Broadband: The Facts

We’ve created this guide to help you understand broadband. The 1 million dollar question: How do I get more speed from my broadband? Some common questions are answered in brief in the right hand panel.

We’ll explain in more detail about how, why and tips to get more speed.
How Broadband Works
In a nutshell, your router connects to your exchange via copper cables. At the exchange, your connected is routed via fibre optic cable (generally) to BT’s core ATM network, which is a huge circular network of multiple, fast fibre with 1000’s of Mbps capacity. It is then handed off to our network on a fixed connection size (previously called Centrals – usually 622Mbps each).

Explain my broadband speed

To determine your line’s broadband speed, when you turn on your router it tests the line quality to the exchange and negotiates, or synchronises, the speed. A good clean line will get faster speeds and a bad line will get a lower speed. Throughout use the equipment at the exchange monitors your line and it’s performance and occasionally tweaks the speeds. For example, sending data too fast over a bad line will create more errors.

If there are too many errors, your router and your line will resync at a lower speed in order to increase the real-world speed (if 20% of the data received has errors and has to be resent, it’s quicker to reduce the speed by 20% and thus have no errors). Likewise, the system might increase speed if it measures that the quality of the line has improved and it can achieve greater speeds. The system is designed to always try to get your maximum speed.

However, your sync speed (maximum speed) isn’t the speed you get. You always get 1/2 meg lower in order to ensure fewer errors. 

What determines my speed

The longer your phone line, the lower speeds you’ll get.
You might be 2miles from your exchange as-the-crow-flies, but the cable might, quite literally, go around the houses before it gets there. Down the street, over the road, round another estate etc  – and might actually turn out to be 4 miles long.
Other factors can introduce speed problems too. For example if your overhead cable goes over a neighbours ham-radio setup, or a factory that uses high-powered motors (electromagnet noise is generated and affects you line).

These are common causes for different line qualities at different times of the day. The actual physical quality of the line might also be an issue. For best speeds it needs to be brand new, well insulated, well joined and totally free from moisture. That’s a lot to ask. Anyone of those could be problem and BT are constantly renewing cables after a certain amount of time because the insulation cracks over time, or water has leaked into the cable or junction boxes etc.

Your home wiring can also play a huge part. Your router should be connected to your master socket for best results. You might think that the extra 20 meters of cable in your house won’t make much of a difference on a 3mile line but it does. A poor quality extension cable, or badly fitted, is the main cause of bad internet connections and slow speeds. If in doubt, use the test socket of you master socket to test the speeds (the test socket cuts off all the internal phone wiring and so eliminates it as a problem – or identifies it!).

A bad micro filter can also affect speed and this is another very common cause. The micro-filters in your property do a very important job of keeping ADSL frequencies and voice frequencies separated, to minimise interference between the two.

This ensures a crystal-clear voice line, and a stable, fast ADSL line, there should be a micro-filter on each telephone socket in use, or your broadband speed and voice line quality will likely suffer greatly.
More info on speeds and IP profiling can be found here.

There will always be congestion on the internet nowadays. Congestion occurs throughout the internet usually because the physical size of connections are fixed and too much traffic can try to be pushed through a cable that can’t take it.

Congestion occurs at the following points:

  • Your network - Lets say you have three computers all trying to download a large file over your broadband connection. If you get 6Mbps, all three computers won’t be able to get full speed, so each will have a share, each getting about 2Mbps. For businesses, where there are multiple computers and devices in use, the actual network itself might become congested too. Bear in mind also that when at home, your mobile phones, iPad, tablets or other devices might be using your WiFi too, so if iPlayer won’t stream to your computer while you’re downloading an app to your iPhone, this is almost certainly due to your network getting congested.
  • Your exchange - Lots of people are connected to equipment at your exchange and these have fixed processing speeds and fixed connections to the rest of the internet. For example, if 1000 people are connected to the equipment (basically a big router) and they all try to transfer data at the same time it’ll slow down – just like your computer does when you have too many applications open, although the processing power of these “big routers” are generally calculated to be more than enough generally. More importantly is the actual speed of the cable that connects your exchange to BT’s core ATM network. Lets say it’s a 1000Mbps fibre link. If all 1000 people try to download a file, just like your home network, they’ll all get 1Mbps and not the 6Mbps you might expect. Economies and the principle that not everyone will need full download speed all the time usually avoids this kind of extreme congestion. At peak times though, this connection will be overloaded and you will slow down – usually by about 50%. It’s the only way ISP’s can offer broadband that doesn’t cost hundred of pounds per month.
  • BT’s core ATM network. Most internet traffic in the UK use this so during a busy period, this can be congested. There may be a break in the fiber somewhere so traffic might be diverted, again causing increased congestion.
  • Our Link to BT’s network. At peak times it’s possible that this becomes congested too. 90% of the time this link is under capacity and so cannot be the cause of the congestion, but at times it does peak. It has to, we buy a fixed amount from BT for several hundreds of pounds per Mbps and for us to run a business, we have to have this at the optimum level. This is never a primary cause for congestion though because if we are 110% over capacity here, it just means a small speed drop. This occurs for about 2.1 hours per day on our network.
  • Our network. Once onto our network there’s very little chance of congestion usually as we have plenty of links all around the world – some of the fastest around. Our network operates 99.9% of the time below 80% capacity. Other ISP’s might have issues here though
  • The rest of the internet. The internet as a whole is made up of lots of “big routers” connected by fixed cables in a massive web. If, for example, lots of people decide to download an update from Apple at the same time, or watch the same iPlayer program then there is going to be congestion. Likewise, if a extraordinary amount of traffic tries to go over one of the submarine cables going to the USA for example, that link will be congested too – for everyone in the UK.

