- 16 Feb 09, 12:57 GMT
Britain is widely seen as a bit of a laggard in the high speed broadband stakes when compared to countries like France, Sweden, Japan and Korea.
The average speed for most people in the UK is 3.6Mbps, according to Ofcom. Which is why Lord Carter's suggestion in his Digital Britain report that everybody had a minimum of 2Mbps feels a little backwards looking to some.
Many in the industry were hoping that Lord Carter would drive the adoption of high speed broadband by setting a much higher speed as the minimum for everyone.
But what does this high speed broadband world offer?
I've been lucky enough to have broadband at home for many years - first at a 512Kbps (which can now hardly be classed as broadband), then 1Mbps, then 4Mbps and now "up to 8Mbps" via ADSL.
And I'll be honest. I find the connection is often slow, especially when my wife is using her laptop at the same time I am doing something on mine.
Websites load slowly, downloads seem to crawl down the pipe and the overall experience is patchy at best.
And this is at speeds supposedly four times faster than the minimum laid down by Lord Carter.
But the reality is few of us ever achieve the maximum speeds that are on offer for reasons that are well known.
In the UK one of the fastest connections available to consumers is Virgin's 50Mbps service.
I've had the 50Mbps installed for more than a week on trial and I'm going to be writing a speed diary of my experiences over the next week or so.
I want to find out just how much bang for my buck I'm getting and experiment with the best ways of making use of a fast connection.
Virgin's 50Mbps service, known as the XXL package, costs £50 a month on its own, or £46 if you take a Virgin phone line as well.
For that money you get up to 50Mbps downstream and up to 1.5Mbps upstream. You get a cable modem with a single ethernet connection and a Netgear WNR 2000 wireless router that operates to the 802.11n specifications, which means in theory you should have the wireless bandwidth to get the best out of the fast connection.
You also get a .11n USB adaptor for your computer, in case your machine's existing wireless card doesn't support the standard.
I say "standard" - but I actually mean draft standard because .11n has yet to be officially ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association.
Unfortunately for me, the Netgear USB adaptor doesn't work on Apple Macs so I'm not able to take advantage of the greater bandwidth and speeds on my desktop machine.
Luckily, my laptop does already support .11n so it's not too much of an issue.
However, I've also been unable to connect my Xbox 360 wirelessly to the supplied router.
I'm not alone with this problem and it looks to be a hardware conflict between the 360's wi-fi adaptor and the Netgear router and is not in Virgin's control. But it does highlight some of the issues involved in using technology deployed with draft standards - not all devices will connect and it is best to check in advance.
Thankfully the router has plenty of ethernet ports and I was able to connect an Ethernet cable between the 360 and router. But if my Xbox 360 had been in another room then I do not know what the solution would have been.
Virgin has been waging a vigorous advertising campaign of late to promote its high-speed service but some of its claims were a little, er, too enthusiastic and had to be withdrawn after complaints.
Virgin had claimed in adverts that broadband suppliers that using copper wire - ie ADSL technology - were "struggling to cope".
The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the claim was misleading because Virgin itself operates a traffic management policy which restricts bandwidth during peak times for heavy users. Currently, Virgin says it is implementing no traffic management of its 50Mbps users, but this is set to be reviewed in the future.
The ASA also rapped Virgin on the knuckles when it came to comparing its network to future plans from BT to deliver a national fibre optic network.
BT has spoken about plans to introduce a mix of fibre network to the home (FTTH) and fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), while Virgin's network delivers FTTC.
Virgin's claim that: "Everybody's talking about fibre optic broadband there's only one company actually doing it." was misleading, said the ASA.
So what's the difference between FTTH and FTTC? Well, FTTH means fibre optic cabling is run directly into your home, offering the fastest available connection.
FTTC is fibre to a cabinet with the "last mile" of connection - sometimes it's only a matter of yards - being delivered along coaxial cable, which means a reduction in the available speeds.
A few weeks back we reported on a company called Velocity1 which was offering 100Mbps downstream and 50Mbps upstreaconnections to a housing development in Wembley. It can achieve these speeds because it is piping fibre optic direct to the home.
And there are other "high-speed" broadband providers in the UK marketplace. O2, Be, Pipex, Tiscali and Sky are among those offering ADSL2+ technology which can, depending on where you live, offer between upto 16Mbps and 24Mbps downstream speeds.
BT is trialling ADSL2+ currently, and is also rolling out trials of FTTC in some homes later this year.
After plugging in my new Virgin cable modem and configuring the router I was up and running on the 50Mbps service.
Of course the first thing I did was test the speed. Virgin says that only
two one website - thinkbroadband.com and speedtest.net had tests that could successfully gauge the speeds available to its users.
I used both tests - on both a wired and wireless connection - and my initial readings were between 13Mbps and 25Mbps downstream and 1.5Mbps upstream.
That's not bad - and at least double the best speed I was getting on my ADSL connection - but still someway short of the 50Mbps advertised speed.
Unfortunately after a day or two I found that the connection speed was dropping considerably when connected wirelessly - to below 1Mbps at one point which was clearly suspect.
After much hunting around on forums and a quick phonecall to Virgin I changed the encryption protocol on the router from WEP - the default setting - to WPA2 based on a recommendation. To my mind, this shouldn't make too great a difference in available speeds.
However, as soon as I changed the encryption protocol my speeds leaped back up to their previous high of about 25Mbps.
So what are my initial impressions of speed? You can never have too much speed, in my opinion, and the casual web surfer will notice a snappier experience when surfing the net.
Virgin does have direct peering into some high bandwidth sites, including the BBC, so there should be a speedy connection. Other ISPs, including PlusNet, have similar direct peering in place with sites like the BBC to maximise connection speeds.
But the real difference comes when downloading larger files.
Of course, the speed of any download all depends on how fast the server can deliver a file to you and the network content travels over. This varies from server to server, and from website to website.
For example - I downloaded a video file from an internal BBC server over wi-fi and I was getting downstream speeds of 3.7MB per second. (That equates to speeds of more than 31Mbps). A 600MB file landed on my machine in under three minutes, which is pretty quick by any yardstick.
Over the next week or two I'm going to be measuring the speeds on my 50Mbps line and looking at different ways of getting the most from the connecton.
From setting up my own web server, to online gaming, and broadcasting from my living room, I'm aiming to test the connection to its limits.
If you've got any suggestions of how I should test or use the connection, let me know. If you're a broadband speed merchant, perhaps using ADSL2+ connections, or are using Velocity1, let me know how you are finding the service, and what you are using it for.
UPDATE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Virgin has been in touch to say there is no reason I shouldn't be seeing speeds of 50Mbps downstream on my connection. I want this test to be as fair as possible, and as realistic as possible, so I'm going to do some speed checks this evening, and if I still don't see an improvement, then a call to technical support will be in order.
UPDATE TWO I've made a change to the copy above. According to the Virgin site, only one speed test, the one supplied by Thinkbroadband.com is capable of measuring its 50Mbps connection.
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