impact of local network congestion and slow WiFi.

Crucially, Ofcom’s latest annual report has gone through a major change, which sees them using a “median” instead of a “mean” average to report speeds. For example, the UK’s average download rate of 50.4Mbps, which is a median figure, is now well below the 80Mbps (mean) that they previously reported in May 2021 (here). So it’s not that the UK has got slower, just that Ofcom’s methodology has changed.

We believe this change more accurately reflects the experience of consumers, as median average values describe a base level of performance that at least half of consumers will experience whereas mean average performance is distorted by a comparatively small number of very fast connections,” said Ofcom.

We should also caveat that speed testing like this must not be directly equated to network availability. At present fixed line “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) networks are available to 97%+ of the United Kingdom, which is mostly via hybrid fibre FTTC (Openreach VDSL2, G.fast), cable DOCSIS (Virgin Media) and FTTP technology from various operators.

Most of the UK – primarily in urban areas – are also within reach of “ultrafast” connections (Ofcom defines this as 300Mbps+), which are mainly delivered by Virgin Media’s network (they cover just over half of the country). However, the rapid roll-out of “full fibreFTTP services is having a big impact (here) and now covers 24% of premises (up from 18% last September 2020).

Despite this, around 17% of the UK continues to take slower and less reliable copper ADSL lines, which can drag the overall results down. The take-up of faster connections is rising, but some people will always be discouraged by issues of cost (faster services tend to be more expensive), a lack of awareness and so forth.

Average Median Speeds (Ofcom)
➤ 2021 = 50.4Mbps (9.8Mbps)
➤ 2020 = 50Mbps (9.8Mbps)
➤ 2019 = 42.1Mbps (9.1Mbps)
➤ 2018 = 37Mbps (6Mbps)
➤ 2017 = 36Mbps (5Mbps)

Ofcom’s report also gives a split of real-world average performance by different connection technologies (see below), although this seems to exclude 1Gbps (gigabit) packages – probably due to lack of data. On this point we should remind readers that all sorts of things can affect performance, while connections that use copper wire (FTTC, G.fast, ADSL) are negatively impacted by signal attenuation over distance.

Likewise, ISPs can also suffer from network congestion, traffic management, service faults and poor home wiring, all of which can also have an impact upon the performance scores.

ofcom_2021_broadband_speeds_by_technology

Sadly, there are still some parts of the UK where even so-called “superfast” connections have yet to reach (e.g. remote rural and digitally disadvantaged urban pockets). On the flip side, we continue to see a rapid roll-out of gigabit-capable networks in urban areas, which are naturally growing at a faster pace than sparse rural locations.

In other words, there’s still a clear disparity of performance between urban and rural areas. On this point Ofcom’s limited data only really considers the two most common rural broadband technologies (i.e. hybrid fibre FTTC and pure copper ADSL lines) – copper ADSL lines tend to be much longer and less reliable in rural locations than urban ones.

NOTE: The overall average speed for rural areas is 41.3Mbps vs 55.1Mbps for urban.

ofcom_2021_rural_vs_urban_broadband_speed

Otherwise, anybody who finds themselves suffering slow sub-10Mbps speeds should perhaps consider the new Universal Service Obligation (USO), which sets a minimum download speed of at least 10Mbps for all and is available “upon request” (i.e. not an automatic upgrade). One caveat though is that BT appear to be predominantly handing out 4G devices to tackle this, which won’t work for everybody, but you can complain if it doesn’t deliver.

The Government is also investing £5bn via Project Gigabit to ensure that “gigabit-capable” (1Gbps+) broadband services reach at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025, albeit with the money itself only being invested to improve connectivity in the hardest to reach final 20% of premises (rural and semi-rural areas). In theory this could help to tackle concerns over the rural vs urban divide but, assuming that’s even achievable, it will still take a fair few years to complete.

Performance by ISP

Ofcom’s study also includes a brief breakdown of performance by specific broadband ISPs, which produces some interesting results for the biggest providers, but is only available in full detail via their restrictive interactive reports. However, they do provide a general summary.

ofcom_2021_broadband_speeds_by_uk_isp_2021

We also get some indication of connection latency between different packages and technologies, which measures the responsiveness of networks – the delay (milliseconds) between a connection requesting an action and that action taking place. For example, fast-paced multiplayer video games often desire latency times below around 80ms for smooth play.

