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24 hours of broadband

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:21 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010

I've spent the last 24 hours taking the temperature of Broadband Britain on a trip to Swansea in preparation for today's government summit with the broadband industry.

Here's what I found about my own and other people's connectivity as I travelled.

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0800 Paddington Station: My phone has locked onto the BT Openzone wi-fi hotspot in the station, one of 8,000 that come free with my contract. Unfortunately it doesn't work - I get taken to a registration page and then on a never-ending loop of "authorisation failed" messages. It's a familiar experience - free and easy public wi-fi still has a way to go in the UK

0900: I'm on the train to Swansea, typing this first entry into the blog. I'd hoped there'd be wi-fi on the train - it's increasingly common - but no such luck. I do have a 3G dongle with me which allows me to get online, though of course the coverage comes and goes as we cross southern England on the way to Wales.

1200: Our first stop in Swansea is the home of Chris Walsh. He's got a 20Mbps Virgin Media broadband line and seems pretty happy. Both Virgin and BT will be bringing fast connections to urban areas like this over the coming years as they roll out their fibre networks. That should mean 70% of the country gets a decent connection.

I decide it would be rude to scoff any of Chris's broadband but checking the 3G speed on my phone I'm getting an excellent signal - around 1.5Mbps upload or download.

1500: But just 10 miles up the road in the village of Felindre we're on the other side of Britain's great digital divide. Here they struggle to get broadband at all because many homes are too far from the BT exchange, and Virgin Media is never going to lay cable up the lanes here.

At the farm from which they run quite a sizeable agricultural contracting business, we find Howard and Julie Price, and we hear a long forgotten sound. The clicking and whistling of a modem tells us they are still using a dial-up connection to get online, and that means a wait of as much as 40 minutes if they want to download a chunky document or some photos.

Howard is not impressed by the argument that it's his choice to live in the wilds - he points out that the M4 is just at the bottom of the valley, and that his business needs broadband just like any other "it's an essential these days."

Then there's a strange coincidence. A van drives up and a man jumps out to tell me about his business which brings broadband to rural areas. Andrew England is scouting out locations to put up a mast so that his firm TFL can beam a wireless signal across the village, promising speeds of around 10Mbps. He tells me his firm can do the job much more cheaply than the likes of BT.

Rory Cellan-Jones1800: Back in a Swansea hotel to edit our pictures I find that I'm also back in range of a decent 3G signal. So when 5live call wanting me to come on and talk about the prime minister's call for pages glorifying Raoul Moat to be removed from Facebook I decide on an experiment. Using the 3G network I call into the BBC studio via a VOIP application on a tablet computer. The audio quality is fine - if a little tinny - but I'm pleased to have pushed back the frontiers of broadcasting.

2200: We finish our edit and use the hotel wi-fi to send the piece back to London. Experience has shown that this can be a frustrating and time-consuming business. But this time the 65Mb file chugs down the pipe in around 25 minutes. Of course, with a 100Mbps fibre connection it would have got there in a few minutes, but we're happy enough.

0600: We're back in Felindre to broadcast live into BBC Breakfast. But with no 3G network, and no broadband to speak of, we are very grateful that a BBC satellite truck drives up, and points a dish at the sky. Then there's a hitch - London can't see our signal. We can't get on television for our 0620 slot, but find that the pub has just had broadband installed, albeit a very slow connection. We use their wi-fi to broadcast on 5live via software called Luci Live. It works, but with a three second delay on the line, which on radio feels like eternity. Luckily, by 0645 we have fixed the satellite problem and are on air with quality sound and pictures - another connectivity nightmare is over.


  • Comment number 1.

    Can you help me out Rory, why does a businessman who says "it's an essential these days." not have a 2-way satellite broadband link ? For less than £100 per month, in some cases a lot less, he could have the ability to send and receive files, emails etc at sensible speeds.

    I would imagine "a sizeable agricultural contracting business" has a bit of cash available to it, Each tractor probably costs in excess of 50 grand, so why not 1 grand on satellite broadband ?

