Gigaclear – Installation & Review

After waiting and waiting for Fastershire (Gloucestershire’s BDUK arm) to finally roll out super-fast broadband to my area, it was finally confirmed that we would not be receiving mere FTTC from BT, but in fact full FTTH from Gigaclear!

The Gigaclear order was placed all the way back in December 2015, before any of the work had even started. Then in June of this year, Gigaclear’s contractors began to dig up the side of the road to lay the fibre cabling. Finally, at the end of August, we received this package through the post:

Gigaclear_box

Gigaclear’s self installation kit

The self install kit can be ordered with different cable lengths, ranging from 10 to 50 metres. You can also request even longer lengths up to 100m, but they will charge you for this. Since Gigaclear only bring the fibre cable up to the boundary of your property, they supply the remaining cable for you to bring it into your house.

The pricing options for Gigaclear are not cheap. You have to consider that you are receiving a premium internet connection, and I feel the price reflects this. On top of the monthly price plan, they charge a flat £100 ‘connection fee’ that is mandatory, and then if you don’t choose self install, the installation fee ‘starts from’ £95. So potentially before you’ve even got your internet connection, you’ve spent £200. Most practical people should be able to easily install the service without paying for the installation fee, however, as we did.

The monthly price plans are as follows (all speeds are symmetric):

50 Mbps – £39.90

100 Mbps – £45.25

200 Mbps – £52.45

1 Gbps – £74.00

I opted for the 100 Mbps plan, since it’s fast enough for pretty much everything. A 50 Mbps connection could become limited in the future with 4K video streaming, for example.

Anyway, back to the installation. Within the installation box you receive quite a lot:

Gigaclear_box2

Power supply, ethernet cable, 2 wall entry points, an external cable duct, cable ‘pusher’, silicon sealant, and 100 cable clips.

Router and internal wall box

Gigaclear_cable

50m of pre-ended Fibre cable

There are fairly comprehensive instructions that come with the box, and at no point during the installation was anything unclear.

To begin with, we started at the Gigaclear junction ‘pot’ that had been placed on our boundary verge by the road:

Gigaclear_pot

Inside, you will find a smaller black box that contains the actual connection point:

Gigaclear_pot2

Inside the small black box, you will find this:

Gigaclear_connection_boxUnfortunately when I opened up the black box, it hadn’t been closed properly, and a slug family had decided to move in. I washed both the box and the lid as best as I could, but you can still see some of the remains in the picture! The lid of the box has a rubber seal that fits tightly against the junction box, and the cable entry points have rubber grommets to prevent water (and slug) ingress. Finally a screw is provided to tighten it together.

Inside the junction box, it looks like there may actually be 2 ‘fibres’ in the orange cable. If you look closely there appears to be both a red and green cable coming out of it. It just shows how thin these fibre cables really are once you strip away all of the insulation (and even these cables have a very thin layer of insulation on). Underneath the screw in the picture, there is a long tube – this is where the fibre cable from the ground is spliced to the cable that goes to the blue connector. You then get the thicker red fibre going into the connector, ready for a customer to plug into.

The connector appears to be the ‘SC’ standard. It clipped pretty easily into the one in the junction box.

Gigaclear_SC_connector

Connector on end of supplied fibre cable

We started by digging a trench from the box to our boundary wall. The Gigaclear ground ‘pot’ has a hole around 2 inches deep behind the hinge, that allows you to feed the cable through. To protect the cable, we placed it inside some hosepipe tubing for the short distance that it was underground. Once at our wall, we drilled a hole through it, and then the rest of the journey we actually just clipped the cable to the back of the wall with the provided cable clips. Digging through hard earth and gravel is extremely difficult without power tools. Plus, the cable is probably safer above ground level in the event of any digging work being done in the future.

Interestingly, I ordered 50M expecting to only use around 30M of it. However, I ended up using almost the entire length of the cable! So I would definitely advise going longer than necessary – fibre isn’t like copper wire so the difference in length of say 25 vs 50 metres of cable doesn’t matter.

Getting the cable inside was easy, so was installing the ‘base plate’ that the router clips onto. The end of the fibre cable fits snugly inside the base unit, and the router literally slides up and makes contact with it. It was all pretty easy for anyone with basic DIY ability.

The finished router mounted on the wall:

Gigaclear_router

With the installation finished, all that remained was logging on to the internet – you have to enter your address details and Gigaclear customer number first, and then it just worked.

Obligatory speed test result:

Gigaclear_speedtest

Pretty impressive! The low latency is probably the most impressive thing, since I’ve had experience of GPON installations elsewhere that had much higher latency. Gigaclear uses point-to-point fibre, not GPON, so you’re not sharing the fibre cable with anyone else (at least up until the cabinet, anyway).

