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ADSL is holding back the online economy

Thursday, 16 August 2007 internet iptv rant

While the internet continues to grow in both size and complexity, the speed that rural ADSL users are almost completely stagnant. Something needs to be done before the gap between urban and rural ADSL harms the online economy.

There have been several things online recently about the upcoming problems facing the people that get the internet to our homes. Many providers and even the people that supply them are struggling under the amount we all use the internet but that’s just a case of upgrading their core networks. One much larger issue is the growing separation between what speeds providers say they can give and what people really receive.

Advertised speeds are misleading

You see, ADSL (that’s Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) works over your phone line. This was great to begin with because it meant relatively little infrastructure needed to be upgraded in order to get every line on one phone exchange up to the task of handling fast internet. It was just a case of upgrading all the exchanges.

However, the core rule of thumb over how fast your connection and therefore how fast you can download is tied directly to how good the signal can travel from your end of the phone line to the exchange. Two factors rule the signal strength: distance from the exchange and line quality — two things that are almost impossible to change without moving house, building more exchanges or swapping out your entire phone line.

While ADSL technologies improve, people close to the exchanges continue to see speed increases all the way up to 22mbps. For people like myself, all the improvements in the world could happen and I’ll still have just have a twentieth of that speed: 1.1mbps.

And while they keep improving, providers keep changing their plans around. A few years ago, it was possible to buy 512kbps, 1mbps and 2mbps. These days, the vast majority of consumer broadband providers will only provide 2mbps and 8mbps. All the people that cannot even receive 2mbps connections still have to pay the same price. What happens when “up to” 8mbps is the slowest connection? Yeah, we’ll be paying for 8mbps and getting 1.1. Hoorah.

The two-tier internet is already here

Highly annoying as that is for consumers, it’s still not the issue at hand. Extremely large parts of rural England (alongside quite a few urban areas) are stuck with this stagnant low connection speed. Our internet hasn’t increased in speed for years and we’re last in the line for any improvements. The availability of fast internet is splintering.

Meanwhile people who have access to cable internet providers see a yearly improvement. Over the course of 2 years with NTL (now Virgin) when I was living in Norwich, I saw our internet connection soar from 1.5mbps to 3mbps and then to 10mbps. They are now up to 20mbps for their premium package with plans to provide 100mbps connections.

However, cable internet is more restrictive than ADSL. In order to get it, you need cabling to your house. I live in a little village of about 150 houses, just 2 miles from the nearest place with cable internet. The chances of them bringing cable hubs down to us and providing each house with the opportunity for better internet? Very close to zero. It costs a lot of money to get the infrastructure in place so the chances of it ever reaching here are infinitesimally small.

International broadband and the internet

But why does any of this really matter. 1.1mbps was more than fast enough 5 years ago so why should we want any better these days?

The internet may look comfortable where it is, but it’s really just getting started. The scope of what we could really do with the internet is just coming into vision but we need more speed (dammit, Scotty!). There are so many new and exciting technologies like proper IPTV (proper high-quality video over the internet), massive improvements to how we communicate with each other, right down to how we consume news and information.

The BBC has just launched it’s on-demand online TV service. Channel 4 and Five have had theirs up for a while. These sorts of applications can only be utilised (comfortably) when you have some bandwidth to use it with.

The parts of the world that have had fast internet for some time, are laughing at us. Large parts of urbanised Japan has has gigabit (1000mbps) connections for some time now. Parts of Scandinavia has some of the best internal infrastructure in the world.

The solution

To escape this pit of internet-connection-despair, we need to pull our collective finger out and put things right that should have been fixed years ago. We need to get the technology in there and move the entire country over to a proper network intended for the future, not scraping together what we can for today. If we don’t, we, and countries like us will fall far behind in being a part of the next generation of internet.

Official industry watchdogs are telling companies off for advertising speeds that the majority of people cannot obtain and while that’s a very noble cause, perhaps they should be getting these companies to fix the reason why so many of us can’t get true high-speed internet in the first place.

We need progress and if that means dumping ADSL and phone lines in favour of something that can scale up in the future, sign us up.