Virgin Media trials up to 330Mbps

Stories have been floating around the various ISP news websites recently, with claims that 200 or 300 Mbps services are being tested by Virgin Media on their cable platform.

Weirdly, I appear to be one of those lucky ‘testers’. VM didn’t tell me that they were going to upgrade my connection, it just sort of happened. I was on the 152Mbps package, but now my modem is synced at around 330Mbps down and 16Mbps up:

Modem stats page

Modem stats page

So that’s pretty nice, I now have one of the fastest consumer-level connections in the UK (excluding the small 1Gbps fibre providers). BT’s own FTTH service offers up to 330Mbps also, so it seems Virgin are testing their network to try and provide the same service.

What about speed testing? Plugging in over ethernet, I got the following result at around 5:30pm on a Saturday:

Speedtest.net - Virgin London Server

Speedtest.net – Virgin London Server

Not 330Mbps, but I wouldn’t expect that using a test like this. I should’ve attempted to download multiple large files off different servers and then looked at the total amount of traffic going through the ethernet interface, but I didn’t bother.

One thing to note is the upload speed. It’s still fairly slow when compared to BT’s FTTC offering, and slower than many other FTTH packages. This is seemingly a limitation of the cable infrastructure itself, but it might be rectified when EuroDOCSIS 3.1 is rolled out.

I don’t know if I will remain on this new service indefinitely, or if they will remove it when they have finished trialling it. I also question whether anyone really needs a 300Mbps+ connection for a home. With 8 other people using this connection, and monitoring the bandwidth used, we rarely every break above 100Mbps at any one given moment.

Guernsey 4G switched on, much faster than the fastest home broadband

4G in Guernsey has finally arrived, with Sure activating 4G around the island dependent on location.

This is of course great news for Guernsey, finally catching up to the UK when it comes to mobile technologies. What surprised me more, was that the initial speediest’s coming in seem to be faster than the ‘average’ UK 4G connection:

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I’m not totally up to speed with the LTE ‘categories’ [The different speeds achievable], but it seems that Sure might be using either twice the radio spectrum/bandwidth than many UK carriers, or that their equipment can use more spatial streams (MIMO) than the ‘standard’ amount. They are offering seemingly the ‘up to’ 100Mbps 150Mbps variant rather than the more standard ‘up to’ 50Mbps (resulting in more usual average’s of 30-40 Mbps). Of course as more user’s download on the 4G network, that headline figure will begin to come down, but it’s a very promising start.

Something which is immediately noticeable though, and definitely ‘on theme’ with this blog, is that 4G in guernsey is now at least twice as fast than the fastest fixed line broadband connection that Sure offers on the island. Also, the upload speeds are at least 4x faster than the fastest VDSL connection.

4G data is also priced pretty reasonably: I assume that 4G will be available on the PAYG mobile broadband SIM’s, for which you can buy 50GB of data for £40. I think this is good value compared to the UK, where for example Three offers 1GB for £10. (Meaning 50GB would cost you the equivalent of £500!)

If you compare this cost to fixed line access, which costs £35pm for the 40Mbps service, you might wonder why even bother with having a broadband connection at all! The only reason you might choose VDSL over 4G is if you want truly unlimited data, which I admit is a pretty big deal for some of us (me included!). However for a lot of people, 50GB per month is probably enough, and if you pay just £25 you get 25GB.

So what am I really saying here? Well, there is a disconnect between Sure’s products. If you want the fastest speeds possible, you need to go the 4G route. Not only that, but if you want 4x the upload speeds, you also need to go the 4G route. Uploading a large video to Youtube? Get the 4G dongle out. Backing up your PC files? Yep, 4G dongle again…

It is really time that Sure re-focused on their fixed line product. You might argue that people don’t really need faster than 40Mbps, but then equally do people really need 80+Mbps on their phones? If anything, faster speeds are going to be more beneficial in the home than when you are mobile. Streaming 4K video, more than 1 user at a time, uploading files, cloud access, etc.

