How to choose the most powerful broadband - data vs Mbps
When it comes to comparing broadband services, your data cap is more important than your Mbps, says John Cradden
When it comes to comparing broadband services, is data the new speed?
For years, most consumers have been opting for whichever broadband service provides the fastest connection speeds for their money.
With the likes of UPC offering packages with speeds of 240Mbps, the broadband speed game appears to have become a highly competitive one.
Of course, the story is very different if you live outside a city or major urban centre, where you might struggle to get services capable of delivering speeds much faster than 10Mbps.
However, the Department of Communications has decided that the target speed for the new National Broadband Plan, which aims to hook up rural Ireland to fast broadband by 2016 or so, will be just 30Mbps.
This prompted hoots of derision from many industry watchers, who have argued that this baseline is alarmingly unambitious given the rate at which broadband speeds have increased in urban areas, and will further increase the 'digital divide' between these and rural regions.
Indeed, with speeds of up to 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) already a reality in some parts of Dublin as user demands continue to rise for better online services capable of streaming high-definition video, 30Mbps might look positively stone age.
But perhaps this focus on speed is missing the point, as the chances are that most of us would be hard-pressed to notice the difference between a 30Mbps and a 100Mbps service, never mind a 240Mbps one.
"Sure, speed is great, but for households with connections of 24Mbps or more, speed is no longer really an issue as 24Mbps is more than enough for almost all services - even in households with multiple users," said Simon Moynihan of price comparison site Bonkers.ie.
"On the other hand, data usage is increasing enormously as we consume more and more rich media. This has made consumers much more alert to data and the demand for unlimited packages has been acknowledged by most Irish fixed-line ISPs, which now offer unlimited data, even with their basic packages.
"I think the speed race is as much about marketing as it is about service. It's easy for consumers to understand speed too as many of them have had poor service in the past. And ISPs that can advertise the highest speeds in a particular market have an advantage."
He adds that for households using DSL (which uses the traditional telephone network) and other non-fibre broadband connections, what's also important is the contention ratio i.e. how many people are sharing your connection.
"Your ISP should be able to tell you this and bear in mind that the higher the number, the slower things can get," said Moynihan.
Eamon Wallace of broadband lobby group IrelandOffline says that while UPC - which has a clear lead in Ireland in terms of the fastest broadband speeds - does "a sliding scale of sorts for pricing and speed", the others are not focusing on speeds.
"Generally the others are not overly interested in selling by speed but are very interested in selling by how much data you use. So you'll see most packages charged by XGb or YGb of data. "If you look at, for example, vodafone you'll see X euro for 30Gbs, Y euro for 100Gbs of data etc, but rarely will speed be mentioned, if ever."
Given how far ahead UPC is in terms of speeds, maybe this isn't surprising but, according to Wallace, data is where the costs are for the wholesalers. "Data is charged to the wholesalers by data amounts, and that cost is then parcelled up and passed on to the consumer.
"It's all about data these days. The infrastructure generally does not differentiate by speed. In other words, they just deliver the fastest your line can handle," he said (UPC excepted).
According to recent research commissioned by price comparison site Switcher.ie, the top three reasons that people switch broadband are: price, data and speed.
One-third of those surveyed said price was the most important factor. Speed was the main factor for 21pc, while 15pc said the data allowance was the primary reason.
"There is a direct relationship between all three reasons in that the faster the speed, the more likely you are to use more data and the more expensive your bill will be, so make sure to find a broadband contract that suits you," said Switcher.ie managing director Eoin Clarke.
Just under two-in-five Irish adults claim to spend more than 20 hours a week online in a typical week.
With the greater numbers of users watching video online, this is likely to impact on data allowances," said Mr Clarke.
"Some contracts can charge you higher rates if you exceed your data allowance so make sure you know what it is and try to stay within the limit. Nowadays households have multiple devices such as smart phones, tablets, game consoles and digital TV set-top boxes.
"For these households, an unlimited data allowance price plan may be the best option to control their spend and to ensure they don't receive a large unwanted bill."
However, while 'unlimited' or 'uncapped' packages ostensibly mean that you can download or upload as much data as you like, they may be guided by 'fair usage policies' on non-fibre networks.
These policies, which are contained in the small print, are designed to ensure that particularly heavy users don't take up too much bandwidth at certain times of the day.
So if you download unusually high amounts of data, such as by playing online games, streaming or downloading large numbers of songs or long films, then a service provider may get in touch to notify you, charge you penalties and possibly reduce your connection speed.
According to Wallace, this is less of an issue now because providers have upgraded their networks to cope with such heavy users, "but the culture remains and the possibility [for them] to charge more".
Netflix broadband speed index
If you want to find a clue as to why data is a far more important issue than speed as far as the broadband providers are concerned, check out the Netflix ISP Speed Index.
The index, which was introduced for Irish broadband providers in 2012, lists the speeds that customers from Irish providers get when using Netflix.
The speeds are generally in the 1.5Mbps to 3.5Mbps range across all ISPs.
The highest rated is UPC at just 3.5Mbps, followed closely behind by Magnet, then Eircom, BT Ireland, Vodafone, Digiweb and Imagine with speeds ranging from 2.94Mbps to 1.87Mbps. But if many providers are advertising speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, why is it that this index is only showing such low speeds?
Simon Moynihan of price comparison site Bonkers.ie said it demonstrates that 3.5Mbps is enough to watch movies and TV shows on demand through services like Netflix.
"ISPs need to manage data throughput and this seems to indicate that they enable enough speed for services like Netflix to work, but enabling the full speed that the ISP's service is capable of when connected to streaming services may degrade the experience of other users," he said.