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News Are your getting the speed you paid for?

This morning the BBC ran an article on breakfast TV asking Are you getting the speed you paid for? on your broadband line. Whilst we fully appreciate the challenge of conveying an important news story in so few words we were actually somewhat shocked at the quality of reporting.

"Nobody is getting the full speed advertised"

This is simply wrong. For example, we have around 15% of 20CN lines that are still on original fixed rate 500K, 1M or 2M services. These lines always get exactly the speed that was sold for them and always have. Over 23% of our MAX lines (the up to 8M service) get the full 8.128M sync rate. So in fact, in our case, a significant number of people get the full speed on a variable speed service.

"ISPs promised 8Mb/s broadband"

I don't know any ISP that promises 8M broadband. I know, like us, many ISPs that sell an up to 8Mb/s service. I.e. the line could sync at up to 8.128Mb/s depending on line length. It seems that some how the BBC at least have totally forgotten what up to means. If we sell an up to 8M service then we would only be doing something wrong if we provided a service faster than the 8.128M we say. If providing slower than 8M then we are selling exactly what we said. A service that is only 1M is an up to 8M service because 1M is below 8M. This is no different to 56K modems, except that getting 56K was extremely rare. At least with an up to 8M a lot of people do get the full speed advertised

"People are not getting the speed they paid for"

This is also an odd thing to say. There are ISPs, like us, that charge the same regardless of speed. The speed depends on the technology available. We charge the same for a line on 10 miles of copper running at 250K as we do for an FTTC line on 10 meters of copper running at 40M. So, given that the price is the same, whatever speed you get you are getting what you paid for. This is one aspect that made the OFCOM code of practice make no sense. We advise customers of likely line speed when they order service anyway, but OFCOM insist that if the line does not get that speed then we have to allow the customer to change to a tariff for that lower speed. Well, as all our speeds are the same price that is a nonsense requirement!

Digital Divide

One of the key points of the report is that there is a digital divide between towns and villages. This too is an odd comment. I used to live in a tiny village. It is nice living in a small village but you also have to live with a poor bus service; with no train service at all; with fire and ambulance services being miles away and taking time to arrive; with doctors and hospitals being further away; with small shops and fewer goods and higher prices. It is the very nature of the technology, whether roads or copper wires, that if you live away from the centres of population you get a poorer service. As with all of these things - throw enough money at the problem and you have the better service. This too is no different. But why is it a surprise to anyone? Why is it news? If a small village had all of the facilities of a major city then there would be good reason for businesses and people to move there - just like a city, and before you know it the place is a city.

You can get high speed links in the middle of nowhere. Apart from expensive fibre services, it can be done with broadband. An example we have is a customer on very long lines (8.5Km) in a tiny village. So the solution is he has 4 lines bonded getting a total of 4¾Mb/s. It costs more, but that is a feature of living in the middle of nowhere.

Real issues

One of the points the news item did not mention at all was how slow speeds happen. The main thing that most people can easily measure and see is sync speed. This is, like most people, what we sell. The up to 8M is up to 8.128M sync speed. There are several factors that affect the speed people see when using the internet.

  • Line length/quality: The sync speed depends on the line, and that is the main factor people can measure as the router/modem can tell you what speed it synced at. Long lines are lower speed.
  • Modem/wiring: In home installations a huge factor is domestic wiring and filters. Using correct filters or an I-Plate can improve speed. Different makes of router/modem also make a big difference. Some are really good on long lines.
  • Interference: Simple factors, like a mobile phone charger plug-top transformer right next to the phone socket, can massively impact the speed a line can get. Even things like Christmas-tree lights can have an impact.
  • Misunderstanding: It is quite understandable that people misunderstand technology. It seems people even misunderstand simple phrases like up to, but also the up to 8M relates to line sync speed and the actual IP throughput for that is 7.15M for a start. Then people are confused by bits and bytes and kilobits and kibibits. All this adds to a general misunderstanding and feeling that the advertised figure of 8M is meaningless (which is some ways it is). We try and make this as clear as possible up front - not all ISPs do.
  • Poor quality ISP: An ISP with full links, and packet loss, will provide a poorer service regardless of sync speed. Some ISPs aim not to be the bottleneck, like us, and invest in the connections to make sure that we are not. Hence higher prices!
  • Traffic shaping: Many ISPs have a variety of traffic management systems to control speeds of different types of services. This can mean some services are slow with speed tests looking good, for example.
  • The far end: If you are looking at the speed of actual usage of the internet you are measuring the data transfer between two places. The far end is not in the control of the ISP. It may not even be in this country. The speed of transfer will depend a lot on the far end. As broadband links get faster this is more and more of a problem. Small sites have slow links to the internet. Big sites have big links but more users. Either way the far end can be the issue.
  • TCP settings: There are a number of factors, including TCP settings of the customer PC and of the far end equipment, which can limit the rate of data transfer that is possible regardless of the line speed. Even the PC itself at the customer end can be a factor as broadband speeds can be much higher than older machines can cope with. These factors can some times be adjusted, but not always.

Why the need for speed?

One other interesting point is why the need for speed. We are not saying speed is not important, but there comes a point when the broadband line speed is more than adequate for what you want to do with it. The fact that other factors, such as the far end servers and TCP settings on machines, are what limits the speed instead of the broadband line itself is a clue that maybe the line speed is not so important. It was not long ago that modems were used for internet access with speeds of up to 56K. Even quite low broadband rates allow video clips in real time. The average broadband speeds are more than adequate for real time full size video or even HD video. There comes a point, which we may well have reached, where the speed is all about kudos and not about adding any useful functionality.

Quality more than speed

The quality of a broadband connection is even harder to measure than the speed. This covers factors like latency, jitter, packet loss, reliability and speed. OFCOM don't seem to have tried to measure quality at all and concentrated just on speed. As an ISP we pride ourselves in providing a good quality service that is as fast as the technology allows for your line.

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