  • Comment number 2.

    Then there's a strange coincidence. A van drives up and a man jumps out to tell me about his business

    It's amazing how often these can happen when media opportunities present.

  • Comment number 3.

    Loads of People and small Businesses in the Western Isles and Highlands solved this problem.

    They put their hands in their own pockets and joined together and set up their own satellite networks.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is from an article published in Computer Weekly

    "The rateable value of a pair of BT optical fibres is around £15 per pair per km per annum , versus the rateable value applied to the first pair used by a competitive carrier of £750 per pair per km annum (2000 – 2005) and £500 per pair per km annum (2005 – 2010). Furthermore, BT incurs no increase in rates with an increased use of fibre, which it is adding at around ½ million fibre km per year , comparable with all fibre in use by other operators. These other operators are rated on each incremental kilometre brought into use.
    The absolute effect of the rates is to restrict the use of fibre below around 1Gbps, as the imputed tax charge subsumes any gross margin, and at 10Mbps the tax charge is greater than the equivalent BT wholesale service in total.
    For example, it would be impossible for any operator to offer a service at the level BT is proposing for Ebbsfleet, purely due to the tax burden. Likewise, “open access” fibre initiatives such as those emerging in France and Scandinavia would not be feasible in the UK due to the substantially higher tax rate applied to an individual fibre pair as compared with a number of fibres on the same route, disproportionately favouring vertically integrated operations with multiple fibres on the same route.
    If the rating system as applied to optical fibre remains in its current form, it will continue to foreclose markets under 1Gbps to new operators, remove choice in the implementation of “fibre to the premises” – FTTP - and “fibre to the home” - FTTH - reduce investment in new infrastructure, and ensure the continuation of BT’s “entrenched dominance” of optically delivered services. None of these is in the national interest.
    The current system as applied to fibre is unfair, probably unlawful, discriminatory, anti-competitive and difficult to administer.
    The easiest method to simplify the system is to “de-rate” fibre completely, and use the existing system based on buildings to collect the tax. Returning BT’s exchange buildings to normal rating in local lists would make up for any revenue shortfall, encourage BT to accelerate the disposal or redevelopment of its largely unused local exchange estate, to the benefit of the Exchequer, and remove barriers to entry to fibre users.
    If the system is not reformed, it will reduce the incentive for new entrants, and reduce competition and choice."

  • Comment number 5.

    I also live in the land of coincidences and an exchange that is not LLU, broadband is available but not as you'd know it. My neighbour says he is unable to use it from early evening onwards whilst my experience is that the connection to the exchange just disappears every 10 mins and then returns.
    I am sure you have seen the TV campaign for BT vision and the quality of their service - it never slows down. Coincidently local users of this service do not suffer from any outages whilst watching videos. So much for Openreach being an arm's reach supplier. Long live competition, if central government money is used to provide rural broadband I hope it is not a back door grant to cement the position of a dominant ISP.
    I am about 800 m from the M4 and a few miles from Swindon.

  • Comment number 6.

    I live in Somerset about a mile from the A303. My son came home this week to do two weeks intense study for some very major major medical exams. He left after 2 hours work and went back to Bristol as the broadband here is so poor that he couln't work effectively. The reliability here is terrible, BT aren't interested because I use another ISP and the other ISP can't do anything as BT provide the line. A one hour film takes about 8 hours to download here - but I downloaded one in London in about 3 minutes. And, yes, I run a small business, but I certainly can't afford a satellite uplink. Next door runs a big internet-based business and they have endless trouble too. And what is the prospect of improvement down here? None, much like the propsect of the A303 having any improvements around Stonehenge. That's the rural problem - we aren't important enough and yet a lot of small businesses go on down here and need the facilities as much as anyone else.

  • Comment number 7.

    In your 2200: comment I assume you mean 65MB and not 65Mb.

    I know the broadband companies want to con us by talking in bits not bytes but a tech writer for the BBC really should get their KB MB, and Kb, Mb correct.