So there you can see that there are several places the internet can become congested and because of the way it’s designed and the fact that there are peak times and quiet times, there will always be congestion somewhere along the line. This is more-often-than-not from about 4pm until 11pm in the UK – that’s when everyone uses the  internet as a whole significantly more than the rest of the day – about 3 times more, sometimes 4 or 5.

During peak times, you may only get half or even quarter of your maximum sync speed.

Tips on increasing speed
  • Connect your router to the master socket
  • Do a “quiet line test” to ensure there is no noise on your line (dial 17070 and press option 2)
  • Do your big downloads off-peak (12am to 7am) – if everyone did this there would be virtually no congestion!
  • Live close to your exchange
If you need higher speeds, we’ll be happy to help. Additional ADSL lines, leased lines or fibre may be an option – although these are all fairly expensive and generally only suitable for businesses.

Common Questions…

I pay for 8Mbps broadband but only get 5Mbps?
You broadband is “up to” 8Mbps – that means thats the fastest it’ll go with everything perfect. The further you are from your exchange the lower you sync (maximum) speed will be

I sync at 5Mbps but only get 2Mbps sometimes?
You’ll never be able to achieve full speed all of the time realistically. It’s because of congestion really and you are not likely to get your full speeds during peak times. It’s like a motorway: You won’t be able to go 70mph during rush hour.

A neighbour is syncing at a higher speed than me?
All things being equal, you should pretty much sync at the same speed as your neighbour. However, there are many factors that determine your speed and if yours is much lower than your neighbour’s then the likely cause is internal wiring, your filter or your router. It’s also possible they are physically connected to your exchange by a different cable or even a different exchange. It’s primarily the length of your line from the exchange which determines your speed

My speed test results vary from minute to minute?
Assuming there’s no other internet use on your broadband connection, differences can be attributed normally to server errors or congestion. It’s best to do two or three speed tests to get an average.

Why can’t you just give me full speed all the time?
Our network is designed to give you full speed at all times. The BT exchange is not always though. It’s not actually possible financially. The bandwidth we buy (just like any other ISP) costs several hundreds of pounds per Mbps – per link too. The biggest cost to an ISP in terms of broadband is generally the pipe that comes from the BT network to ours. Although our other links to the internet run into thousands of pounds per month, these are insignificant (and run at no more than 50% capacity most of the time). ISP’s have to balance usage across it’s users and will always, if run properly, hit it’s peak capacity or slightly under. Bad ISP’s hit this limit very often, good ISP’s very rarely. WebMate’s
“pipe” to BT’s network is under it’s limit over 90% of the time. That means, at various points in the day, for a total of about 2.1 hours, our network is at capacity. When this happens your speeds are not actually affected much because thousands of users receive, around a 2% speed decrease.

XYZ ISP says they can though?
They can’t. It’s not possible. Chances are the salesman wants his (or her) commission and is uninterested in the fact that after a few month’s you’ll cancel. It makes no difference to them once they’ve hit their target and got their money!

BT say our broadband will be faster directly with them?
It won’t. BT Retail are separate company from BT Wholesale and buy broadband for their customers in much the same way we do, and most other ISP’s do. It’s more likely to be slower because they cannot fine tune performance in the way we can across our entire network and may suffer from increased congestion and traffic shaping.

Will a new computer speed up my internet?
Probably. It’ll make your internet experience faster. Older computers might struggle to cope with some internet use and a new computer will make it much faster to use.

Isn’t it in your advantage for me to have lower speeds?
Some ISP’s have to give customers lower overall speeds because of their price points. £10 a month broadband has to be limited, and often is. We have no limits or throttling. It actually makes no difference to us in terms of cost. If you are going to download, say a 100MB file – you are going to download it regardless and it’s better all round if this happens quickly rather than slowly. So we will always do our best to help ensure you get the fastest speeds your line can handle.

I don’t understand a word of this, I just want faster speeds!
We’ll happily try to explain things to you if necessary and we do appreciate that the terminology and concepts of it all can be confusing. It’s all been designed by geeks - and we’re a bit geeky too, but we’ll do our best.
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