At the very least, Sure could split their current VDSL product: 40/10 for home and 80/20 for ‘Pro’, a bit like BT does in the UK. Whilst line length is still of course an issue (and some homes still don’t even have access to VDSL!), it would at least close some of the gap between the blisteringly fast 4G and somewhat slower ‘Superfast broadband’.

ADSLMax – The travesty of (the lack of) ADSL2+ coverage

I’ll get right to the point.

According to SamKnows, there are 5564 ADSL enabled exchanges in the UK. Only 2762 of them are enabled with BT’s ADSL2+. This means that around half of all UK exchanges have no access to ADSL2+. They are stuck with ADSL1, a technology fast approaching obsolescence. Whilst population coverage of ADSL2+ is around the 90% mark I believe(?), customers living in rural areas already with the least choice and lowest speeds are getting further screwed due to the lack of investment.

Why does ADSL2+ matter? There are a few reasons, listed in this comparison table (note, speeds are BT’s caps, not theoretical maximum):

adslmax

Of course, many people (including BT of course) would argue “what’s the point” of deploying 100% national ADSL2+ coverage when they are already aiming for 90% VDSL coverage, followed by 95% soon after. The problem lies in the final 5%. 5% of the entire country will have no access to superfast broadband, and not only that but they will almost certainly be stuck with ADSL1.

The primary problem

The primary issue with the outdated ADSLMax product is the diabolically slow and ridiculous upload speed cap. Right now, BT could uncap all existing ADSLMax customers stuck on their ADSL1 only exchanges, probably with just a flick of a computer keyboard. Upload speeds could be increased from the paltry 400 kbps to around 800 kbps, a doubling (still very slow by modern standards, but at least something!) which would result in the internet feeling generally quicker. This is already possible with BT’s ‘premium’ ADSLMax product, but you have to pay an additionally monthly fee (for something which the remaining 90% of the country gets for free), and even more amusingly you can’t get this option with BT retail (Plusnet and A&A are some of the only ISP’s to offer it). All in all, a farcial situation.

In an actual example, loading a single webpage on ADSLMax regularly saturates my upload connection, since TCP requires sending as well as receiving. Even though my download bandwidth isn’t being fully utilised, pages load slowly since the upload bandwidth is being saturated and load requests can’t get through as quickly as they should. Now add in a few additional laptops, tablets and phones on the connection, and latency skyrockets.

A prime example of the upload crisis is having multiple iOS devices upload things to Photostream, as well as use iCloud Backup. I have had to manually create QoS rules in my router to limit the uploads of iOS devices, otherwise they literally crash the internet.

The cheap solution

It’s bad enough not having ADSL2+ available, never mind any form of fibre (and in case you wondered, my cabinet was skipped in the BDUK process, looks like I’m in the final 5%), but to add to further frustration, BT are actively slowing down rural connections that could otherwise make use of higher upload speeds. They don’t even need to upgrade to ADSL2+ equipment (they should’ve done that years ago…) instead, they need to scrap the premium service and give everyone the 800 kbps upload speeds. Whilst not all lines would make use of it, a great number of them would see some benefit. It would be an easy interim measure that could be done with literally no spending required. If it results in some peak-time upload congestion, I can live with that. At least most of the time I would get 2x the upload speed that I currently get.

Long term

The real question is, what of ADSLMax and IPStream? With 1000’s of exchanges still using it, what are BT’s plans for migration? In terms of competition, I assume BT have to continue to offer ADSL in fully FTTC areas since not all providers actually support FTTC yet. What happens when the (now ancient) ADSLMax equipment becomes EoL or just unobtainable? Maybe they still manufacture it now (lol…) but in 5 years time? 10 years? ADSL2+ seems the obvious solution for keeping ADSL around, but VDSL is (rightly) BT’s aim at the moment. The core issue is that VDSL is the not the ‘standard’ service, it is actually marketed as a premium offering. BT still offer plain ADSL from the exchange. In 10 years time will this still be ADSL1, or will ADSL be totally discontinued and FTTC the ‘standard’ broadband offering?

