As a home technology specialist, I get more questions about Wi-Fi and Internet than anything else, it's the lifeblood of our connected lives. If Maslow was around today, he surely would have included Wi-Fi in his hierarchy of needs.
But the fact is that many of us put up with substandard Wi-Fi and few of us know how to make it better. In this series of blog posts I'm going to explain how Internet is delivered to your home, how it's distributed around your home and why slow internet is a source of so much frustration for households all over the UK.
By the time you've finished reading you'll be able to dazzle your friends and family with your Wi-Fi know-how. And you'll know exactly what it takes to get blazing fast Wi-Fi in every corner of your home.
What makes for a good home internet experience can be pretty much split into two parts -
1 - How the Internet gets into your home (your Internet Service Provider - ISP)
2 - How the Internet is distributed around your home (your Wi-Fi system)
Bytes and Bits
But before we get into that, we'll do a crash course to help you understand how internet speed is measured and the difference between bytes and bits, which are the feet and inches of the connected age.
People often talk about 'megs' when they talk about internet speed, but few people know the difference between megabytes and megabits, particularly when talking about Internet speed. I’ve spoken to many ISP call centre operatives who don’t know the difference between bits and bytes, which is rather like a butcher not knowing the difference between pounds and ounces…
But it’s actually very simple - 8 bits = 1 byte. So 8 megabits is the same as 1 megabyte.
Megabits per second (usually abbreviated as Mbps, sometimes Mb/s and sometimes just Mb) is what most ISPs quote when they talk about speed, but it’s a bit misleading because people are used to dealing with file sizes on their PCs and mobile devices in MegaBytes (MB). But broadband speeds are typically quoted by ISP marketing departments, so it’s not hugely surprising that they choose to quote the larger number.
For example, if one ISP says their speed of their best package has a download speed of 9.5 MB/s, while another ISP advertises theirs as 76 Mb/s, which one would most people choose? It sounds like the second provider offers a much faster service, but in fact their speeds are exactly the same.
Many people reasonably assume that a 1MB file can be downloaded in 1 second with a 1Mbps connection… seems reasonable, right? But the reality of course is that it won’t, in fact it will take 8 seconds to download a 1MB file on a 1Mbps Internet connection.
How much speed do I really need?
So what does all this mean for someone that just wants to watch some Netflix and listen to some Spotify? Here’s what you need in terms of broadband speed to have good streaming media experience:
1-2Mbps to stream music
5-7Mbps to stream HD video
25 Mbps to stream UHD/4K video
Two people watching two different Netflix streams on an iPad and a Smart TV could quickly use up the entire bandwidth on a 10-15Mbps connection. A third person trying to look at photos on Facebook or play an online videogame will be left having a pretty rough time. But this is far from an unusual situation in a modern family home. If you have a slow internet connection (under 4-5Mbps) then one Netflix stream could use up your entire bandwidth leaving none available for even just basic web surfing or email. Quite simply, our ever-increasing demand for Internet is outstripping supply in many households.
Internet speeds are improving all the time as technology moves on and infrastruture improves. 16Mbps was blazing fast 7-8 years ago, but today it’s way below the UK average. Many homes we see still only have a download speed of 4-5Mbps, sometimes even less. Streaming video on a connection this slow is very frustrating, if even possible at all. If you’ve got a connection this slow then read on, because there are options…
The typical UK household now enjoys a 46.2Mbps download speed and that speed is increasing by over 25% year on year. Nevertheless, we’re a pretty lowly 23rd in the world in terms of average internet speed. But we do have the 4th cheapest internet in the world (based on cost of internet as a percentage of GDP per capita), so we should be thankful for that before we affirm our position as No.1 moaners in the world.
But speed isn’t the only hurdle on your path to Internet bliss. Data caps are often found on cheaper internet connections and can cause problems if you don’t understand how much data you’re using.
As we’ve mentioned, streaming video is often the biggest strain on a home broadband connection. A typical family in 2018 could have several devices capable of streaming HD video ranging from phones to TVs to tablets and beyond, so let's look at how much data streaming video uses:
One hour or HD video is approximately 3GB
One hour of UHD video is approximately 7GB
I often hear things like 'We don't need a fancy broadband package, we don’t really use the internet much so the basic one will be good enough'. But if you've got a new 4K TV and a broadband package with a 25GB data allowance, you could use up your entire months’ data allowance in one evening of box-set bingeing.
Streaming and Downloading – They’re kind of the same thing…
Another common misconception is that streaming isn't the same as downloading, or that streaming doesn't count towards your internet usage. More often than not, this streaming/downloading myth is recounted to me by parents who have bowed to their children's supposed superior tech knowledge… of course it normally turns out to be children trying to hoodwink their parents into thinking that streaming Netflix all evening won't cost them anything.
The only time when 'streaming' doesn't contribute towards your data usage with your ISP is when you're streaming from another device inside your home, like a network drive or a PC. There are also increasingly common deals whereby content providers will pay an ISP to ‘zero rate’ their content allowing for unlimited streaming of certain apps, but this practice is controversial, possibly illegal under EU law (although does that really matter any more?!) and leads us down the ‘net neutrality’ rabbit hole, which I could go on about for pages and pages. But I won’t…
Data caps are particularly pertinent when talking about mobile mobile 3G/4G data plans, which tend to have much lower data caps than home/fixed line broadband. This is owing to the finite amount of airspace that’s available to these services, compared to higher bandwidth fixed line infrastructure operated by Openreach and Virgin.
In short, my strong recommendation is to get the very best internet package on offer, both in terms of speed and data cap – unlimited being highly preferential.
Thanks for reading! If you’re thirsty for more then click here to find out about the different options you have for getting internet delivered to your home.