As expected, the slowest latency times come from ADSL lines on around 21-23ms, which is still fine. But there’s no escaping just how quick a full fibre (FTTP) service can be. The fact that Virgin Media has yet to adopt the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade on their upstream channels may also be showing through here, since they struggle to beat even FTTC (VDSL2) for latency.

ofcom_2021_broadband_latency_by_uk_isp_2021

Tackling Speed Problems

Speeds do sometimes fall well below estimates and in those situations then it helps to be aware of Ofcom’s Voluntary Code of Practice for Broadband Speeds, which requires member ISPs to provide reliable estimates of connection performance during the order process and to also help resolve problems when they arise.

The latest code (details) provides more information during sign-up and strengthens the right-to-exit when speeds fall below the guaranteed minimum level. Providers are now given one month to resolve the problem and if they fail then customers can walk away, penalty-free (the right to exit also applies to contracts that include phone and TV services purchased with broadband in a bundle).

Take note that this code also includes Cable (e.g. Virgin Media) and FTTP providers, although the minimum guaranteed speed level for such ISPs is measured differently because these services aren’t affected by the same performance issues as other technologies. Instead, the minimum guaranteed download speed will be at least 50% of the advertised speed of the package, rather than 10% for other connection types.

The code remains voluntary, which is understandable since many smaller ISPs find that the costs involved with adapting to Ofcom’s latest rules can be too high (i.e. most won’t sign-up).

Ofcom Fixed Home Broadband Speeds Report 2021
https://www.ofcom.org.uk/home-broadband-performance-2021

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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.
Leave a Comment
11 Responses
  1. Mike says:

    That VM latency…

    1. Matt says:

      Very believable too – from my experience (both with FTTP):
      Virgin: 16.1ms ping, 1.5ms jitter
      BT: 6.6ms ping, 0.5ms jitter

      Virgin really need to push their DOCSIS 3.1 through their network quickly (They seem to be dragging their feet after an initial flurry), then push for 4.0 to pull low-latency as a new benefit.

      It’d be nice if they’d put all customers on DOCSIS 3.1 up/down regardless of package too. (CPE permitting)

    2. A says:

      @Matt Docsis 4 won’t be on VM, they announced the switchover to FTTP post 3.1 not too long ago.

  2. Cheesemp says:

    I don’t think this is as simple as this:
    “In other words, there’s still a clear disparity of performance between urban and rural areas.”

    I think there is also a real disparity between highly commercially viable areas (With often several FTTP players) and barely commercially viable areas. I look at places like my town. You’d never describe us as rural (There are 10000+ people here and we’re only a few miles from Southampton) but we have zero options other than FTTC and no sign of any (not even decent 4G). I’m sure there are people stuck in even more urban area’s just like this too (I think this category must account for 40%+ of connections).

    I still think rural will be most left behind (without support) but I doubt we’ll see any traction either until all the highly profitable areas have been covered by 3 or 4 providers or we finally hit the openreach lottery. We’re just not worth fighting over.

    1. Gary H says:

      Indeed, Apparently its better to fight for a smaller and smaller market share in the same area than take it all in others, 1/2 or a 1/3 of 10,000 overbuilt connections is more attractive then all 10,000 in an area without competition.

      I suppose we just have to assume they know how that works out financially better for them.

  3. Ben says:

    The report says:
    > Over 95% of fibre and cable Netflix streams are delivered in UHD

    I’m not convinced this is accurate. I’d be very surprised if Netflix delivered UHD streams where the viewer only has an HD display. I think this metric should emphasise that 95% of streams could be delivered in UHD if the end-user equipment supported it.

  4. Nicholas Roberts says:

    I’m so glad that M4 bus-lane is performing as well as first forecast (Thanks Mr Wogan).

    It seems to me that the implementation plan for rural areas is designed to leave people behind, not rectify it.

  5. Nicholas Roberts says:

    Fancy the HMG implementation plan being cast in such a way from the getgo that it ensured that the multitude of installer minnows would be an easy target for big city money to take over and sweep-up at below market price at the point when they had completed the majority of the installs but theit business model was in jeopardy because the low-hanging fruit was fast disappearing.

  6. This page is intentionally blank says:

    I see in the last world figures

    https://fairinternetreport.com/research/internet-speed-by-country

    UK 31st!!

    We are a wealthy and supposedly technicaly advanced nation, so what went wrong?

    1. Mick says:

      If you remove the countries that are far smaller or where people are much more clustered into large cities, then the UK is not doing so badly. We are on a par with Germany and France, which are fairer to compare with.

    2. Silus says:

      Thatcher. They were on the cusp of rolling out fibre in the 80s (stood up factories and everything), and Thatcher nixed it in favour of foreign (US) private investment which never materialised .

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