One of life’s simple pastimes is to go to a pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farm. Little can be better than ambling around the fields, away from traffic and people, with the sun so warm you walk through a bath of liquid heat. Overhead are skylarks, little noisy pinpoints in the sky, if you can spot them through all the “floaters” in your eyes. The illicit pleasure of a just-picked strawberry, intensely sweet scented and sun warmed, its juice trickling down your throat as you crush the soft berry with your tongue. As H E Bates would have written, “perfick.”
Just about the complete reverse of broadband in Britain in the 21st century.
As early adopters, we paid dearly in the 1990s for data transfer. First via modem: hours-long telephone calls via dubious connections and software, to transfer tiny files to the run-out bureau. It was cheaper to send small files than using a courier but often a lot slower. One Christmas Eve I transmitted an urgent file by Xmodem to the same ICL factory where a motorcycle courier was taking my delivery. He collected the package and drove the 150 miles, arriving quicker than the file—which was only a couple of floppy disks in size.
Then came ISDN, incredibly expensive to run, only four times faster than a modem, and needing at least two bonded telephone lines. In those days my monthly telephone bill approached £300, and it was often better to send a SyQuest disk via courier than to try to transfer large files down the wire. Thank goodness for compression utilities such as ZipIt, StuffIt, and the wonderful, StuffIt beating, Compactor Pro.
ISDN transmission proved absolutely essential in the printing and publishing industry as the whole world became the base for suppliers. It was much easier to send files to Hong Kong or Italy for printing than to post a fragile SyQuest removable hard disk. While I could transmit and receive files from all over the world, it proved impossible to get them from Brighton via the 70 miles to central London. Tom, a British Telecom senior trouble-shooter, spent days working in my office, trying to find where the blockage was. He tried routing ISDN all around the country, linking our line from town to town as a back door way into the capital city. Eventually even he had to admit defeat. The problem was “somewhere” in London, and that was that. Our only solution was to go back to couriers or to use an ISDN transmission service. You transmit it to them, and they guarantee to get it to the intended recipient. Except it was easier, faster, and cheaper to get Cardiac Kev to pick up the SyQuest disk and drop it off in London a couple of hours later. His name coming from his frenetic work rate that surely pushed him to the front of the coronary queue.
When ADSL “broadband” finally arrived, at 512Kbps downstream and a leisurely 256Kbps upstream, it was marginally cheaper to run than ISDN and only needed one telephone line. That shrunk my bill down to about £100+ per month. The downstream speed meant being able to grab tunes off Napster faster than they took to play. The week before Napster closed we had just moved to a 2 Mb line, and it seemed the whole world was furiously downloading as fast as they could. We, naturally, only got the tracks we had locked on the vinyl still stored in the attic, our record deck and stereo system long since abandoned. However, the Internet Service Supplier we had signed up with, its chairman an ex-government minister, was unable to supply us with a reliable business service. As we discovered, their lack of investment meant their mail servers were heavily over-subscribed, especially at the end of the working day when we sat waiting frustratedly to send off that day’s work. We paid £500 to get out of the contract, and a quick check in Google shows they have recently changed their name to something more legendary.
Since then, a move to another town and a Local Loop Unbundled service, 2 Mbps is still the best we can get. That’s on a good day, with the wind behind, going downhill with no brakes. Most of the time our “Up to” 8 Mbps line runs nearer to 1.5 Mbps. Our office is in the centre of the largest town in this county, near the telephone exchange but not near enough—about 2 kilometres. The cables run underground until they reach the telephone pole across the road, but they aren’t able to give up any more speed. At least upstream is now faster than the original 512 Kbps line, and our telephone bill £45 per month, of which only £6 is for actual calls nowadays.
While broadband seems to have reached its zenith, unless you are lucky enough to live next to the exchange, pricing is reaching its nadir. It can’t get any cheaper than free, as offered by UK suppliers Orange, Carphone Warehouse, and others.
The other night I tested line speeds with a colleague who has a cable connection: his 2 Mbps against mine. I’d always assumed that cable would be super-reliable and fast. Not necessarily so. His downstream speed was less than my upstream, that is, about half a megabit. Then it shot up briefly to nearly maximum before slowing down again. All due to the contention ratio no doubt, but it put questions in my mind about getting a 10 Mbps cable connection—especially as the upstream is limited to 256 Kbps. Then I tested my bother-in-law’s 10 Mbps cable connection. He lives outside of town in a rural location. There are far fewer people to share his cable circuit with and his download speeds were pretty much full speed.
Perhaps Local Loop Unbundling was a bad idea. It means ADSL is still reliant on British Telecom’s ancient lengths of copper and aluminium, literally screwed together in places. That it can offer both voice and data transfer is a technological marvel in itself, but if competitors weren’t able to use the existing infrastructure they would be forced to supply their own solutions or rent off others. Then services such as data transmission over powerlines could become a reality. Penn State engineers have got speeds already far in excess of cable and ADSL services over the same length of line, and the electricity supply infrastructure is already in place to just about every building in the UK.
Ironically, Britain was among the world-leaders in fiber-optical cabling, able to transmit data at incredible speeds, yet we haven’t invested in our own country’s fiber-optic network. Otherwise, broadband in the UK would be in a class of its own at a theoretical two-thirds the speed of light in a vacuum. As usual, it is Britain’s old foe, France, where the real experiments with ultra high speed broadband have taken off. Around Paris it is possible to get a link that is far faster than modern desktop computers can handle at 2.5 Gbps.
Some form of mixed service might be the solution for the UK. The high speed lines going to a local box in the street then linked, wired or wirelessly, to individual properties. Even UK’s terrestrial digital TV is sent at 11 Mbps, and its bandwidth will get a huge shot in the arm when analogue TV is switched off in the next five years. The UK government is about to auction off another chunk of radio spectrum, originally planned for 4G services but with the dismal take-up of 3G, maybe this could form the basis of new wireless broadband services? The Japanese company NTT DoCoMo is testing 4G communication at 100 Mbps while moving, and 1 Gbps while stationary.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure. I am going to have to get a new broadband supplier because my current one has announced it is getting out of the retail market and will be “selling” my account to whoever wants it. Whether by accident or design, they recently lowered the cost on my service by 25%, so I’m not complaining.
Also in This Series
- What Trick, What Device, What Starting-Hole… · May 2012
- Do Androids Dream? · April 2012
- Our Macs Are Under Attack · March 2012
- The Best and Worst Christmas Presents · February 2012
- The Best Use for a Kindle · January 2012
- It’s Got No Blinking Light · January 2012
- Box-Shifting Causes Migration · December 2011
- The Best Thing About the iPhone 4S and How to Cope in Clink · December 2011
- Death of a Salesman · November 2011
- Complete Archive