Don't get left in the broadband slow lane

Speeds are finally on their way up, say Alessia Horwich and Julian Knight

As far as home broadband is concerned, the UK is racing to catch up with other leading economies in Europe and the Far East. For years, Briton has lagged behind, offering users speeds which would not pass muster in other developed countries. But the Government has made increasing speeds a central target and providers have cottoned on to the fact that supplying noticeable faster broadband to the public could turn into a money spinner.

BT's new Infinity fibre-optic network is rolling out across the country, and Virgin Media announced the debut of its 100 megabits per second (Mbps) service just last week. TalkTalk said on Tuesday it would raise the broadband speed of its customers to a minimum 24Mbps; previously some had had to make do with just Mbps using an old-fashioned ADSL connection.

But behind these positive headlines lies a darker tale: while many providers promise to make supersonic broadband users of us all, the actual speeds consumers are getting in their homes are still failing to take off.

According to the regulator, Ofcom, the average real broadband speed in Britain in April 2009 was 4.1Mbps compared with an average "up to" headline speed of 7.1Mbps. Since last year, new providers have boosted headline rates even further, but in a recent survey, online utility comparison service found that 25 per cent of broadband subscribers were enduring speeds of Mbps or less; 31 per cent of customers at comparison website said they were unhappy with their service, up from 27 per cent the previous year.

Most complaints relate to networks relying on BTs rather rickety copper wire network, which suffers over long distances and from the number of people using it. These networks advertise speeds of up to 20Mbps, but the further you are from the telephone exchange and the more people on the service, the slower your download speeds.

What this means for the consumer, says Lawrence Bleach, the founder of digital comparison website, which is accredited by Ofcom, is that download speed is not about your package, but about where your connection is situated. "Most packages on the market are now one size fits all, usually with a standard up to 20Mbps service. But this means that you will only get as fast as the network can handle where you live."

Residents of urban areas are much more likely to get a faster service. According to Ofcom, average speed delivered to those in towns was 4.6Mbps compared with 3.3Mbps for rural surfers last year. However, city residents will also suffer from the number of users on the same connection, as peak-time speeds were 20 per cent lower than at other times. "Try watching television online with a slower download speed and you will find the images halt and become jerky and you have to endure video pauses," Mr Bleach said.

Those on Virgin Media's fibre-optic network shouldn't have the same problems. "Cable services like Virgin Media's do tend to fare better in terms of delivering closer to the headline speeds," says Michael Phillips, a product manager at broadband choices.- Distance with this new generation network does not affect speed in the same way as ADSL, and Virgin carries out traffic shaping, which targets users that are downloading considerably more than others in periods of high traffic, pulling their service to even out the speed for all other users.

The same will apply for BT's new Infinity network, which advertises speeds of up to 40Mbps to rival Virgin's service of between 20Mbps and 100Mbps. Whereas Virgin's network is largely concentrated in urban areas, BT Infinity will bring super speeds to the areas that are suffering the most snail-like browsing, says Alex Buttle, a director of broadband comparison site top10- "BT Infinity will change the lives of broadband users in many 'slow' areas and bridge the digital divide by bringing superfast broadband outside urban areas for the first time," he said.

But more reliable services can be more expensive too. Where PlusNet, one of the cheapest ADSL providers on the market, charges £11.99 per month for speeds up to 20Mbps, Virgin's prices start at £12.50 per month for 10Mbps and rise to £28 per month for 50Mbps. BT Infinity starts at £19.99 for 40Mbps with a download limit of 20Mbps, and rises to £24.99 per month for up to 40Mbps with unlimited downloads.

If you don't want to pay more for fibre optic you can still improve speeds with a few simple tweaks. Make sure your router is positioned with the fewest obstructions, like walls and doors, between it and your computer, and away from other appliances that emit wireless signals. Clear your cache, all your saved browsing history, to allow your machine to function faster and upgrade your browser to the latest and most efficient version.

Shut down any applications that you aren't using; programs such as MSN Messenger running in the background can slow things down significantly. Disable PP software (such as internet file sharing) as it continually uploads and slows things down, potentially using up your download limits. Security is also a factor and putting a password on your wireless network will stop unauthorised users from hogging your bandwidth. More information on improving broadband speeds at home can be found at media/- features/ broadbandspeedsjy.

If you don't experience any improvement, talk to your provider and see what speed you should be able to reach. Ninety per cent of providers now adhere to Ofcom regulations and must be frank about realistic top speeds.

If your provider isn't delivering, you can switch, choosing either another ADSL provider or fibre optic. However, if the fibre optic coverage does not extend to your location, you may have to explore other options. "Beyond ADSL/ fixed line broadband, mobile broadband can be as fast as 7.Mbps," says Mr Buttle, "so it may well be a better option in areas of strong mobile signal but poor ADSL coverage."

Users should also consider cutting the cost of broadband by buying it as part of a TV and home phone bundle, rather than separately.