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Myths and megabits: How much broadband do you actually need?

Tuesday, August 22nd 2017 by Dan Howdle
Faster packages cost more, so it’s in providers’ interests to sell you as many megabits as they can, but has this led to a disparity between the speed you’re sold and the speed you actually need? Cable.co.uk’s consumer telecoms expert Dan Howdle thinks so…

“640k should be enough for everyone”. That’s a quote famously (he says apocryphally – well, you would, wouldn’t you?) attributed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates circa 1981, of the at-the-time uber-powerful personal computers sold at the top end of IBM’s range. By today’s standards, 640k is approximately 1/13000th of the typical 8GB you’d find in a modern business laptop.

Brainwashed

Point is, in the last 30 or so years there has always been a good reason to increase those headline numbers and sell you the new and improved. More importantly perhaps, there have always been ‘use cases’ that needed that extra power, ideas patiently waiting for technology to catch up.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the notion that bigger numbers equal new uses equal better experiences, that we’ve stopped questioning the concept entirely. Rarely does anyone ask if 4K is usefully better than 1080p, or if 6 teraflops (the forthcoming Xbox One X’s graphics processing power) is usefully, noticeably better than the 4.2 teraflops offered by the PS4 Pro, or if 300Mbps is usefully, functionally any better than 50Mbps. We just assume the answer is yes.

But the truth is unless your screen is 70”+ or you’re sitting with your face pressed up against it, the average person cannot distinguish between 4K and 1080p. Likewise, no one will be able to tell if a game is running on a PS4 Pro or an Xbox One X unless they’re told which is which. And there is literally nothing that you can do with a 300Mbps broadband connection that you can’t do with a 50Mbps one.

Reality check

Virgin Media is now selling broadband packages offering 300Mbps. To put this in perspective, the most bandwidth-intensive thing you would do in a normal household is stream high-definition (HD) or ultra-high-definition (UHD or 4K) content from Netflix, Amazon or whichever service you’re subscribed to. Streaming in HD will take up about 8Mbps, UHD about 25Mbps.

So let’s say you’re streaming Daredevil on Netflix (I use this example cos Daredevil’s aces) in UHD (4K) in a household with a 50Mbps broadband connection. That would still leave 25Mbps unused. You could have three other screens in the house all streaming in HD, and two or three people surfing the web on various devices before you run into any problems.

With 300Mbps you would need twelve separate screens all streaming different 4K content to make full use of the speed available. Or, if you don’t have a 4K TV, 38 HD screens all streaming different content simultaneously. How many households will ever want to do that? None, I reckon.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: Yeah, but what if I want to download movies and games and apps and stuff – I want those downloads to happen like that *clicks fingers*. Well, in theory, more speed would mean less waiting, but the reality is somewhat different.

All those services you could download from – PSN, Sky, Apple Store – all but one or two of them cap the amount of bandwidth awarded a single user. Most of the time, that means your downloads will never exceed 30-40Mbps, even if you have ten times that much speed available.

Providers are working hard to misrepresent your needs

Providers know that there is little a regular household can do with 300Mbps that it can’t do with 50Mbps. Nothing at 76Mbps it can’t do with 38Mbps. Problem is, this small fact tends to get in the way of selling you stuff. Examples?

Well, I don’t want to single anyone out here, as they’re all at it, but on Virgin Media’s website, for example, one of the bullet points describing its VIVID 200 (200Mbps) packages is “For lots of people streaming in HD, watching 4K and more”.

Meanwhile, there is no such bullet point for its 100Mbps service. Under that package, the wording has changed to “Perfect for lots of people doing lots of stuff at the same time,” it says. But with no mention of streaming in 4K – something it is perfectly capable of. Four times over, in fact. But you might be misled here into thinking that 100Mbps isn’t enough to stream in 4K. It’s subtle, but deliberate.

Moving down to its 50Mbps offering, this once-flagship speed (only four years ago) is now down as “Great for small households with 1-4 devices”. Mmm-hmm.

From the misleading to the ridiculous

I’ve recently been looking at broadband pricing around Europe (out of curiosity more than anything else) and I can tell you, the reinforcement of the broadband speed myth is not unique to the UK. In fact, in Sweden it verges on the ridiculous.

Over there, where pure fibre networks are more common and so speeds offered consumers go all the way up to 1000Mbps (or 125 TVs in your house all streaming HD content), the language of differentiation becomes literally comical. “Our 1000Mbps service allows you to work from home,” states one provider, confidently, but with no such claim made about its puny 500Mbps service.

Of course. How could you possibly work from home with only enough bandwidth to make 250 concurrent Skype calls to the office? Impossible!

I’m a massive hypocrite

I currently have Virgin Media’s 200Mbps broadband and am very happy with it. I have no real need for that speed, much like anyone else. But the point I’m making here is that even though I know that at least 150Mbps of that is going to waste, I’m just as brainwashed as the rest of you when it comes to choosing the thing with the biggest number.

We’re all doomed, aren’t we?

Dan Howdle, Cable.co.uk

Dan Howdle is Cable.co.uk’s resident telecoms expert. Dan appears regularly in the UK press to talk about issues faced by UK consumers on matters of broadband, TV and mobile, and has appeared on BBC Breakfast, ITV News, Sky News, and on a number of BBC and non-BBC UK radio stations. If you have a question for Dan, you can email him at expert@cable.co.uk.

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