DSL, 5G and Starlink — A Home Office Internet Showdown

Over the past few months, I’ve been experimenting with several different connectivity options when working from home.

Before getting into the details, I fully accept that this is a mere snapshot from one location in the UK — I live in Newbury, Berkshire — but connectivity’s always going to be something people care about, down to an individual level.

I also know I’m not alone in wanting to have the best connectivity on offer, particularly with the growing dependence on video calls for work and households’ increasing preference for streaming services over linear TV.

To try and provide fair and comparable results, I conducted speed tests at the same time of day using two different platforms — Ookla’s Speedtest and Netflix’s Fast.com. For each service I carried out three separate tests, the results of which I’ve averaged, and I ensured they all used the same test server.

In principle, you’d typically expect a fixed line into the house to be the fastest solution. But I live at the end of a cul-de-sac, where the chances of getting fibre-to-the-home anytime soon are negligible; with just nine houses and no conduit in the ground, the cost of trenching the necessary infrastructure to each property is currently prohibitive. As a result, we’re condemned to a basic fibre-to-the-cabinet service with a copper line to the house, provided using Openreach infrastructure branded as an EE broadband service.

My DSL connection only delivers an average download speed of 29.3 Mbps and an upload speed of 4.9 Mbps; this is far from optimal, although I appreciate some people’s fixed-line services in the UK are slower. According to Ofcom, the current national median average for downloads is 50.4 Mbps and 9.8 Mbps for uploads.

The only area where DSL was in a class of its own was the network ping test, which came in at 10 milliseconds. The ping test measured the time it took for data packets to be sent from my home to the server I tried to contact and back again. This gives an indication of the latency a user is likely to experience when connecting to the Internet — something that’s particularly important for passionate gamers, as latency can affect gaming performance.

As a result of the poor fixed-line performance, I decided to evaluate other solutions, starting with Vodafone’s 5G service. Although I’m on the edge of a cell, a bit of ingenuity by installing a Huawei customer-premises equipment (CPE) device at the highest point in the house meant I could take advantage of this cutting-edge cellular technology. A CPE device (see picture below) is a router with both an Ethernet port and a Wi-Fi access point that users can connect to.

5G CPE installed in the loft

From a downlink perspective Vodafone 5G network was a winner, with an average speed of 185.5 Mbps. For the uplink, I was able to achieve an average of 28.3 Mbps. The network ping was recorded at 26.3 milliseconds. As you can imagine, this performance has been a game-changer compared with DSL.

An alternative cellular solution is EE’s 4G network — the operator’s 5G service hasn’t arrived yet where I live. I used its latest 5GEE Router 2021, a CPE device that looks similar to Vodafone’s. Unsurprisingly this delivered a slower downlink speed, at an average of 57.7 Mbps, but that’s still almost double the fixed-line speed. It also offered similar uplink speeds to Vodafone’s 5G, nudging slightly ahead at 30.7 Mbps. The network ping was recorded at 21.7 milliseconds, also offering a narrow edge over Vodafone’s 5G network.

Having tried fixed and cellular technology, I also decided to take the plunge and evaluate SpaceX’s Starlink service. I’ll be honest and say that I was sceptical it would be a viable alternative — but I was astonished by the performance.

Having deployed a dish in the garden (see picture below), I found I was getting an average of 182 Mbps down and 13.1 Mbps up. That’s over six times faster than DSL in the downlink, and 2.7 times faster in the uplink. My expectation was that the network ping would be Starlink’s weak point, and although it was the slowest of the options I used, at 37.3 milliseconds I didn’t notice any appreciable impact in day-to-day use. That said, I’m not a gamer, so a few additional milliseconds of latency weren’t really a problem. Having used Starlink as my sole means of connectivity for several weeks, I love it.

Starlink dish deployed in the garden

So, what conclusions have I drawn from this experience? Well, the opportunity for fixed wireless access over cellular is clear; 4G and 5G comprehensively beat the best fixed-line connectivity I’m going to get for some time. Add to that the highly competitive pricing for all-you-can-eat 5G cellular data in the UK, ranging from £30 to £60 per month, and I’m certain a growing number of households with poor fixed-line Internet access will turn to it. And of course, the arrival of new variants of the technology — be that standalone 5G or millimetre wave — means that performance is only going to get better. With that said, even the 4G service was impressive, and enhancements such as two-carrier aggregation are already making a difference.

But the technology that impressed me most was Starlink. It does come at the significant cost of £89 per month, compared with the £30 I pay for DSL or £60 per month for Vodafone 5G. But if I lived in a rural area with limited fixed and mobile connectivity, I think I could justify the premium — particularly if I could get my employer to contribute to the cost as part of a home-working contract. It’s little surprise that more and more mobile operators are seeking partnerships with satellite broadband suppliers including Starlink to add to their portfolio of connectivity options.

For now, I’m back to using Vodafone’s 5G service as the default option; the question is whether I take the leap of faith and cut off my fixed-line service. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like the resilience of a fixed pipe into the house if I have any problems with the cellular connection. However, it’s increasingly hard to justify — I certainly don’t need it for voice services.

With all this in mind, I envision a future where telecom operators start offering a blend of connectivity solutions, including fixed, mobile and other technologies such as satellite and even drone or balloon-based options. Some have already taken tentative steps in this direction, but there’s still room for plenty more innovation.

But the reality is that there are always going to be bigger capacity constraints on wireless networks, so although relying on fixed wireless access for connectivity makes sense for niche users like me, it’s hard to see how any operator would want it to be the default mass-market solution.