There are many questions and really not many answers. Sadly all the hype is around BDUK and the FTTC rollout, but for those of us still waiting, it just feels as if any existing ADSL infrastructure improvements have been all but abandoned.

Virgin Media: 152 Mbps

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I have Virgin Media at my student property. Because it’s shared between 8 people, we decided to go for the fastest package. And it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

I quite like how they provision the service to be faster than what you actually pay for. The cable modem is synced around 168 Mbps, which allows for various overheads, and results in them selling 152. But it’s clear that 160 Mbps is easily attainable, even during the ‘rush hour’ period around 6pm UK time.

Latency is equally impressive, see this ping graph from thinkbroadband.com:

8fc9615451f8041e094f1e6114aa8162-13-10-2014

The few blips near the end are probably me using Speedtest. Even in the evenings the latency is almost always below 30ms, with an average below 20ms.

The only minor letdown with the service was the supplied wireless router. Even though it was their new 802.11ac one, it lacked effective wireless range, probably due to built-in antenna. I purchased a separate wireless router and put the SuperHub into modem-only mode, which results in far superior wireless coverage. Even though my computer has an 802.11ac card, ac wireless doesn’t work in the 2.4Ghz spectrum, and I can’t use the 5Ghz band since it lacks wall penetration (I get faster wi-fi speeds on 2.4Ghz N rather than 5Ghz, even though 2.4 is very congested).

The best thing, in my opinion, is the price. £39pm may seem steep, but it doesn’t require telephone line rental (around £15 usually). It’s literally a no-brainer to go with Virgin if you don’t require a landline, since BT Infinity is both slower (*apart from upload), more susceptible to line length, requires an 18-month rather than 12-month contract, and is also more expensive once you factor in that line rental.

Fastershire: Andoversford

The Fastershire project is the government subsidised faster broadband rollout for Gloucestershire & Herefordshire.

I decided to do some investigating as to who might be able to receive the new superfast service in and around the Andoversford telephone exchange area. BT Openreach now make cabinet level data publicly accessible on their website, and cabinet information can also be obtained from their DSL checker website. With these 2 sources of information, it is relatively easy to construct this table:

cabs

[Disclaimer: Information provided from BT public sources, and could be incorrect!]

Of the 8 cabinets that I could identify (cabinets 2 and 8 either don’t exist or I just couldn’t find them), 4 of them are expected to get upgraded to Superfast. Of the 4 cabinets to be upgraded, 3 of them are in Andoversford itself. The only ‘rural’ cabinet is expected to be in Sevenhampton, which looking at the DSL checker is in dire need of faster broadband access.

Of course, it is extremely ambiguous as to what “Under Review” actually means. On BT’s website, it states that “We’re in your area but we’re still assessing whether or not we can upgrade your cabinet.”

Let me now provide my interpreted translation for that statement: “We have no idea when your cabinet is going to be upgraded. We’ve probably already written it off, but we say it’s still being reviewed in order to keep your hopes up and deter any other non-BT competition.”

There is of course the small chance that some of the Under Review cabs might get upgraded at some point in the future, or even another solution (FTTP?) might be offered. Additionally, ‘Under Review’ could also mean that the original PCP cab was not suitable to be upgraded and they have to do additional works/checks before they can plan to add a DSLAM to it.

It is somewhat of a shame that the most rural, in need areas of the Andoversford exchange are likely to miss out on Superfast access in this current round of funding. Unless ‘Under Review’ means something a lot more positive (which I suspect it doesn’t), properties just scraping 2Mbps are likely to remain at this speed at least for now.

