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How fast is my broadband?

March 16, 2010

How fast is my broadband? A short guide to upload speed, download speed how to check the connection speed!


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Alongside price, speed is one of the key factors people talk about when it comes to choosing broadband. All of the internet service providers (ISPs) quote the broadband download speed as a key part of their advertising, while discussions on download speeds have become mainstream news thanks to the government's Digital Britain report. And then there are upload speeds, megabits and speed tests - but what does it all mean?

Megabits and megabytes

Broadband speed is measured in megabits per second, commonly written as Mb or Mbps (as in 24Mb, or 24Mbps). Make sure you don't get confused between megabits and megabytes (which tends to be written as MB, or GB when referring to gigabytes) - In summary, there are eight bits in a byte, so, if your download speed is 8 megabits per second (8Mb), then that's actually shifting 1 megabyte per second (1MB). It's an important distinction, because file sizes (such as songs, pictures and movie clips) are described in megabytes, as are download allowances. So to recap, its megabits per second (Mb) when talking about broadband speed, and megabytes (MB) - or gigabytes (GB) for large files - when talking about file sizes and download caps.

You may also come across Kb and KB - kilobits and kilobytes - there are 1,024KB in a MB, and 1,024MB in a GB - the same goes for Kb/Mb/Gb.

Download speed

When you connect to the internet, the download speed is the pace at which data (websites, programmes, music etc) is transferred from another computer to yours. Currently, when it comes to home broadband, advertised download speeds range from 8Mb to 50Mb, but this is rising at a pretty quick rate - you can expect a broadband download speed of between 100Mb and 200Mb to become commonplace over the next few years. Pretty impressive, as a 2Mb download speed was the common UK standard just a few years ago.

Broadband download speed doesn't have to be a big factor in your decision on which broadband deal to choose. If you're simply going to be leisurely checking your email and surfing around a few web pages, the slowest packages available through Broadband Genie will comfortably suffice. However, if you're going to be downloading a lot of files, especially large ones, or listening and watching a lot of streamed content (such as watching the BBC iPlayer and YouTube, or listening to Spotify or LastFM) it will be more of a concern. A slow internet download speed can become very annoying if your downloads take forever and the video clip you're trying to watch keeps stalling. As a general rule, if you're going to rely on downloading a lot of content, it is definitely worth looking at getting the fastest connection you can comfortably budget for.

Upload speed

So what is upload speed? If you hadn't already guessed, it's the speed at which data (such as your fab new holiday pics and videos) is uploaded to the internet - perhaps to put onto a social networking site such as Facebook, or to a photo print ordering company's website. Essentially, the upload is going in the opposite direction to the download - from your computer to someone else's.

Broadband upload speeds are generally much slower than download speeds. The reason for this is that people generally do far more downloading than uploading, so downloading is given priority by the ISPs (who regulate how their networks deal with the various traffic that is vying to be sent across the ether). Upload speeds become more important to someone who is going to be doing large amounts of uploading, such as someone who works from home and wants to exchange files with a remote network, or people who play a lot of online games.

If upload broadband speeds are important to you, be sure to choose an ISP that takes its upload speed seriously. The best upload speeds you can currently expect from consumer ADSL lines are on O2 and Be Broadband's 'Pro' packages, which claims an upload broadband speed of 'up to' 2.5Mb. The 50Mb Virgin Media cable offering promises an upload speed of 'up to' 1.5Mb, while dedicated business broadband can include even better upload speeds. Again, distance from your telephone exchange, as well as other considerations such as old household wiring, can also be factors in slowing down your upload speed.

Actual speed

It's important to note that you won't always get the broadband speed you might expect - in fact it is likely that you will never actually get a speed of 8Mb on an 8Mb line. While advertised broadband download speeds now tend to start at 'up to 8Mb', the 'up to' can cover a pretty big range - one man's 8Mb connection can be another's 2Mb connection.

The actual download speed you will achieve is dependent on a number of factors, not least the distance you live from your local telephone exchange. ISPs will tell you during the sign-up process what maximum speed you are likely to get - if they don't, make sure to get them to check. People living in big urban areas are likely to have access to faster speeds that those living in the countryside.

How fast is my broadband connection?

So how can you find out the actual download speed and upload speed? The easiest way is to do a broadband speed test, and here I'm with one of the best and most reliable ones around: just head over to this speed test and test it - it's fast and free.

There are a couple of things to note with a broadband speed test: before you do a test, make sure you have closed any other applications using the internet such as email and instant messaging programs. Secondly, your broadband speed can vary wildly at different times of the day depending on external factors, such as the number of users online in your building, your street, and even your country. Also, as more people are online, some ISPs deliberately slow down lines in busy periods of the day - this is called 'traffic shaping'. For these reasons, make sure you do a number of broadband speed tests at different times of the day - and on different days (weekdays, weekends etc) - to get a better picture of the kind of broadband speeds you are receiving.

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Aditya Bhardwaj

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January 3, 2010
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