    Also a 65MB file, assuming that is what you meant would not "have got there in a few minutes" on a 100Mbps fibre connection. I would have been a few seconds. 5.2 in fact

    Sorry to pick at what is otherwise an excellent article.

    I expect the UK Gov dont know what the difference between Mbps and MBps is either. Would be nice to see upload speeds looked at as well as download speeds!

  • Comment number 8.

    Openreach (BT Wholesale) claim the lines are uneconomic and they need 2-3bn from the government.

    All the government needs to do is tell Openreach to enable broadband on all phone lines or they will loose their license. Just watch how fast this job becomes economic.

  • Comment number 9.

    I presume that 65Mb is a typo.

    Mb = Magabit
    MB = Magabyte

    While connectivity speeds are often measured in Magabits file sizes are typically measured in megabytes.

  • Comment number 10.

    7 years ago the company I was working for at the time responded to a tender invitation from (if my memory serves me correctly) the Welsh Development Agency. This was to provide LLU in remote areas of Wales and many millions of pounds had been allocated to the project.

    The company I worked for was one of the very few to have unbundled local exchanges at the time and was considered a leader in the field. Our bid however was rejected on the grounds that we weren't a Welsh company, but there were no companies in Wales at the time who could have met all the other criteria.

    From the coverage today I can only assume the project never went ahead and by now I doubt the funding is available any more. What a missed opportunity.

  • Comment number 11.

    Never heard of Magabytes... but there are official IEC prefixes for computer memory related measurements that can be used which in this case would be MebiByte (not doesn't roll off the tongue as well). Network speeds, hard drive capacity, and flash storage capacity are typically expressed in Mega (x1000) bits/Bytes. File sizes, RAM, and ROM are usually expressed in MegaBytes when they should be using Mebi (x1024) Bytes (some systems do use Mega correctly to express file sizes however so it isn't all cut and dried). So Rory probably meant MiB (unless he's using Snow Leopard).
    The calculation of 65MB over 100Mbps doesn't take into account that this is uploading, where you typically (on asynchronous lines) get significantly slower speeds... so minutes is undoubtedly correct rather than seconds.

  • Comment number 12.

    I commented previously on my experience using public access at the library. As I needed some alternative, and this is supposed to be a strictly temporary situation (looking nationally for yet another fixed contract position), mobile broadband seemed like an answer. Despite the advertising, this has never achieved higher than 6 kbps from my home location (a market town in Northants). So no video, and endless delays while websites try to download over-graphiced pages. To be fair, some MB suppliers said they wouldn't sign me up because they wouldn't be happy with the service level I would see. However, for my primary purpose (job websites), this is my best option. £15/month for unlimited glacial access (I don't think there are sufficient hours in the day for me to reach the contract's download limit), versus £3 /hour for a marginally faster download speed at the library.

  • Comment number 13.

    The people will be taxed to provide a better infrastructure to benefit businesses. The business of government is business.

  • Comment number 14.

    As a sole trader trying to run a business from home in relatively rural South Wales I can attest to the fact that we are treated appallingly badly while the ISPs trumpet about what a fabulous service they can offer to the lucky few who happen to live in the right big cities.
    I have spent the last five years using a slow but workable broadband service (512kbps) supplied by Tiscali. When TalkTalk bought them out the service mysteriously began to deterioriate. On June 9th my broadband stopped working. TalkTalk and BT spent a couple of weeks trying to blame each other, and eventually TalkTalk advised me that they were no longer able to provide me with broadband and I should call their cancellations department.
    Since that time I've spent countless hours on the phone (usually listening to hold music) trying to get a new connection via BT. Four appointments have been cancelled by OpenReach without them notifying me that they had done so. I have my fingers crossed for the fifth.
    Today (Juy 15th) I had a call from BT to say that the planned connection (July 22nd, a mere 6 weeks after my b'band fell over)couldn't go ahead as TalkTalk were going to disconnect my phone on the 16th (tomorrow). I rang TalkTalk and asked them to cancel the disconnection as I'd never requested it, only a MAC to transfer to BT. Their 'customer service' rep told me this was impossible - they can't cancel a stop order. So my phone will be disconnected tomorrow, and only then can I ask BT for yet another order to get it reconnected.
    I am only able to post this comment via an overpriced and temperamental mobile dongle. Mobile signal too, is very poor here a mere four miles from the major market town of Abergavenny.
    What really galls is that throughout six weeks of increasingly stressful phone calls to TalkTalk/Tiscali and BT, noone at any point seems able to say "I can see your problem, I will take responsibility and get it sorted", preferring instead to fall back on constant variations on "I'm sorry, our systems won't allow that.."
    If I weren't already bald I'd be tearing my hair out by now. Rant over!!