An interesting find, however, is this image:

adsl2+

Yes, that does indeed say “on Exchange Andoversford” at the top there, and yes, it is stating that WBC ADSL2+ is available at this property. I have not found another single address in the Andoversford exchange area that is enabled for ADSL2+ (Up to 17Mbps compared to the older up to 8Mbps service). It is very odd – it could well be an anomaly in the address checker, or on the other hand, it could be a test property that has been enabled, pending the wider rollout of ADSL2+ to the whole exchange. The VDSL Superfast product, as far as I am aware, runs on 21CN (WBC), so it would make sense that the exchange itself is being upgraded too. However, not all VDSL cabs will link to their parent exchanges – sometimes the backhaul is known to route to alternative locations…

Edit: According to roadworks.org, BT are doing works on ‘PCP8’ in Shipton Oliffe. I wasn’t able to locate any properties connected to cabinet 8, so it could be that Shipton Oliffe properties are in fact going to receive FTTC very soon, not sure why the wholesale checker states PCP10 rather than 8 though… Also, this tallies with the fastershire website coverage map, which shows the area around the village as having fibre access by the end of 2014.

Late night Speedtest (part 2)

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Another late night Speedtest. Upload speeds are very consistent, approaching the advertised 5 Mbps. However download speeds still appear to be lower than the full 40 Mbps, the maximum actual throughput is more like 34 Mbps on a fully synced line.

Interestingly, and this could be a bug, Speedtest.net says this connection is “Slower than 57% of GG”. How this is possible, I don’t know? I can only assume that the reason is leased line customers with much faster connections doing a lot of testing recently.

On another note, this September we are approaching the 2nd anniversary of Sure’s VDSL service launch. Fingers crossed for some sort of upgrade announcement! After all, when LTE launches next year, it wouldn’t ‘seem’ right for their VDSL to offer the same speeds as the 4G mobile network.

O2 EU data roaming: £2 for “unlimited” internet

Quite recently, O2 UK seem to have updated their European data roaming policy for both Pay & Go and Pay Monthly customers who are on O2 Travel.

It used to be £1.99 for 15MB 25MB of data, but now it seems O2 are offering 50MB of data for Pay & Go customers and, I quote: “no upper usage limit” for Pay Monthly customers.

Immediately I was very surprised, “no upper usage limit”, how can that possibly be? It almost sounds like unlimited internet for just £2 a day whilst in Europe.

Alas, however, since O2 does attach a rather large caveat to this offer: “Traffic management steps apply”. If you click further down into the Terms & Conditions, there actually is an upper usage limit of 50MB for streaming video and 100MB for general internet traffic. After you use up your allowance, you are slowed down to a literal crawl (looks to be 64kbps or similar speed), which is practically useless.

It seems that O2 are mis-advertising their “no upper usage limit” when in fact, it is 100MB. The last time I checked 100MB was an upper usage limit? Of course, they get round it by not entirely stopping the service but slowing it down to the point of unusability. I would prefer it if O2 simply stated “100MB for £2 a day, send a text message to get another 100MB” like previously, but instead once you’ve used up your allowance you have to wait until the next day to return to normal browsing speeds.

Even better: Why can’t O2 just copy Vodafone and offer £2 a day to make use of your own home allowance of GB’s/minutes/texts? To me this seems most reasonable. Even better still, since Telefonica owns both O2 and Movistar, abolish data roaming charges altogether? It’s going to happen anyway, why not just get a head start on the competition?

 

Vodafone.es 4G is pretty fast

If you’ve read my previous posts, you might be aware of the horror that is ADSL in Spain:

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ADSL

Yes, this really is the ADSL connection on a bad day. The line is long and noisy and at night, it becomes especially bad as the SNR plummets to negative numbers.

However, in exactly the same location, my Huwaei 4G router can get this (unit sited indoors, no external antenna):

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Vodafone 4G

It is, basically, 100x faster. The only glaring issue is the tiny amount of data allowance that you get. For €20, a measly 1.6GB (on PAYG). I seriously fail to see the point in high speed 4G if you simply cannot use it for anything other than casual browsing. Even streaming a single movie per month would use your entire allowance up. Until telco’s massively increase the allowances to 10’s of GB for reasonable prices, fixed line ADSL is likely to remain for when you need to download large files, even if you have to leave it running overnight.

