Is your faster broadband fast enough?

photo of woman asleep in front of laptop

Saturday, 12 October, 2019

The rise in video streaming has been as rapid as it’s been unexpected.

More than three quarters of today’s broadband traffic now consists of video streaming, and that figure is expected to rise quickly.

The past few years have seen a massive growth in video content online, thanks to the adoption of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Around half of UK households now subscribe to at least one online video service. And for many people, their love of streaming is reason enough to pay that bit extra for faster broadband.

After all, quicker broadband means better streaming – doesn’t it?

Do you wanna go faster?

According to a recent study from Cornell University in the US, and investigations by the Wall Street Journal with help from academic researchers, the response to that may not be clear-cut.

When the WSJ team studied the internet use of 53 journalists across America, they found that after a certain speed was attained, any further increase made little difference to the online experience.

It didn’t increase picture quality or response times much, if at all.

This was even true when a household ran multiple streams at the same time, at the same premises.

One of the households studied had broadband of 150Mbps, but even when they ran seven streams at once, they only used two thirds of their available bandwidth.

The WSJ team concluded that for most households, once broadband speeds reach 100Mbps, anything faster is a waste.

Given that many providers charge extra for faster broadband, this suggests that households worldwide are wasting money on broadband capability they never use.

Is this true? And if it is, could you be among them?

Not all broadband streams are created equal

There have been claims that broadband providers are pushing ultra-fast broadband onto customers who don’t need it, because the profit margins are better.

That makes commercial sense, but it’s not the whole story, and consumers need to understand the bigger picture.

While the Wall Street Journal report refers to a journalist who used a mere 65 per cent of his 150Mbps service, this figure would vary depending on the quality of video content being streamed.

We are entering the era of ultra-high definition video, and 4K quality is now the gold standard. An increasing amount of 4K content is uploaded to the internet on a daily basis.

Streaming 4K takes up considerably more bandwidth than HD. The difference is stark: around 15Mbps for 4K versus 3.5Mbps for HD.

If you live in a household that has multiple people streaming multiple services, all at 4K resolutions, that’s going to push up your speed requirements considerably.

The big online providers like Netflix and Amazon have committed to making content as bandwidth-efficient as possible.

But all it takes is a lot of 4K streaming, plus a decent number of smart devices, for a tech-loving household to feel the need for faster broadband.

And if that doesn’t describe your own household now, chances are that with a growing Internet of Things and increasing 4K content, it may do very soon.

Contractual obligations

In the UK, broadband contracts are typically 12 months, and many now extend for as long as two years.

Unless you plan your tech purchases well in advance, it’s worth signing up to broadband that’s slightly faster than you need now.

In this future-proofed scenario, potential upgrades like a new smart TV or speaker will have room to breathe as they stream high definition content.

Right now, the suggested 100Mbps limit will be fine for many homes, but technology is evolving so quickly that it’s important to be prepared to upgrade.

If you’re happy with your current broadband speeds, and your connection lets you do everything you want to online, it makes sense to stick with it.

But it also makes sense to keep an eye on faster broadband deals, ensuring you’re prepared for changes in your lifestyle (and in technology) whenever they arrive.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!