  • Comment number 15.

    lucky few who happen to live in the right big cities

    It's not luck, it's a deliberate choice. You made a different deliberate choice, and it has consequences.

  • Comment number 16.

    "It's not luck, it's a deliberate choice. You made a different deliberate choice, and it has consequences."
    Actually Ewan I ended up here no through personal choice at all when my late wife was dying of cancer 6 years ago... cheers though for the usual sweeping generalisation about 'country folk' :)

  • Comment number 17.

    I watched Rory's news item "Broadband 'still failing rural areas' in UK" on today's BBC 1o'clock News. I was slightly amused by the use of "rural" to describe areas where broadband can't reach.
    Basingstoke in Hampshire is a large town that grew as "London overspill" in the 1960s and 70s and has continued growing. Virgin Media's predecessors cabled the central part of the area 15 uyears ago.
    BT have recently (2010) been installing their own fibre-optic cables - but they appear to have only installed them in the areas where Virgin already have cables - giving the inpression that there's no need to install in other areas as they don't face any competition there.
    And these non-cabled areas are not exactly "rural" - they are large housing estates in areas like Chineham (just off the A33 road to Reading) and Hatch Warren (close to the M3) not farms as shown on the televised report. And a number of residents in these areas have complained in the local press about BT's limnited approach to installing high-speed broadband. It seems that the telecomms companies don't want to pay for installing new infrastructure because they are "too far frim the exchange." It seems that people who have moved into these areas have neglected to consider broadband coverage when planning their move.
    Meanwhile, living in a part of Basingstoke that has been cabled by Virgin Media on one of theiir "up to 10MB" broadband packages find myself enjoying internet access that regularly averages 9.5MB.
    It seems that the technology is there, but the companies aren't willing to extend the infrastructure - is it a matter of expense, or would there be issues about installing new trenches or building new "relay points" to extend copverage to "outlying areas"? Wonder if the rersidents in the slow lane in Basingstoke would like a mast in their backyard to provide better access?

  • Comment number 18.

    I can understand why people need to live in a broadband 'not spot' if they run a business such as the agricultural business in the article, but if you wish to run an online business surely part of the requirements for setting up said business would be to locate it in an area with decent connection speeds. It's a bit like wanting to start a ship building business without any water. Yes it may be annoying that you can't work from home all the time but surely there has to be a balance. Some places, I agree should have decent connections, but for many who live in fairly isolated areas, perhaps you should ask yourself why the government should spend x million pounds providing you with a fast connection.

    Also, in response to comment 14, I think you'll find that those'lucky few' are in fact the majority of the UK population as, by definition, more people live in urban areas. Personally I would rather see the government encourage the really fast broadband that Virgin are proposing to roll out. 100Mbps download speeds with a decent upload speed would be great! No more lag playing games online!

  • Comment number 19.

    re #18 problem is that 98% of Virgin Media customers aren't prepared to cough up for the 50M service so it doesn't make the 100M service or equivalent fibre services look like a good business idea.

  • Comment number 20.

    re comment #19 - perhaps it's a case that most home users don't need broadband speeds of "up to 50MB" all of the time? I'm quite satisfied with my Virgin Media 10MB service at the moment.The times when a 50MB speed would be handy would be if you're downloading large files, e.g. novies, or similar, but people don't do that all of the time. Doing things like e-mail, searching via Google, checking your bank account, etc don't really need 50MB speeds do they?


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