The situation of draconian 4G usage limits is a universal one. No operator that I am aware of offers a truly unlimited 4G connection for the home user. There are certain business contracts available but they are essentially off-limits for the normal user. Given that back in 2011, the average UK home user downloaded 17GB per month of data, even Vodafone Spain’s 10GB (and largest possible) monthly contract is nowhere near this figure, and that comes in at around €40pm.

I hear a lot about 4G “being the saviour of rural broadband”, but, until usage caps are lifted, that extra speed is at best useless, and at worst possibly very expensive.

 

 

eBay database hacked, and why password managers are a good idea

eBay’s database containing their user’s login details was hacked into earlier this year, with the details only just being released to the public today.

Apparently, the passwords are “encrypted”, which ought to make people feel slightly better (*Lol, I hope they aren’t actually encrypted), but eBay users are being advised to change their passwords anyway.

You see, the vast majority of internet users have the same password for everything which is a really bad idea! If a large company such as eBay can be hacked and your personal details leaked, imagine what smaller and less secure companies & sites do with your password!

If you use a different password for each of your online identities however, and if one of those identities becomes compromised, the rest of your online accounts remain largely unaffected. The problem however, is that with an increasing number of online identities, it can become impossible to remember all of your different passwords. This is why it’s always a good idea to use a password manager. Essentially all of your passwords are long randomly generated strings, and these are saved on your local computer in a single encrypted file, protected by a master password. It might seem odd to have one ‘master password’ that gives access to everything, but the probability of a hacker physically accessing your machine is 1,000,000’s of times less likely than them trying to access your eBay account remotely, for example.

Additionally, online password managers such as Apple’s iCloud use industry-leading AES-256 encryption, which is good enough even for the NSA’s Top Secret documents. And if you use a long master password, your data is pretty safe.

* You might wonder why earlier I said that encrypting a password on a database is a bad idea. Encryption inherently means a reversible function, and for password storage this is entirely unnecessary. A one-way crypto hashing function is far safer and the preferred method for storing passwords in most cases. I can only hope that eBay used a strong hashing algorithm such as Bcrypt or SHA (with stretching+salting, of course), and god forbid not MD5! And if they did actually encrypt the passwords, I hope the encryption keys were stored somewhere safe and not in the database itself!

4G: The odd state of affairs

In this blog post, 4G = LTE, and not any variant of HSPA…

I have been on O2’s 4G tariff since they launched it back in August, and at the time I knew that their coverage was limited to just a few large cities, but I took the tariff in the hope that they would commence an “aggressive rollout“. Now almost 7 months into the rollout of O2’s 4G network (as well as Vodafone & Three, for that matter), their 4G city coverage is still extremely limited and doesn’t appear to have grown that much. I understand that 4G rollout is just that, a “rollout” that happens over a period of time, but surely when you are trying to play catch-up to the likes of EE (who have far, far superior 4G coverage, albeit due to their massive time advantage), you would think both O2 and Vodafone would be pushing to get 4G to as many cities and towns across the UK as quickly possible.

Now, I might be seeing this entirely wrong, but it seems that O2 in particular have really been pushing their 4G rollout in the north of the country more so than in the south. Not that this is a bad thing, but I would’ve expected a balance of north/south cities to receive 4G in order to get as wide geographic coverage as possible. A list of examples that have yet to receive O2 4G in the southern half of the country, include but are not limited to: Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Oxford, Luton, Milton Keynes.. The list goes on.

In comparison (and I do indeed realise this is very unscientific), cities in the north that have O2 4G coverage (not withstanding Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds) are: York, Newcastle, Nottingham & Sheffield.

In terms of population, the Portsmouth/Southampton area is the 6th highest population in the country, yet it gets no O2 4G as of writing. Bristol, with a population of 600,000, has no O2 4G, yet Sheffield with a similar population already has it.

