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Can I get high-speed broadband?

By Aaron Howdle
Wednesday, March 28th 2018

High-speed broadband refers to superfast and ultrafast broadband, both of which are significantly faster than standard broadband. Superfast refers to download speeds of 30Mbps or more, while ultrafast refers to broadband at speeds of 300Mbps or more. Standard broadband in the UK has an average download speed of just 9.7Mbps, which is increasingly not enough for our online demands.

Virgin Media is the market leader in high-speed broadband in the UK. From its beginnings as a cable TV provider, Virgin has grown year-on-year, expanding its broadband and TV offering, as well as moving into the mobile phone arena. With a top speed of 350Mbps, Virgin continues to race ahead - so can you get it where you are?

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Virgin Media has by far the fastest broadband

Virgin Media offers broadband speeds from 50Mbps to 350Mbps. Meanwhile, its competitors' fibre broadband packages offer a maximum of 76Mbps. Virgin Media's fastest is more than four times as quick as everyone else's.

Virgin's top speed, in fact, is the only so-called 'ultrafast' broadband on offer widely across the UK, boasting download speeds up to 350Mbps, and upload speeds reaching 20Mbps. To put this in perspective, if you can receive the advertised 350Mbps top speed, you could stream around 12 Ultra High Definition movies at the same time with some bandwidth to spare. That, dear friends, is cray-cray.

Why is Virgin Media so fast?

Virgin Media is able to offer the fastest broadband connections due to the fact that it runs its own cable infrastructure, separate from the Openreach network used by other mainstream providers. Over the years it has been able to upgrade and expand that network to keep offering faster speeds.

In partnership with its parent company Liberty Global, Virgin has invested £3bn in Project Lightning. This investment paid for a new and expanded fibre optic network around the country. Although the top speed on offer from Virgin Media broadband right now is 350Mbps, its cables are capable of download speeds of 1Gbps (1000Mbps) and beyond, which means we can look forward to receiving those speeds in future.

If you can't get Virgin Media

So what if you have looked, only to find Virgin Media doesn't cover your area? The first thing is to register your interest with Virgin Media, who will inform you when services become available in your area. However, if you want high-speed broadband right now, you can turn to the other main providers, which all use the Openreach network to provide broadband.

The Openreach network covers more than 27.4m UK homes and businesses. It acts as a wholesaler, selling its network bandwidth to broadband and mobile phone companies. Most broadband providers in the UK use Openreach to provide their services, which explains why almost all of them offer the same top download speeds of 76Mbps and upload speeds of up to 19Mbps.

When compared to Virgin Media's headline top speed of 350Mbps, these speeds might seem slow, but they are more than enough for most uses. For example, Netflix recommends a download speed of 25Mbps to stream an Ultra High Definition movie, or 5Mbps to stream in High Definition, so a fibre connection of even 38Mbps would be sufficient.

Advertised speeds versus actual speed

4k content requires high bandwidth

Most of us have experienced a slow internet connection at certain times of day or, more annoyingly, a few days in a row. So it's pretty clear that speeds advertised by broadband providers are not always what they should be. An Ofcom report from 2016 showed the average download speeds experienced by customers at peak times are lower than those advertised. However these figures were for peak times when internet traffic is at its busiest.

There are some other factors that can affect your speed. The position of your router can make a big difference to your speed. Plus, at busy times of day, such as evenings, more people are using your provider's local capacity, which slows everybody down . A slow connection can also occur if you live a long way from your nearest street cabinet; this is more likely to be a problem in remote or rural areas.

In 2015, the industry regulator Ofcom introduced a voluntary code of practice for broadband providers, which large providers, including Virgin Media, BT, Sky and TalkTalk, signed up to. This voluntary code is not enforceable and does not guarantee compliance, but does show a willingness on the part of providers to follow this code.

The code asks service providers to "give clear information on broadband speeds to consumers when they consider or buy a home broadband service, and to provide redress when speeds performance is poor". The code was recently updated, and from March 2019, participating providers should also give an indication of peak-time speeds, provide a minimum guaranteed download speed and improve the right to exit your contract if your connection is too slow.

Gigabit is out there, but you probably can't get it

Gigabit broadband is the term for broadband with download speeds of 1Gbps (1000Mbps). As things stand, very few domestic customers can get their hands on gigabit broadband. At present it is available to around 3% of the UK population. However there are a few examples in existence, TalkTalk's 1Gbps broadband test in York being one.

There are a few smaller providers who offer gigabit broadband in selected areas. One such company is Gigaclear, which targets locations poorly served by other broadband providers. If there is enough local interest in its services, Gigaclear can install ultrafast broadband with speeds up to 1Gbps.

Another example is Hyperoptic, which provides gigabit broadband in some areas. Much like Gigaclear, Hyperoptic only offers gigabit broadband to large numbers of people in one place - but instead of rural predominantly locations, Hyperoptic targets flats with 100 or more residents.

For now, the fastest broadband available is Virgin Media's 350Mbps, but we can expect still faster speeds from both Virgin and the other providers over the coming decade.

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