Being the largest city in the south west of England, the provision of broadband in Bristol is fairly comprehensive, as you’d expect. Indeed, as recently as spring 2019, conference call provider PowWowNow reported that the city was the best connected in the whole of the UK, aside of course from London. And back then only about 7% of the city’s almost half a million residents were able to access Openreach’s Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) services – a situation that’s improved dramatically in the years since, despite the peculiarity of the last few years.
Yet, as if to illustrate how complicated the situation on the ground can be, just a year later it was reported by the Guardian newspaper that the city had the worst record for broadband outages in the whole country. And to understand how there could be such a mixed picture, it’s important to understand the full array of ways in which broadband can actually be delivered.
The UK’s first generation broadband (for want of a better phrase), was the jargon-heavy Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line, otherwise known as ADSL. Basically, that’s access to the internet delivered entirely via old-fashioned (and often just plain old) copper telephone wires. Which plainly weren’t designed for the job. Many households across Bristol are still using this antiquated technology, which usually means speeds can’t get over just a few megabits per second, but generally speaking it’s been superseded by what’s loosely referred to as ‘fibre broadband’. That’s data moving via light signals down fibre-optic cables and an absolute quantum-leap in terms of potential speeds. It’s also somewhat of a misnomer, as in its first iteration, known technically as ‘Fibre to the Cabinet’, or FTTC, a property’s connection wasn’t entirely using fibre optic cables. FTTC still relies on antiquated copper phone lines to connect you to the nearest street cabinet, which itself is indeed connected using fibre optics, but speeds of up to around 70Mbps are possible. So although it’s kind of a half-way house, this remains the most widely used type of connection in the UK, and in Bristol, today.
But a half-way house to what, exactly? Well that’ll be what’s becoming known as ‘Full FIbre’, or to apply the jargon, Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). It’s the state-of-the-art, and in this case, the entire connection is made by fibre optic cable, directly to your property. Speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second or more are possible, but as you’d expect, that comes at a price.
Generally speaking, all the above use a network built and maintained by Openreach (technically part of the BT group), and currently they have a target of connecting 25 million properties to FTTP services by the end of 2026. However, there are other options. Virgin Media have been ahead of the game for years now, offering what is effectively their own FTTP service via their own, entirely separate network – meaning speeds of up to 1.1Gbps are possible, with hints that may even be doubled in the near future. And there’s no variability in that – if you can access Virgin, you can access those incredibly high speeds. However, a property needs to be in a connected area, and fortunately Virgin Media broadband availability in Bristol is pretty good.
As a fall-back, should you find yourself in a particularly poorly served area such as Shirehampton or Avonmouth, for example, there is always mobile broadband, which uses the mobile phone network. As an area with pretty good 4G and 5G coverage, this can provide a decent last resort. Generally speaking, it’s more expensive and regardless of signal strength, reliability can be somewhat patchy, but there for many households mobile broadband can be surprisingly effective – especially if you opt for a wholly unlimited package.
Finally, should you be in a particularly isolated and outlying area close to Bristol, there’s always the option of satellite broadband. The technology has been around for some years now, and was always a very expensive and bespoke option, but newcomers such as Elon Musk’s famous Starlink and rivals such as Oneweb and (of course) Amazon are starting to change that.
Speed tests are an average taken in and around the Bristol area from various internet providers.
|Average download speed
|Average upload speed
It’s not surprising then, that given its status, all the main broadband providers serve Bristol and the surrounding areas. Companies serving the area include BT (along with their subsidiary brands Plusnet, Vodafone and EE Broadband), Sky (who in turn own NOW Broadband), and TalkTalk. Other slightly smaller (but still national) companies working in the area include Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, Onestream and Shell Energy Broadband, who recently took over the Post Office’s broadband business.
As mentioned, all the above operate using the Openreach network, so generally speaking, the availability is roughly similar. Although as a rule, BT are often the first to offer the newer FTTP services to newly connected areas.
Separate to that, of course, is Virgin Media who, if you can access their separate network, will almost certainly be the fastest opinion available. And mobile broadband services in the Bristol area are generally going to be available from EE, Vodafone, Three and BT, as is the case nationally.
As you find in many places, Bristol and surrounding areas such as Bath are also quite well served by a number of local and more specialist suppliers. For example, Gloucestershire based provider Netomnia announced last year that it was looking to connect over 150,000 properties in and around the Bristol area, utilising an investment of close to £50m. Areas include Downed, Kingswood and Filton.
Headquartered over the border in Wales, Ogi Broadband (previously known as Spectrum Broadband) have had a focus on the city in recent years, providing access to areas near the Bristol city central such as Clifton.
And, although not locally based, Lilaconnect have been installing a network that provides FTTP access in and around Bristol – recent areas include Brentry and Henbury. An interesting twist being that you don’t actually have to then source your broadband from them directly – users are still able to access packages from the more mainstream providers.
Obviously, with such an inevitably mixed picture and the city and the outlying areas containing so many suburbs, small towns and villages, it’s not possible to simply list all available speeds here. But to give a general overview, here’s the situation on the ground in a few key areas.
The city itself is, undeniably, very well connected. By some measures, only a small percentage of residents aren’t able to connect to some of the fastest FTTP services. That means speeds of up to around 1Gbps, and even more if you’re luckily enough to source your connection from Virgin Media.
Neighbouring areas include Keynsham (which is a little less well served, but great connections are still relatively easy to access), Stoke Gifford (again, not perfect, but also an area where most residents can now connect to FTTP) and, of course the nearby city of Bath, where connections are surprisingly poor (and the story complex enough to warrant its own article), meaning only about half of residents able to access the highest speeds.
Almondsbury is an example of a quite poorly connected area, as is Pucklechurch, and residents of nearby Bradford-on-Avon have particularly poor options at the moment.
Contrasting with that, and in the wider area around Bristol, the areas of Yate, Long Ashton, Kingswood, Frampton Cotterell, Clevedon, Yatton, and Nailsea all seem to be able to be well connected, with most users able to access full fibre broadband.
Generally, it’d be hard to argue that Bristol is a poorly connected city. The central areas are very well connected, which you’d expect, particularly given its size, status and the presence of one of the country’s biggest universities.
But it’s encouraging to see that even outlying towns and villages seem to be faring quite well. Although it’s inevitable that some rural areas will be falling behind – and residents may have to consider alternatives such as mobile, satellite or, where available, wifi broadband – the overall picture seems to be very positive.