However, none of the geographic issues actually matter that much when we look at the rollout of Three, the UK’s ‘4th’ mobile operator. Even though they had a later start, and you would think far less cash lying around compared with O2 (Telefonica) and Vodafone, their 4G rollout appears to have been much more aggressive and widespread. Bristol? Check. Oxford? Check. Southampton? Check. Portsmouth? Check. Milton Keynes? Check. Luton? Check…

Three’s rollout, ignoring the numbers, seems more balanced around getting 4G to areas of high population compared with Vodafone and O2. Now, unlike O2, Three has no obligation to deploy their 4G network any further than this, compared with O2’s coverage obligation to cover pretty much the entire country’s population. So this could be a factor, O2 are perhaps pacing themselves and deploying to random rural areas in small pockets (if you look at their coverage checker, there are some rural location masts that have 4G already) rather than deploying to the cities exclusively like Three has.

However as an O2 customer who is paying through the roof for 4G and living in a major southern city, and not receiving the service, and yet customers on Three can get unlimited data and 4G for no additional cost, to say it annoys me is an understatement! The UK’s rollout of 4G has been diabolically slow compared with other countries, which is a shame since we led the rollout of 3G back in the 00’s. I realise that the slow rollout was caused by regulatory incompetence, but it’s not as if the networks didn’t know 4G was coming? Could they not deploy their new masts and equipment before the awarding of the licences? This must have happened to some degree otherwise London and the other ‘starter’ cities are unlikely to have had 4G when it launched in August.

I now move onto the second part of this blog post, which is looking at 4G provision in Spain. If you have read my previous blog posts, you would see that I have been struggling in the past to get decent internet in a rural location in Spain. 2 Mbps internet on an extremely flakey ADSL line  just wouldn’t cut it anymore. The speed wasn’t really the issue, but the constant sync failures and sky-high (150ms average) latency just wasn’t acceptable in the year 2014. Vodafone (Spain) has also begun their 4G rollout in Spain using (I believe) the 2.6/1.8 spectrum, since the 800 spectrum isn’t active until later this year. So imagine my surprise when, I get out a friend’s iPhone with a UK Vodafone SIM in, and discover it has a 4G signal in pretty much the middle of nowhere! Data download was about 30 Mbps down and 15 Mbps up, with around 70 ms latency – this probably because the gateway was in the UK. Ignoring the fact that 4G data roaming on Vodafone actually works , (nil points to O2 for not having this yet – it’s not as if Telefonica, their parent company, owns pretty much all the telecom infrastructure in Spain) I was surprised that I even had 4G signal in my location. According to the coverage checker, there is meant to be zero 4G coverage at all, the nearest transmitter is behind 2 hills and a town. So I imagine the signal is reflecting off something and reaching us. (It’s definitely not coming from our local mast, since that is visible from our house and we only had 2 bars of 4G).

So now my challenge was to get hold of a 4G data sim card in Spain, on a business contract, to make use of their unlimited 4G offer for €49. This is actually impossible – Vodafone in Spain clearly don’t want your custom even if you wave money in front of them. With the endless spaghetti mess of bureaucracy and paperwork and legal shit, it’s no wonder Spain is bankrupt. So the easier solution was to get a PAYG sim card and make use of their 4G PAYG option (Called Vodafone Yu) which offers 1.6GB of data for €20. Although it’s pricey, it has some advantages:

1) It will probably work out cheaper paying 5x€20 in one month when we are in Spain, then to pay €49 per month for a service we aren’t going to use all year round.

2) No paperwork. No bureaucracy. Phew!

So with the PAYG sim on order, I’ll have to update you when I get it and do some speed testing. The plan at the moment is to buy a 4G router with external antenna connectors (Probably Solwise) so I can affix an omni antenna to the roof with a bit of extra gain. Also since 4G is meant to be MIMO, with the right hardware/dual feed antenna, I should be able to get 30-40 Mbps.

So, I’m now in the amusing situation that I can get 4G in a rural location in Spain, on a PAYG sim card, and yet I can’t get 4G on my expensive O2 tariff in a major UK city.

Don’t even get me started about O2’s data roaming policies…