Friday, August 17, 2012

Ofcom: UK fixed-line broadband performance

Earlier this week, Ofcom published the latest findings from its research into UK fixed-line broadband performance and speeds. From its press release:
"The continuing trend of increasing speeds recorded in the research confirms that consumer migration to faster services is gathering momentum."
...albeit a fairly gentle momentum it would seem:
"The proportion of broadband connections which are superfast (i.e. they have an advertised speed of ‘up to’ 30Mbit/s or above) has increased in recent months with the launch of new superfast packages. By May 2012, 8% of residential broadband connections were superfast, compared with 5% six months previously and 2% in May 2011. Residential superfast broadband connections are also getting faster, with average speeds increasing from 35.5Mbit/s in November 2011 to 35.8Mbit/s in May 2012."
The price differential between current and next generation (superfast) services is small. From Ofcom's overview of UK broadband speeds:
"The difference between the monthly rental fees for ISPs lowest-cost superfast services and their lowest-cost current generation services (which have headline speeds below 'up to' 30Mbit/s) is often relatively small, with the price differential ranging from £5 to £10 a month for most ISPs which offer both types of service. This, coupled with increasing demand for higher-speed connections as consumers use more bandwidth-hungry services and the number of connected devices per household increases, resulted in the proportion of residential fixed broadband connections that were superfast increasing from 5% to 8% in the six months to May 2012."
Download speeds from BT and Virgin Media are impressive:
"Of the 12 ISP packages included in the report, Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 100Mbit/s service was the fastest, with the research revealing average actual speeds of 88.3Mbit/s over a 24 hour period. Of the other superfast packages included in the research, the average download speed on BT Infinity’s ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s service was 58.5Mbit/s3, compared with Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 60Mbit/s at 55.9Mbit/s. BT’s ‘up to’ 38MBit/s package achieved speeds of 32.2Mbit/s3 whilst Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 30Mbit/s service had average speeds of 30.1Mbit/s. During busy peak periods, a higher proportion of Virgin Media cable customers experienced speeds of less than 90% of their average maximum speed, compared to BT Infinity fibre customers."
The overview highlights the even greater difference between upload speeds across current and next generation broadband services:
"The research found that BT Infinity’s ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s service delivered the highest upload speeds of all the packages, averaging 15.6Mbit/s. Among the ADSL2+ packages included in the research, O2/Be’s ‘up to’ 20/24Mbit/s service provided the fastest average upload speeds at 1.1Mbit/s."
The full report explains the growing importance of upload as well as download speeds:
"Broadband connections work both ways, and have an upstream as well as a downstream direction. While broadband advertising tends to focus on download speeds (which are important for most consumer applications), upload speeds matter to those looking to share large files, use real-time two-way video communications and for some online gaming. We therefore also consider upload speeds in our research."
The overview provides further evidence that the current UK definition of superfast broadband as delivering above 24Mbps may be misplaced, as suggested in the recent House of Lords report on UK broadband strategy:
"...ADSL2+ services, which were previously often promoted using the technology’s maximum theoretical speed of ‘up to’ 24Mbit/s (which was rarely achieved in practice), are now frequently being advertised as ‘up to’ 16Mbit/s. Some ISPs have moved away from promoting their services primarily on the basis of speed focussing instead on price, or added value features such as free security."
Interesting that Ofcom is now using 30Mbps as the basis for defining superfast services, in line with the European Digital Agenda targets for 2020. The full report elaborates on this point:
“As regards advertising and headline speeds, we have observed that ISPs have changed the way they advertise their broadband services since new CAP and BCAP guidance on broadband speed claims in advertising came into force on 1 April 2012. For example, Plusnet’s ADSL2+ service is now advertised as being ‘up to’ 16Mbit/s (rather than ‘up to’ 20Mbit/s as it was previously) while BT’s basic fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) service is now advertised as being ‘up to’ 38Mbit/s (rather than ‘up to’ 40Mbit/s as it was previously). In fact, some ISPs no longer advertise their services on the basis of speed, instead focussing on price or added value features such as free security software.”
The overview's footnotes explain that FTTC average speeds reported by Ofcom's research dropped, partly due to an issue affecting some panellists’ BT Home Hub routers during the testing period but possibly as the result of another reason too: average speeds may continue to decrease in the future as BT's roll-outs continue. This is due to the connection of more sparsely populated areas where distances between street cabinets and customers' premises are greater:
"It is possible that the drop in speeds might also be explained by the continuing rollout of FTTC services to less densely populated areas. Although fibre to the street cabinet delivers much faster broadband services, as with ADSL technology, the greater the distance between the home and the street cabinet, the slower the speed."
Again,the full report provides more detail:
" is possible that one factor behind falling average FTTC speeds in the six months to May 2012 (which occurred despite the introduction of ‘up to’ 76Mbit/s retail services in April 2012) is the continuing rollout of FTTC services. As FTTC coverage increases it will extend to less densely-populated areas, where the average distance from the street cabinet to the exchange will tend to be greater. As is the case with ADSL services, the speed provided by the VDSL technology, which is used to transmit data from the street cabinet to the end user’s premises in an FTTC deployment, declines as the length of the copper cable increases, meaning that average FTTC speeds are likely to fall slightly as roll-out reaches more rural areas."
Coverage from ISP Review here, ThinkBroadband here and the BBC here.

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