What broadband speed do I need?

Tuesday, 4 April, 2017

One of the most-searched for phrases when it comes to the internet is: ‘What broadband speed do I need?’

It’s no surprise, really, because connections in the UK can vary wildly from a piffling 2Mbps to a whopping 1Gbps. That’s a big difference and the cost of higher speeds can quickly get expensive.

With such dramatically different numbers, it can be hard to figure out what speed meets your requirements.

For most of us in the UK, the broadband speed available when we go online is somewhere between 5Mbps and 50Mbps.

According to Ofcom, the average UK home gets speeds around 29Mbps, but with more and more applications and devices requiring a constant internet connection, is this average speed enough?

Is ‘up to 17 Mbps’ enough broadband speed?

‘Up to 17 Mbps’ is the typical speed promised by many of the cheapest fibre broadband packages. This is enough bandwidth for everything but 4K video streaming, assuming that 17 Mbps is the speed you’re getting consistently.

Unfortunately, at peak times this speed is likely to drop as more people pile onto the connection.

It will still be usable, but you can expect delays with the more demanding tasks like downloading games or watching videos. The faster your connection, the less likely you are to encounter issues at these peak times.

A recent House of Commons report on average download speeds found that the seaside village of Abererch in Wales currently has the UK’s worst internet, with average speeds of just 2Mbps.

What broadband speed do I need? 1

Their connection is so poor that the definition of ‘peak times’ applies to all the waking hours of the day. According to residents, the only time that their internet is even usable is at 4am.

The government defined minimum of acceptable broadband is 10Mbps. This means a 17Mbps connection is a solid margin above the minimum, while the unfortunate people of Abererch are suffering well below that line.

What broadband speed do I need for email and browsing?

Browsing the web is perhaps the most basic task required of your internet connection. When you visit a website, everything you see on that page has to be downloaded – so faster download speed means faster browsing.

In the days of dial-up and early broadband, webpages overloaded with images and extravagant icons could cause significant delays as users waited for the site to finish loading.

Not only is the internet faster nowadays, websites are optimised to give better performance on even the slowest modern connections.

Guide: Remember dial-up internet? What’s the real difference between that and broadband?

Facebook, for example, is a site rich with content: images, videos, apps and live chat.

For many people, it will be the most demanding website for their internet connection. However, the average Facebook user only measures in at around 0.03mbps of bandwidth usage. That’s almost one hundred times less than the average UK speed.

What broadband speed do I need to stream video?

Streaming video requires significantly more bandwidth than images or text. Most large video streaming services can detect the speed of your connection and alter the quality of the video to match. This means less time waiting for videos to load and less of a chance of the video catching its own buffer and stopping. The cost of this? Quality.

What broadband speed do I need? 2

What about streaming Youtube?

Some Youtube videos can vary from 2160 pixels in width to just 114 pixels in width if your connection is very poor.

You’ll still get to watch the video, but will it be worth watching at that point?

If your connection is poor, you may see your video in a very blocky, pixellated state until your connection becomes more stable and you can download enough data to keep the picture clear.

What broadband speed do I need for BBC iPlayer?

The BBC say to stream iPlayer programmes you’ll need a constant connection of up to 2.8Mbps for HD video. SD (standard quality) video streams at 1.5Mbps.

What broadband speed do I need for Netflix?

According to Netflix, you’ll need around 3Mbps for a reasonable quality video to stream consistently. Higher quality video will need 5Mbps and the highest-spec, 4K Ultra HD, needs around 25Mbps.

Even for the best-quality HD Netflix streams we’re safely within the UK average of 29mbps – but your connection may suffer at peak times when everyone else is also trying to get online.

And what about streaming video for gaming?

For online gaming, the most taxing part for your broadband connection is downloading the games themselves. Games are easily the largest files that most people will to download, with many titles weighing in at over 50Gb.

Downloading a file like this can take hours, so relatively small increases in bandwidth can shave off a lot of time spent waiting.

Guide: What is latency and how does it kill fast internet?

Once you have the game downloaded and are playing online, bandwidth becomes a lot less important than the quality of your connection. Generally, higher download speeds means a more solid connection and a better experience, but this isn’t always the case.

There’s also the matter of upload speeds. Low upload speeds can really hurt gamers because playing games online requires the rapid exchange of small amounts of data between your computer and the game server. Virgin Media are one of the only high-street broadband providers to list their upload speeds so they’re really worth considering if you do a lot of online gaming.

Who offers the UK’s fastest broadband speed?

Gigabit internet – with broadband speeds up to 1Gbps – is currently the fastest broadband on the market, but it’s really only available for selected businesses in central London, through a relatively small ISP called Hyperoptic.

Virgin Media has the fastest home broadband you can buy, with their 200Mbps downloads/20Mbps uploads VIVID Gamer package. That’s over four times slower than Hyperoptic but is still an incredibly fast speed compared to the rest of the market.

Virgin’s slowest package is 100Mbps which is still significantly faster than any connection provided by the other ISPs.

Unfortunately, Virgin Media only supplies cable internet to about 60% of UK homes, meaning the rest of us are stuck with the slower fibre speeds – generally topping out at 76 Mbps.

Compare all of Virgin’s best deals here

So what broadband speed should I choose?

The speed you need really depends on the number of people using your connection. If there are kids in the house all with connected devices, speeds up to 17Mbps are likely not going to cut the mustard.

One could be streaming music while browsing Facebook on their tablet, a second is downloading a game and watching Youtube videos at the PC, Netflix is on the TV in the background and everyone’s phone is quietly downloading updates.

While most individual tasks don’t require a lot of bandwidth, they can quickly pile up and overwhelm your connection. Not to mention that, at peak times, busy connections will suffer from limitations on bandwidth, making any problems even worse.

So when you’re asking, ‘What broadband speed do I need?’ the simple answer is that it is always better to have too much than not enough.

See the fastest broadband deals available in your area

Samuel Newman author picture


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.