Mini-article – Broadband speeds

By | February 1, 2008
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There’s a definite broadband theme to the newsletter this month. Well, broadband and chocolate…
But before I get onto that, I want to ask your opinion:

From time to time I get asked whether I run courses that people can come and learn to use a PC at. At the moment I don’t. But it’s frustrating hearing from people who’ve been on a local course and been rushed through things too quickly… or the tutor assumed they already knew too much. So it started me thinking about running a ‘PC for beginners’ course. Here’s what I’m imagining:

You’d be with around 10 other PC novices, with a computer each to use so you could learn by doing. I’d go over the things you need to learn and tailor what I covered depending on what you wanted to learn and what level you’re at.

Part of the problem with evening classes is it’s too easy to forget lots between sessions, so I’d do it over a couple of days, spending the day covering what you want to learn. If you happened to live nearby, great. Otherwise you could stay in the hotel we held it in.

At the moment it’s at the early stages and I have to admit it wouldn’t be the cheapest way to do a course (a lot of evening courses are subsidised by the council). But as a quick survey would you let me know whether you’d be interested or not? Just email your thoughts to [email protected]. Even if you just say ‘Sounds great’, ‘Might be interested’ or ‘Not at all’ that would be a great help. Thanks!

Right, once you’ve sent me that quick email, on with the rest of the newsletter!
Mini-article – Broadband speeds
I don’t want to be cynical but I do sometimes wonder if broadband companies are not doing all they could to make it clear exactly what they’re selling.
It’s especially hard to understand what the speed of the broadband really means.

Broadband speed is measured in ‘Mb’ (or Megabits). (It’s not the same as a Megabyte, which you’ll also hear about. A Megabyte is bigger and is abbreviated ‘MB’ – the only difference is whether the b is a capital or not… a pretty daft difference, really. But if you’re talking about broadband, it’s Megabits.)

Now here’s the sneaky fudge…
Any broadband connection can handle however many Mb you like, given long enough. The point is how much it can do in a given time. So the speeds you see are actually how many Mb it can handle in one second. But they often don’t mention that and just say so-and-so-many Mb. Just mentally add on ‘per second’ in your head.

So the bigger the number, the more Mb your connection can handle in a any given time and the faster it’ll be to use. Great! But there are a few other complications…

  1. It also depends on the website you’re looking at. If lots of people are looking at it, or downloading the same thing you’re downloading (or just the website is badly set up so it isn’t very fast), then that’ll be what slows you down. It doesn’t matter how fast you can receive it if the other end isn’t sending it fast enough!
  2. If you have several PCs on one internet connection you share the speed between you. So for example if two of you are on the internet at the same time, on average it’ll be roughly half as fast.
  3. It’s also affected by how far you are from the telephone exchange… and the quality of the phone line between you and it. So you could buy a fast connection and find you don’t get the speed you’ve paid for because your phone line isn’t up to it. That doesn’t apply if you have ‘cable’ (with the TV and everything in the same package) though.

That last one does seem a bit naughty to me. Broadband companies will happily tell you you’re getting an 8Mb package… but if you measure what you actually have you might find it’s only 2Mb. They actually say ‘Up to 8Mb’. But the ‘up to’ always seems to be in small writing! If you happen to be next door to the telephone exchange you might get 8Mb – otherwise you’re out of luck.

So having said all that, what do you need?

Well, at home I have 1Mb broadband. That’s about as quick as you can get in the village I’m in (it is in the middle of nowhere!). And it does the job fine. Occasionally I have to wait for something to download, but only long enough to make a cup of tea so that’s a handy excuse!
If you are into downloading lots of big files (for example videos) or watching lots of TV online then you might want a faster connection. But if you’re thinking of anything faster than 2Mb ask what you’ll actually get in practice – or you might end up paying extra and not getting anything better.

Extra bit
A few extra snippets that it might be useful to know.

  1. Most broadband companies put a ‘Usage Cap’ or ‘Download Limit’ in the contract, saying you’re not allowed to download more than a certain amount per month. The idea is to stop someone running (for example) a music download business that uses up lots of their resources while only paying for a home connection. You can usually pay a pound or so to go over the limit that month, so it’s not really a big issue. And to be honest, I’ve never used up the limit myself anyway.
  2. Most broadband companies who talk about ‘unlimited’ or ‘no usage caps’ are sneaky little so-and-sos. It’s one thing to say you can download up to a certain amount every month. But some companies say there’s no limit… except buried deep in the contract, it says ‘subject to fair usage’. And who decides what’s ‘fair’? You guessed it, they do.
  3. Speeds to upload (send) and download (receive) are usually different. The download one is generally more important, as you spend more time looking at websites and downloading things you find on the web than you spend putting big files onto it. And the download one is the one that broadband companies usually give.
  4. You can measure the actual speed of your own connection. There are dozens of websites that will do this – just go to and type in broadband speed. It can be interesting to see the difference between what you’re told you have and what you actually get!

Website of the month – Hotel Chocolat
If you’re struggling to think of what to get someone for Valentine’s day, this site might be handy. Hotel Chocolat produces fantastic chocolate. For my money it’s much nicer than Thorntons (not that I’ve got anything against Thorntons). I was given some for my birthday last year and it was delicious.
Unfortunately my wife reads this so I’ll have to think of something else… Shame, she’d have liked those Champagne truffles, and I wouldn’t have pinched many when she wasn’t looking…
Anyway, you can visit their website here: Hotel Chocolat  or go straight to the Champagne Truffles here: Champagne Truffles .

Reader’s Question
What broadband supplier should I use? 
It’s a hard question to answer – there’s no one supplier I’d say is great. I personally use Tiscali, and they’ve been all right. But I do know other people who’ve had the odd problem with them. TalkTalk do some very good deals but in my opinion have grown too fast – they haven’t kept up the quality of service as they’ve got bigger. On the other hand I’ve heard good things about Waitrose (yes, they do broadband too – everyone’s at it!) but I’ve never tried them myself so I don’t know first hand.
In fact what I’d suggest is you go onto and search for reviews of whichever broadband suppliers you’re thinking about. Then you can see what experiences other people have had with them.

Word to the Wise – ISP
It’s short for Internet Service Provider. The company you get your internet connection from – eg Tiscali, BT or TalkTalk. So if you have broadband, your ISP is the same thing as your broadband supplier.

One Last Thing
Phew. Well, the dust has settled on the ‘after-Christmas-mayhem’. We’ve counted how many copies of 7 Ways to Really Mess up your PC… we’ve sold. And thanks to everyone who bought a copy, we’ve raised £2437.21 for the NSPCC. I’m not usually a fan of writing big cheques but that’s one that I’ll really enjoy signing. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who bought a copy and I hope you’re finding it interesting and useful!

That’s it for this month,

Tim Wakeling

All the above © Tim Wakeling 2008

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