Like most countries around the world, the UK’s online infrastructure has experienced significant growing pains over the last twenty years.
Broadband has evolved to replace dial-up modem connections, outlasting unsuccessful experiments like BT Midband.
Today, 93 per cent of UK households have access to super-fast internet services, yet 40 per cent still rely on slower copper-based ADSL connections.
And while some Virgin Media customers have recorded 193Mbps download speeds over a 24-hour period, most of us remain in slower lanes of the information superhighway.
But how fast is UK broadband – and is it really quick enough for modern phenomena like streaming HD movies?
The headline statistics
The good news from Ofcom’s annual survey (published on the 9th of May) is that UK broadband speeds have increased considerably in the last twelve months.
In fact, they rose by 28 per cent compared to Ofcom’s 2017 report.
The average UK download speed is now 46.2Mbps, although this national figure masks significant regional variations.
England’s average stands at 47.8Mbps, while Scotland’s is 43.6. Northern Ireland recorded an average of 39.2, whereas the Welsh figure is just 33.4Mbps.
These averages were calculated by testing connection speeds in almost 5,000 homes last November.
Upload speeds over the same period achieved an average of 6.2Mbps. That’s a 44 per cent jump over last year’s data – but still only 13 per cent as fast as the corresponding download figure.
Domestic internet connections are heavily biased in favour of downloads, because we consume more than we distribute.
Even so, uploads are important for playing online games and using VoIP telephony services like Skype, as well as sending emails or uploading files to cloud storage platforms.
The average UK household – if there is such a thing – consumes 190GB of data every month.
Much of this increase has been driven by meteoric growth in streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Companies including Openreach and Virgin Media are investing heavily in national infrastructure, to meet growing consumer demand for faster broadband connections.
For instance, Virgin Media launched a 300Mbps fibre broadband service last year.
However, availability remains limited, and there weren’t enough customers to contribute to Ofcom’s 2018 survey.
The 300Mbps figures should show up in next year’s report, leading to another spike in national averages.
Consumers are also becoming more informed about technical factors like optimal WiFi router positioning, and techniques for eliminating wireless interference.
This is improving domestic WiFi speeds, though not to the same extent as hardwiring a device into a broadband router with an Ethernet cable or Powerline mains adaptor.
Let’s be realistic
From March 1st 2019, UK broadband companies will be encouraged to be more honest about the level of performance they can deliver.
A new code of practice will require a minimum guaranteed download speed, along with estimates of likely peak-time connection speeds.
Hopefully the big UK broadband providers will all sign up to this voluntary code of practice.