The Internet has become a one-size-fits-all-solution for the delivery of modern services. We use it for work, shopping, education, news and recreation and new uses are being added almost every day. You are now considered under-privileged if you don’t have access to something that most people did not even know they were going to want 20 years ago. With so many daily necessities now delivered by the Internet, it is not enough just to have a connection, you need a fast one.
Fast speeds are necessary for streaming movies, work conferencing, managing websites, playing interactive games and aggregating data from smart devices. Because of the sheer number of people now connected, a fast connection also helps you avoid data “traffic jams” at peak hours. In fact, the hours when most people want to stream a movie or meet their friends in PUBG or Fortnite are the hours when the ISP is most likely to throttle your connection.
The connection between data allowance and speed
When your broadband deal quotes a speed, it is usually measured in megabits per second, for example 67Mbps. (Most seem to have stopped bothering to add the “per second” so you will often see just 67Mb). To understand what this quoted speed really means, compare it to buying a car that “can do” 100mph – it doesn’t mean you will always be doing 100mph and usually it will be far less. The most obvious modifiers of your real speed are traffic conditions, safety and the law.
On older and cheaper accounts, there is a surcharge if you go over a certain volume of data throughput in a given period. Think of this as mileage or “road use”. Most packages today offer “unlimited” data but they are not unlimited. There is a physical limit imposed by the volume of data that your shared network connection can handle and, in practice, your broadband provider has to share this out between all of its users. If providers had ample bandwidth for the number of customers they signed up, all would be well, but that is almost never the case, so if your usage exceeds a certain amount per month, they will throttle your access until the lines are less busy.
Most ISPs “prioritise” access according to their own criteria. Most give priority to customers paying for faster access and those who use it less often. A few prioritise website browsing over those they believe are streaming movies or other less socially acceptable media (there is controversy about this subject), however, the point is that to get reliably fast Internet access, pay attention to both the speed and data allowance.
What broadband speed do you need?
Some areas of the country are still poorly served but in most places, even the slowest contract is good enough to stream a movie. If you like to watch in high resolution on a big screen it might become an issue. Remember that streaming also adds to your data use: if they have set your cap at 22GB/month that might be enough for around 22 movies (or the equivalent) plus sundry browsing, but that is not one movie per day. Slower accounts are more likely to be de-prioritised during peak hours, interrupting your viewing.
If you don’t stream video and you don’t play online games, you almost certainly don’t need a fast Internet account. Remember, however, that if several family members use the same Internet account, it is the total family use that matters. Here is a broad guide to help you decide the speed you need.
Even the worst served regions can now get 8-10Mbps. That is enough for one or two people to shop online, read emails and browse websites. You should be able to watch a streamed movie at a modest resolution during off-peak hours.
“High Speed Broadband” usually means a connection of 20-25Mbps but for larger families and shared households a 50Mbps account makes sense. If several people want to stream at the same time, you may still hit problems.
To accommodate several heavy users and streamers simultaneously you want a speed of at least 60Mbps. These accounts are often called “Superfast” and cost only a few pounds more for that peace of mind. Keen online gamers should look for “Ultrafast” deals (100-150Mbps). These accounts will also appeal to movie aficionados who prefer 4K video.
Your distance from your ISP’s servers can slow down your access. This means your distance measured along their network route rather than as-the-crow-flies but it is often the same. It also matters how many other customers they have in between. There are online tools that help you check the speed available in your area. Unfortunately, all customers are expected to pay the same rates for the service even though those closest have an advantage – although we do recommend calling them and having a good moan if you’re affected!