As broad as it is long
Rather like the miles per gallon figure quoted by car manufacturers, broadband speeds have always seemed optimistic to the point of implausibility. Consumers across the UK will have experienced the frustration of reporting consistently sluggish internet access to their broadband providers, only to be told that advertised speeds are merely indicative. To avoid falling foul of advertising regulations, those glossy media campaigns promising a certain data transfer speed only have to apply to ten per cent of customers. Even worse, quoted speeds usually represent a best-case scenario that doesn’t take into account peak periods of demand or other real-world factors.
With connection speed and price identified as the two most important factors when people sign up to a broadband provider, ‘Which?’ recently launched a campaign with the intention of forcing the advertising authorities to clamp down on misleading information. Having comfortably exceeded their aim of attracting 40,000 signatures, it remains to be seen whether the accompanying petition will see terms like ‘superfast’ being either quantified or banned outright. In the meantime, what can people do to determine how badly their broadband provider is failing them? More importantly, what can be done to improve typical internet access speeds?
As pointed out above, broadband speeds fluctuate during the day and no two readings will ever be identical. However, websites like Broadband Speedchecker and Ookla Speedtest will give reasonably accurate download and upload speeds. The latter relates to information being sent from a particular computer or connection and it can be less than five per cent of the more important download speed. This is the headline figure in most ad campaigns and also the one that determines how long it takes data to reach its destination. Because results may vary, it’s best to do several speed tests and calculate an average rather than taking the first result as gospel.
Sometimes, a frustratingly slow connection can be down to an individual’s hardware setup as much as the cabling or wiring into their home. An old or malfunctioning modem or router can be one factor stifling the throughput of data to a computer’s Central Processing Unit, or CPU. The time-honoured technique of turning-it-off-and-turning-it-on-again may be worth a try if upgrading isn’t an option. Unnecessarily long cables may increase the time it takes for data to arrive, and software can play a part as well. Modern web browsers are far more efficient than their ancestors (so if you’re still using IE6 it’s definitely time to upgrade), and it’s not recommended to have multiple browser windows or numerous toolbars open. Change your settings so temporary and cached content is deleted automatically, while virus and malware scans should both be carried out on a regular basis.
Anyone who’s contacted their broadband provider with complaints about a mobile device will probably be familiar with the request to hardwire it into the main phone socket. This is because wired connections are inevitably faster than wireless ones, which are prone to interference and packet loss. It’s advisable to have a physical connection between a PC and a router whenever possible since routers can conflict with other devices sharing their frequency. It may be possible to change the frequency one piece of equipment emits, but an Ethernet cable will avoid any need to do so. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, automatically throttle internet access when an individual exceeds their monthly data allowance which can cause noticeable drop-offs in download speeds.
The good news for anyone struggling with limited download speeds is that the UK Government is committed to rolling out high-speed broadband, with a £1 billion investment aimed at giving 90 per cent of the UK superfast broadband by 2016. The hope is that by 2018, almost everyone will benefit from speeds of at least 24 megabits per second. Even without upgrading to the latest hardware or switching ISP, it should soon be possible to watch that YouTube video of the shark-suited cat riding a Roomba without any interruptions or buffering.