Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Unboxing Broadband, part 1: Changing Partners

I've changed broadband! Sky and BT did a great job of getting the service to work. But that's not the same as getting the service to work well. blog.mindrocketnow.com

I decided to change broadband provider last week. We weren't bundling, a cardinal sin for a consumer, so I found that we were paying more for communications services than we needed to. Then I found online shopping deals that made up-selling myself to super-duper fibre broadband even cheaper than our current outlay. No brainer!

I first wanted BT broadband because I wanted BT Sport, to watch the Spurs games for "free". But my wife vetoed that, so I concentrated on finding the best deal. Sky won that RFP, so we set the date for our seamless digital divorce and remarriage to the new paramour.

The process still required a visit from BT. I needed a new faceplate, a data cable laid, finding the green cabinet, and then testing the line, powering up and checking the zero-touch provisioning of the BT VDSL modem, then plugging in and powering up the Sky router, which itself needed to self-provision.

All in all, it took a little shy of 3 hours to do the work. And it was all put in jeopardy because I didn't hear the engineer arrive because the doorbell battery has needed replacing for the last five years. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can cause technology fail.

The difference due to the new service is noticeable, which surprised me. After all, if you only need 6Mbps to stream video, surely the normal 10Mbps service should suffice? But now there's a snap to loading websites, so long as the computer is concentrating on the task. There's no dreaded clock face wait interrupting watching video. Lovefilm titles finally play at 1080p with no buffering every few minutes. But the beach ball hasn't disappeared off the field of play in all cases.

When the computer is doing many things at once, there's sometimes a lag before the web page loads. Perhaps a stutter on the ticker stream at the bottom of the screen, or in the screen wipe to the next cmd-tab. Certainly, a lot less frequent and noticeable than before.

But some web sites still cause a pause. All the steps in each transaction becomes more obvious: fetching personalised content, forced refresh of the site to show personalised content, requesting the DRM license, sending transaction detail records to CRM, initialising playback. It seems that in most cases, the bottleneck has simply moved elsewhere.

And then there's the problem of my in-home network. Getting the combination of wifi and power line working is actually simple enough. However, optimising so that the broadband torrent that we pay for doesn't turn into a trickle by the time it gets to the computer, is still quite laborious.

The Sky wifi router seems a lot better than the previous Apple Time Capsule, so that has the honour of being the primary wifi router, with the TC relegated to covering the not-spot (annoyingly, my side of the bed). However, it still needs to be sited carefully, up high, presumably where my wife will complain about trailing cables.

Then the power line routers needed to be re-set because they annoyingly chose to corrupt their network ID with all the switching on and off. And the Drobo still can't be seen, first because of double NAT, then because the ethernet plug popped itself out of the hub. Fixed with a satisfying click.

Sky and BT Openreach have done a great job of getting the service to work, and transitioning the service from one provider to the next with minimal interruption. However, that's not the same as getting the service to work optimally, and that is a whole different world of pain.

The challenge that the industry faces is that consumers are becoming more sophisticated with their desires of these services. If the broadband service is marketed as enabling crisp HD video over the internet, and I pay the premium to get the broadband service, then I want crisp HD video. No matter who provides my other kit that actually caused the problem, it's the company that takes my money every month that will get the blame.

More in this series: part 2.

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