Broadband speed: how fast does your broadband need to be?

Avoid the dreaded buffering by ensuring your broadband speed is fast enough to meet your needs

Laptop computer with high speed connection
(Image credit: Getty images)

If you are looking for the best broadband deal, then one of the key considerations should be the speed you are getting for the price you pay.

There are few things more frustrating in our everyday lives than slow internet. From jittering and unresponsive content from streaming services to frozen figures on Zoom calls, slow internet is a source of annoyance for many of us, especially those who work from home.

Anyone with a gamer in the household can tell you how important a strong and stable connection is, and as our work and home lives become more dependent on the internet, having the right kind of broadband package is now more essential than ever.

But with ever-faster packages being released by internet providers, knowing what kind of speed you need and how much you should be paying is important to keep bills down and your household online. 

What is broadband speed?

The broadband speed measures how fast you can download or upload data. Everything we access through the internet is delivered to us as data, and pieces of content such as HD or 4K video contain more pieces of data than a simple email, for example.

The slower your internet connection, the longer it will take you to do the tasks you need online. 

The speed you can get will depend on several different things, such as the area in which you live, and whether you’ve opted for standard or fibre-optic broadband. 

How is broadband speed measured?

The speed of your internet connection is expressed in Megabits per second (Mbps).

The higher the Mbps offered by a particular provider, the quicker your connection should be, which means you’ll be able to download music and films faster, as well as use streaming services without annoying buffering. 

Many of us pick our broadband package based on the advertised speed. This is calculated by the service provider by taking an average of the speed delivered. Typically, you can expect to receive a speed roughly around what is advertised, but it can be slower during peak hours.

However, internet service providers have only had to advertise the average speed that is available to 50% of customers, meaning you could be signing up for a broadband package that gives you a slightly slower speed than you expect.

How do I know what my current broadband speed is?

There are lots of free broadband speed checker tools available online, including those at Checker.ofcom.org.uk, Broadbandspeedchecker, and Broadbandtest.which.co.uk, where you can test how fast your internet connection is. 

Bear in mind that for the test results to be as accurate as possible, you’ll need to make sure no one else in your household is using the internet at the same time and that you’re not running other applications on your computer. 

It is also worth remembering that an old router could be putting the brakes on your internet speed. If yours is more than three or four years old, it may be worth contacting your provider to see if they’ll provide a new one, or you can purchase one yourself.

ADSL versus fibre optic broadband

The two main types of internet connection are ADSL, which stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), and fibre optic broadband. If you have an ADSL broadband connection, your internet connection will be provided through home telephone lines, which means you’ll need to pay a monthly rental charge to Openreach. 

ADSL broadband connections aren’t as fast as fibre-optic broadband, but usually provide a reliable connection. Fibre optic broadband sees the data transmitted via fibre optic cables. Speeds achieved this way are usually much faster than those available from ADSL connections. 

If you live in a remote area, however, you may not yet have access to fibre-optic broadband, although it is gradually being rolled out across growing numbers of rural locations.  

How fast should my broadband be?

How fast you need your internet connection to be depends entirely on how you use the internet and the number of people in your household who are reliant on it. 

As a general rule, if your whole family uses the internet to stream content and download large files, then you should really be looking for a broadband deal with a download speed of at least 35Mbps. 

If you don’t use the internet for work and only really rely on it to send and receive emails, along with a bit of online shopping here and there, you might only need a service offering speeds of 10-12Mbps.

What's a good broadband speed?

Today, the cheapest broadband packages start at around 6-10Mbps, and although this may be fine for simple web browsing, checking emails or messaging, you may find the connection to be slow. Additionally, if you have multiple people trying to do bandwidth-intensive activities such as gaming, streaming video or uploading to social media, then you may find it hard to all be online at once.

A speed of around 15-20Mbps is comfortable for a couple of users watching videos, browsing or working.

If you wanted to download a film, it would probably take you around seven minutes to do this if you had an internet speed of 16Mbps,

This would fall to around one and a half minutes if your internet speed was 76Mbps – a rate achievable through faster and costlier packages. This kind of speed allows for multiple people to stream content, play games or download large files, but you may find it to be slow if the whole household is trying to be online at peak hours.

From there, more specialist packages and providers offer speeds all the way up to 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps) – or around 50 times faster than the cheapest kind of package available.

Bear in mind that the fastest internet speeds won’t be available in every location, especially if you live somewhere remote that is a long way from the nearest telephone exchange. 

How can I compare broadband quotes?

The easiest way to compare broadband quotes from a wide range of different suppliers is through comparison sites, such as GoCompare, MoneySuperMarket, BroadbandChoices, Uswitch and ComparetheMarket.

Comparison sites enable you to enter your postcode, along with the name of your current broadband provider. They will then show the deals available to you. You’ll often be presented with numerous different options, but you can reduce these options by indicating how much you want to spend, the speed you’re looking for, how much data you need, and how long you want your contract to be.  

(MORE: How to save money on your broadband bills)

Tom Higgins is a journalist covering all aspects of the financial world, from investing and sustainability to pensions and personal finance. He graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in June 2020 and has since written online and in print for the Financial Times group, New Statesman media group, numerous trade magazines, and has worked with Bloomberg on social media projects. He has a deep interest in environmentalism, social change, and data-driven storytelling. He can be found tweeting at @tomhuwhig.