Broadband smoke and mirrors

I’ve just been reading an article titled Broadband Britain cheaper and faster than ever on the Silicon website. Whilst it is true that prices have fallen and speeds have increased it started me thinking about how far things had progressed since I first got an internet connection.

I was quite a late starter for home internet, I didn’t get my first dial-up account until 1996. I had been using it at work since around 1990, but the urge to get it at home didn’t hit until later. By this time there was already talk about ‘broadband’, and I signed up with Demon Internet with the hope that the promised cable modems would be available quite soon – well, that’s what Nynex were promising. Sometime in the next 6 months they said. Nynex were taken over by Cable & Wireless and the 6 months promise was kept going through until 2001, so that’s about 5 years later! During that time I survived on 56k dial-up. In 2001 my employer paid for an ISDN line to be installed and things got a little better, although primarily due to the extra line and no online charges rather than the speed.

In late 2001 my employer decided to cease trading (a whole different story!), so I had the prospect of returning to dial-up. Thankfully this was about the same time as the ‘wires only’ trials started, so I switched from Demon to Nildram and went ADSL. This was at the beginning of 2002, so finally, 6 years later, I had a speed boost to 512k. The key thing about being ‘wires only’ was that I didn’t have the hassle of the nasty USB ‘frog’ that came with ADSL up until then, so it was an altogether more pleasant experience with Linux.

At that time the cost was a little over £30 a month, not cheap, but orders of magnitude cheaper than an equivalent ISDN package, and only a little more than dial-up with a flat charge instead of paying per minute – and with the added advantage of not tying up your phone line. If we fast forward now to 2007, about 5 years on, I was still with Nildram, I was still paying £30 a month and the speed was still 512k. Checks with BT indicated that the line, which runs for 2.89km from my local exchange, can only handle 512k. I was warned that if I switched to the new ADSL services that offered ‘up to 8Mb’ the line might ‘rate adapt’ to a lower speed than the 512k. Now in 2008 things haven’t changed on that line. My how far we have come with broadband speeds in the past 6 years!

To be fair you can get broadband cheaper now. This has been done in two ways as far as I can see. Firstly there’s the reduced specification packages – most people don’t want fixed IP addresses, etc.. Secondly there’s the bundled packages that are pretty much ‘lost leaders’ or ‘sweeteners’ for other services. I have also abandoned Nildram and moved to another supplier making a significant saving and getting 8 IP addresses instead of just the one (although I’ve not yet revamped my network to take full advantage of that).

Speed wise things have only really changed a little, and then only if you are pretty close to the exchange. Annoyingly, whilst I am 2.89km from my ‘local’ exchange, only a couple of hundred yards up the road people are 1.79km away from their ‘local’ exchange – a different one! My speed has improved though, by virtue of taking advantage of the old ISDN wiring for a second, business line. For some strange reason this is rated at 3.5Mb instead of the 512k of the line next to it on the wall. I know the cable from the telegraph pole is identical since it was replaced when the ISDN line was installed. Presumably there is something drastically different in the cable quality or route to the green box just down the road!

My home line has switched to a bundled service. I’m a little concerned that this may be ‘unbundled’ at some point, since I’ve read that it can be very difficult to re-bundle it if you need to. Unbundling would appear to have no real value to the end user, since it is the quality and length of the BT cable from the exchange that dictates the speed, and this is still the same, bundled or unbundled. I’ve noted that Newnet, a local company, are doing some unbundling and offering up to 24Mb, but having spoken to them I don’t see any likelihood that my 512k line will be any faster. Until BT upgrade their cabling things won’t improve. Ironically, nipping back to 2002 again briefly, I got a phone call from NTL offering me cable broadband a matter of weeks after going live with ADSL. As soon as they were honest enough to drop the ‘6 months’ promise they finally delivered – a bit late though. Cable would seem to be the best option for faster speeds, but sadly in my area we are on Nynex cabling, which apparently is of poor quality, and NTL had no plans to upgrade it. It remains to be seen what Virgin Media will do with it.