Feature – Internet slow? WiFi and data speeds explained

If you’ve got a standard ADSL connection then, even if you’re sitting next to the telephone exchange, you’re not going to get much more than 20 Mbps on ADSL2+. You’ll be connected via some copper wire hanging off telegraph poles or in trunking under footpaths. Here in the UK you’ve really got to be close to the exchange to get those speeds, and your upload is going to be around 1 Mbps.

The next “step up” is to have FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet). Each ISP will have a brand name for it, whether it’s called “Superfast” or “Infinity” or “Ultrafast Fibre”.

This is where there’s a fibre-optic link from the telephone exchange to a green box near to your home. Because a fibre optic link is so good, it effectively shortens the distance between you and the exchange. In honesty the “Fibre” bit in the advertising surrounding these products is a little misleading, because the last stretch from the green box to your house is still via the same two bits of crappy copper cable.

Those lucky enough to live less that 300 metres of that cabinet can get near the current maximum – 80 Mbps. If you’re about 500 metres away then it falls to 60 Mbps and, at 1 km you’re down to about 28 Mbps.

Over the copper cable on that last bit of your connection, you’ll be using the VDSL2 technology. This is better than the ADSL2+ technology and indeed, the speeds available on this system could go faster than the current cap of 80 Mbps. You can also get up to 20 Mbps upload.

For more speed there’s also FTTP (Fibre To The Premises) which not many people will have at home. You can also switch to the Virgin broadband option which I’m currently using. I’m on their Business Broadband and get up 350 Mbps download. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I get 10 Mbps upload instead of the 7 Mbps they’re advertising but… but…

..why am I mentioning all this?

Well, if you have a computer connected to an Ethernet cable on a speedy connection you will, after a short while, come to notice just how snappy and responsive it is. It’s great. An Ethernet cable cuts out a lot of possible problems you’ll experience on WiFi.

If you’ve got a local network then you can, if you’ve got the right type of Ethernet cable, get up to 10 Gbps across it. It also cuts down on latency, which is why you’ve simply got to have your PS4 or Xbox plugged directly into your broadband router if you can.

There’s also less interference and better security. Ethernet always wins, so this is usually why your ISP won’t look at your speed complaints unless you’ve plugged directly into your router with a cable.

But wait a minute. We’ve all got phones! Who uses cables?

WiFi is great, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of us are now getting faster 4G speeds when we’re on the bus compared to using WiFi at home. Seems a bit nuts doesn’t it? Indeed, a quick and dirty speed test on my Vodafone 4G connection shows over 34 Mbps down and nearly 2 Mbps up. You can get more than that and that’s faster than all ADSL2+ connections.

So, I’m talking to those of you who are lucky enough to have a really speedy home connection. A rapid FTTC connection hitting over 50Mbps or a Virgin cable connection.

If that’s you, do a WiFi speed test on your phone now. You might find that it’s nowhere near what you were expecting. This is why I wanted to talk a bit about 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi.

The 2.4 GHz frequency is lower down the “dial”, and I always draw a parallel with Medium Wave or AM radio stations. The 2.4 GHz frequency is used on the majority of phones, WiFi hotspots and by a lot of other gadgets too – baby monitors, cordless phones, electric doors and all manner of other stuff. It therefore can be more crowded, but the lower frequency means it has the greatest distance. The same can be said about the 800 MHz frequency that’s being used here in the UK for 4G – it goes further.

The higher frequency 5 GHz WiFi band has a smaller area of coverage. I usually call this “FM” in my analogy. It doesn’t travel as far, but you get a faster speed and it’s less congested too.

Now, I’m in danger of getting into a war of words about 802.11 WiFi standards here. As an example, the 802.11b standard (2.4 GHz) will get you around 11 Mbps top speed, but the 802.11g (2.4GHz) one should get you up to 54 Mbps. However, if you bond 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz together, or use just 5 GHz, you’re going to get much faster speeds.

I don’t want to get buried too deep in the 802.11n / 802.11ac / 802.11 whatever geekiness, so I’ll show you what happens at home when I do a speed test on a 2.4GHz frequency.

Here’s me at home, on my Virgin Broadband connection which delivers up to 350 Mbps to the router. On 2.4 GHz WiFi, I get this speed..

You might get a faster speed at home on your 2.4 GHz. When I did the above test there was a couple of other people using the connection.

As I mentioned before, it’s worth noting, that the test of the Vodafone 4G mast I’m connected to gives me faster download speeds than my 2.4 GHz WiFi, even though my connection to the “outside world” from my home broadband router is superior.

Vodafone 4G speed test

The above just shows that you can have an extremely fast internet connection into your house but, if you’re using a 2.4 GHz WiFi connection, you might be getting slower internet to your phone than when you’re using 4G!

So, if I switch to my 5 GHz WiFi hotspot on the same home connection, I suddenly get much faster speeds.

Put simply, if you’re using a standard 2.4 GHz WiFi connection, you’re not really going to get a fat lot more than 50 Mbps, but it’ll travel better through walls and rooms. However, if you have a phone and a router that supports 5 GHz WiFi (and some don’t), you’ll get a much faster speed, albeit over a smaller area.

For everyone else, we are indeed at a point where the 4G speeds from the mobile providers are exceeding ADSL2+ speeds and, in some cases, FTTC speeds.