There’s a lot of talk about broadband speeds these days, and whether we are getting what we pay for – or, simply, lied to about the service we get. But even if these theoretical speeds are attained and averaged out, does that mean that we’re all going to get the same speed? Hah, you wish…
So the UK media is finally reporting that the UK has serious broadband speed issues.
This is a secret to no-one as our advertising standards are surprisingly lax, allowing companies like Talk Talk and Plusnet to advertise speeds as “Up to XXmeg broadband speeds!”. This sounds great but the truth is much murkier – that is, your speeds can vary depending on who you are, how far you are from your local telecoms exchange and the quality of your line.
BT unsurprisingly came out on top with only an average 2meg discrepancy between advertised speeds (About 25% slower) and actual speeds, with Talk Talk (as usual) and Sky Broadband coming out at an average of 60% slower than advertised speeds.
The UK has a serious issue with broadband speeds as we have not invested in our telephone lines as heavily as others have, and the UK has some of the slowest internet speeds in Europe. From next year, you can actually pay a fee to have your line upgraded but this could be £1000 or more for what, ostensibly, most of Europe is getting for free.
But it is getting better – BT themselves have a five-year plan to fully upgrade all their telephone exchanges and copper wiring with fiber-optics, and hope by 2017 to have fully upgraded the country to an average of 76Mbps. This is going to cost them billions; but the alternatives are to become a third-world internet hub.
All this said, I do happen to be with BT and I’d like to say that I am one of the lucky ones – I have just normal broadband for the moment (I plan to move and hopefully will put me somewhere I can get Infinity) and despite advertised speeds of up to 8Mbps, I am able to achieve 11Mbps with very little ping and no line noise. This is of course after they did a full flush of my line and fixed the local exchange, which is good for everyone really, but it’s still a good story and despite all the problems I had with BT for that short while, we got there eventually – and at least it’s easy to get through to them, unlike some of the alternatives.
Of course, 11Mbps is way behind the 40Mbps+ that we were being promised some years ago and which is on offer if you can get a good connection with fiber-optic cable providers. But speed isn’t the real test – it’s the line quality that matters for online gaming. Good pings and minimal noise can provide a good gaming experience even on some of the slower speeds, because the exchange of data can be done with more efficiency.
This is the crux of the problem really. Whilst 76Mbps sounds fantastic and would cut download speeds dramatically, truth is that really isn’t the best judge of broadband capacity. The speed increase will help, but MMOs are designed to operate on small packets of data streaming both ways – as it currently stands, most MMOs and online games currently won’t benefit a great deal more from increased speed caps. A clean line can dramatically improve performance, whatever your internet speed.
And what of the speeds? The longest I’ve waited for a full game download was Tales of Vesperia on X-Box Live, which took 7 hours. And even that was being throttled and was done on wifi. Steam games generally take about two hours tops – I re-downloaded Neverwinter Nights 2 this week, which is nearly 12 Gigs in size, and it took just a little over two hours. Which for a game of that size I find perfectly reasonable actually. That’s at just over 11Mbps. Sure, at 76Mbps that would be cut the download time dramatically – but for someone who tends to download overnight, or whilst typing anyway, it’s hardly the end of the world…
The problem is with so much pressure put upon broadband providers right now to tackle piracy in all its forms, increased speeds could exacerbate the problem – faster downloads and uploads will lead to more seeding, and more problems. There are basic workarounds that I won’t detail here, but the truth remains that whilst for streaming games, TV and movies increased speeds are great, increased speeds will also allow speedier uploads and downloads of other material too, and encourage more sharing rather than less. This may lead itself to greater restrictions despite the increase in speed – and a less open internet as a result. Which is not a good thing.
We see these numbers advertised and we always assume more is… well… more. “Up to 30 Meg fiber-optic broadband!” “Download speeds of up to 40Megs!” and many are still hoodwinked by the numbers, rather than where they are or what their telephone lines are like. Most of the numbers are just that – numbers. Bandwidth is still in short supply, many areas still face throttled speeds at peak hours and prices are going up to roll out faster cable. File-sharing speeds are dramatically throttled (making some totally legit P2P programs like the Blizzard Updater very slow), and that despite all the cable, most people will still be relying on the copper wiring in their homes to transmit data from the exchange to their homes. That has to be replaced at your own personal expense to get the most from it, and it ain’t gonna be cheap. And as I said, your provider can put usage caps and throttle you at any time, so those speeds can be dramatically lower than you’d expect.
None of this will change with faster speeds, and they won’t tell you this upfront either. There are no miracle solutions – it’s all going to cost, and it’s likely us as consumers who will bear the brunt of the upgrade process.
But if anything, this should remind people that not all broadband providers are equal – and hopefully some of them will have the balls to change.
Although if you’re using Talk Talk by choice, I suggest you just turn off the computer forever. Seriously. No. Freaking. Excuse.