Tom Melhuish 7 min read

What is latency?

You’ll sign up with a provider for 18 months or even two years in most business broadband deals. When comparing broadband deals, it’s important to consider the quality of connection you’ll have to live with.

Most people think of the headline speed of broadband connections, but Latency is an equally important measure that should be considered.

If your broadband has a long latency, you’ll have a frustrating user experience – even if your broadband speed is fast.

This guide will help explain this key factor in comparing broadband packages.

What is latency?

The easiest way to understand latency is through a metaphor: if the broadband speed is the speed of a car, while the latency is the acceleration.

Latency kicks in when you decide to do something new on one of your devices. On your smart TV, when you click to sign in to your Netflix account and wait for the tiles of recommended shows to appear, the wait you experience isn’t a result of slow internet speed but latency.

When you click, your TV sends a request to the Netflix server through your broadband connection. Once this request is received, the Netflix server will start to send back the required data. The time between your TV’s request and the data starting to be received back is known as latency.

The broadband connection speed determines the rate at which your TV receives all the data needed to open the requested page.

Latency won’t impact the viewing quality or buffering time of watching your favourite shows, but it does affect how quickly your laptop responds to your requests.

What causes latency?

The latency you’ll experience on your broadband connection incorporates delays introduced by the set-up at your business, your business broadband provider and the connection they use, and the geography of the servers of whatever you request data from.

Let’s explore what causes latency:

Latency at your company: Latency depends on how your devices are connected to the internet. A wifi connection has a longer latency than a wired broadband connection.

Latency of your broadband connection: Latency is affected by how quickly signals travel along the broadband networks. If you’re using a fibre broadband connection, then signals will travel much quicker than an old-fashioned ADSL connection.

Geography of your target server: Broadly speaking, the further data needs to travel, the longer the latency. For isolated countries like New Zealand, latency tends to be longer as signals need to travel across an ocean to a target server.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): If you’re using a VPN, all your ingoing and outgoing data need to travel through the servers of your VPN provider. This additional step increases the latency of a broadband connection.

Satellite Broadband: If you’re using Starlink, or OneWeb satellite broadband, you’ll suffer from longer latency. The simple reason is all your internet signals need to travel to and from space to reach their destination.

Why is latency important?

Latency is important for some internet activities but less so for others.

Suppose you’re simply waiting for a large file to download. In that case, latency isn’t important since the data only goes in one direction and doesn’t require continual two-way communication between your device and the server.

However, latency is important for these activities where it’s necessary for continual communication to and from your device and the server you’re communicating with:

  • Live video services such as Google Meets, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
  • Cloud gaming
  • Remote business operations like having an airport control tower not physically located at an airport.

Your experience will likely be hugely frustrating if your latency is shorter. Think of your colleagues talking over each other during your important business meeting.

What is low latency?

In the case of latency, the lower, the better. Low latency means data packets have a fast trip time between your device and the server they are communicating with.

Although lower latency is generally better, how low you need depends on your activity.

For a video call to avoid getting interrupted by lag, Zoom recommends a latency below 100ms. In the world of gaming, a latency of 40ms or less is considered what you need to smooth gameplay.

Tips to improve latency

As we’ve seen, latency is caused by several factors, some of which you can improve and others that you cannot.

If you live on a remote island and your internet data needs to travel across an ocean, you will experience a long latency.

However, are some tips for improving the latency on your internet connection:

  • Plug directly into your router with an ethernet cable – A wireless connection introduces an additional step for internet data to pass, which introduces extra latency.
  • Upgrade to fibre broadband – Data packets move faster along a fibreoptic cable than an old-fashioned copper cable.
  • Upgrade your router – If you need to connect wirelessly, we recommend replacing your business broadband router with something more modern.

Comparing the latency of different broadband providers

At Business Broadband Hub, we help businesses and households find better deals on their broadband. We’re often asked which broadband provider has the lowest latency.

Helpfully, Ofcom produces detailed statistics on such things in their UK broadband performance report. The report finds that Openreach broadband providers outperform Virgin Media cable broadband as follows:

Average Openreach broadband provider – 8ms
Virgin Media Broadband – 15ms

The following major broadband providers use the Openreach network: BT, Sky, EE, TalkTalk, Now and Plusnet

Find the best broadband providers in your area using our easy comparison services:

What’s the difference between ping and latency?

Ping measures the round trip time between your device and a target server. A ping is a way of testing latency.

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