Part 1: Internet Connection Speeds:
Since the inception of the World Wide Web in April 1993, the maximum speed for data transfers has improved in leaps and bounds.
Dial-up Modems: 1993-2000s
In the 1990s, most people who had Internet access at all did so using modems connected to standard telephone lines. In early 1993, the fastest available modem was capable of transferring data at a maximum speed of 14.4 kilobytes per second (kbps), equivalent to 864kb per minute, or 51.84Mb per hour. The launch of the 28.8k modem in 1994 doubled this theoretical maximum. 33.6k modems followed in 1996, and eventually 56k ones arrived in 1998.
In theory, the launch of the 56k modem allowed for a maximum data transfer speed almost four times as fast as the 14.4k one, with the promise of 3.36 Mb of data transfer per minute, or 201.6 Mb per hour. However, in practice the maximum advertised speeds were never attained for any dial-up modems as a result of latencies in the infrastructure serving data to end-users. For example, it was common for large file downloads requested on a 28k modem to run at an average of between 1 and 6kbps. Thus, the true speed of data transfer in a real-world setting was often only about one fifth of the advertised one.
This led to downloads of software over the Internet often taking a matter of hours per file even in the late 1990s. Graphically intensive web-pages could take several minutes to completely load, even without containing video content. There was also no guarantee that that the individual images all downloaded successfully: often, images would fail to load at first attempt. This required the user to right-click the failed image, marked with an ‘X’, and attempt to re-download each affected image until it worked.
Right through the early 2000s, there was also a frequently encountered issue of competition for Internet access at peak usage times. Often, particularly in the early evenings, Internet access temporarily failed or crawled along at sub-standard speeds for individual dial-up users.
ADSL Home Broadband: 2000-2010s
At its launch in March 2000, broadband Internet promised to revolutionise connection speeds, cut file transfer times, and make image-heavy web-pages relatively quick and easy to load. Broadband initially ran chiefly on a protocol called ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), and offered a maximum theoretical data transfer speed of 512k per second - over nine times as fast as a 56k modem. This made it an attractive offering for web developers for whom upload speeds, as well as download speeds, were important. However, it was expensive for the time; pioneering provider Telewest’s Blueyonder broadband was priced at £50 per month at launch. BT entered the market a month later in April 2000, offering a package costing £40 per month, but with a costly one-off installation fee of £150, it was still out of reach for most ordinary consumers.
Reduced-price broadband packages limited to 256k (or in some cases just 128k) were also soon made available for those on a tighter budget. However, as of 2002, adoption by the British public as a whole had been slow. One source (recording eight years later) stated that just 200,000 addresses had broadband connections by 2002 – well under 1% of the 24.5 million households in the country as a whole that year. These low initial rates of adoption effectively tied web developers’ hands in terms of the sophistication of web content. Large file downloads still took unfeasibly long times for the vast majority of the public still limited to the use of (at best) 56k dial-up modems, as did loading image-rich web-pages.
By October 2002, the cost of BT’s broadband service had been cut by 25% to £29.99 a month. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of just over £50 a month in 2021 - still a lot more than the cost of most of today’s much faster broadband Internet offerings.
In August 2003, BT announced the impending launch of a 1Mb/s connection speed at a price premium. Once this had been rolled out the following year, the cost of the previously standard 512k broadband packages was further cut in price to £19.99 per month, subject to a daily cap on usage of 1Gb of data.
Home broadband speeds doubled for a second time in early 2005, with the launch of 2Mb connections by BT promising connection speeds 36 times as high as those that could be attained over a 56k dial-up modem.
In March 2006, speeds doubled for a third time with the launch of ADSL Max, offering a theoretical maximum speed of 8 Mb/s to subscribers willing to pay for it.
These advances, however, proved to be only incremental compared with what was just a couple of years around the corner, thanks to ongoing research and development into improving the speed of ADSL connections. ADSL2+, offering speeds of up to 22Mb/s (44 times the speed of the initial broadband packages and almost 400 times as fast as 56k dial-up), began development in 2005. It was finally launched three years later in July 2008, following necessary upgrades to the physical Openreach infrastructure.
By 2009, broadband uptake in the UK had increased to around 50% of all households, showing that over the course of the decade as a whole, it had gradually displaced dial-up as the first port of call for the majority of customers.
In the meantime, enabled by the increased uptake of broadband as well as growing broadband speeds, video had begun to become a staple of the Internet for the first time, following the launch of video-sharing website YouTube in December 2005. That said, by the end of 2009, it was still uncommon to find any video uploaded at resolutions in excess of 480p, and only the fastest Internet connections could cope with playing videos at 480p in real-time. Many users needed to stream video in 240p in order to cope without pausing to buffer data every few seconds.
Fibre-Optic Broadband: 2011-2020s
In the 2010s, further advances in broadband speed were rolled out thanks to the development of fibre-optic infrastructure, entirely separate from the conventional copper cable networks used by ADSL. These fibre-optic networks were initially launched in limited settings. 100Mb/s fibre broadband was offered for the first time in Milton Keynes in 2011.
A 500Mb/s fibre service (codenamed G-fast) began to be rolled out in 2015, but had still only reached 127 locations within the country, making it available to at most 2.8 million premises and households, when the roll-out was paused in 2019. It would appear that this technology has since been quietly shelved in favour of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) networks.
By May 2020, almost 97% of UK households were served by infrastructure capable of giving them connection speeds of 30Mb/s or greater – mostly still over ADSL rather than fibre. Speeds of 30Mb/s are generally adequate for real-time video streaming at 1080p.
We can see the huge shift and vast developments made in the last 30 years in terms of the speed and sophistication of the infrastructure associated with internet usage and web browsing and have no reservations in predicting that this is not going to slow down any time soon. The rate of technological evolution can be a little daunting, but it is also very exciting to follow developments.
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