It’s also worth noting that like many smaller FTTH providers, Gigaclear offers symmetric connection speeds on all of their plans. Even though BT offer FTTH plans in some places of the country, the upload speeds are not symmetric (I believe they offer a 330/30 service).

The supplied router is reasonable, certainly much better than Telefonica Movistar’s one provided in Spain for my FTTH there (it had extremely slow wifi). The Gigaclear router comes with  2×2 MIMO 802.11ac, obviously dual band 2.4/5Ghz. This is certainly reasonable, though really a 3×3 MIMO product would’ve been better, considering they do offer up to 1Gbps connections. It comes with 4 gigabit ethernet ports, as well as 2 telephone jacks (not used – unless the Vonage service uses them – I’m not actually sure).

The router interface is somewhat locked down: it lacks a few key features such as Dynamic DNS, bridging, and the ability for it to respond to ICMP packets externally. It’s adequate, but the power user in me would prefer something a bit more advanced. Sadly you have to use the provided router, and unlike Virgin Media, who allow you to bridge the connection to your own router, Gigaclear don’t offer this without having to pay for it (which is ridiculous – £4.17 per month).

If we consider the price of the connection, I would expect a few more options to be available without charging extra:

  • A static IPv4 address without charging £2 per month for it. Also, this option is only available on the 200Mbps and 1Gbps packages (Why?). For reference, PlusNet charged me an £8 one-off fee for a static IP on their standard ADSL product.
  • IPv6 support. Gigaclear claims to have built an ‘IPv6 capable’ network, but seem to have not found the ‘on’ switch yet. Sky broadband, who I am switching away from, offer IPv6 to pretty much all their customers, and BT are very soon rolling it out to their customers. Meanwhile most small ISPs have been offering IPv6 for much longer. It might not be important to many people, but it’s one of those things that should be standard on a ‘next generation’ internet connection.
  • Bridging mode. This is only available to Business customers who then have to pay an additional monthly charge. Why? Virgin Media offer a bridging / router only mode to all of their customers by default, without charging for it. Surely this is a feature that could be enabled without any actual ongoing cost in the router interface itself?

Aside from these minor gripes, the connection is otherwise excellent. It does annoy me that I am downgrading my internet connection in some areas, whilst improving it in others. The lack of a dynamic DNS client built into the router is probably the most annoying of the problems. It just means I have to run a client on a computer all the time.

So would I recommend Gigaclear? The answer is absolutely yes. Despite some flaws that won’t effect 99% of people, it delivers a vastly superior connection compared to pretty much anything else out there at the moment.

 

Guernsey Connectivity Review – some thoughts

Last week the States of Guernsey released the ‘Guernsey Connectivity Review’ report, undertaken by Analysys Mason. You can see the full PDF document by going to the States website here.

My thoughts on this report are mixed. Firstly, I do wonder how much money the States spent on ‘consultancy fees’ to produce this document. I guess though the important thing is that internet access is on the governments agenda, even if no actual action has been taken yet.

An interesting thing about the document though, is that it provides some data from Sure that wouldn’t otherwise be publicly available. For example, they claim that only 10% of subscribers have taken up the ‘Superfast Broadband’ (VDSL) product, which did actually surprise me a bit (I thought it would’ve been higher than that).

As I read through it, I highlighted a few things that stood out that I will list here, in no real order:

1.) “Broadband services to JT’s subscribers are supplied on a wholesale basis via the Sure network.” [p.19] – This has obviously been the case all along – JT offers exactly the same broadband as Sure does, with only a very minor price difference. I fail to see how true broadband competition can exist when there is a single monopoly wholesale provider, that doesn’t seem to be regulated very harshly. In the UK ADSL market, LLU allows for providers to have their own physical equipment in the exchange, with the ability to offer different speeds and service levels that they choose.

2.) The VDSL rollout has stalled at only 60% penetration [p.20]. According to the February 2016 statistics (provided by Sure themselves, mind you), VDSL is only available to 60% of households on the island.  We need to remember that VDSL has been available on the island since September 2012, that’s approaching 4 years ago. If we look at the UK figures, BT had already reached a 66% population coverage of VDSL at the same time as Sure launching the product. Today, the coverage of superfast broadband in the UK is now over 90% of the population (admittedly, with state aid above the 65% mark, approximately). However, it’s really important to remember that Guernsey is an island of just 30 square miles, and the world’s 14th most densely populated jurisdiction. One of the reasons for state aid being necessary in the UK is that the remaining 30% of the population lived in relatively rural areas. The same cannot be said anywhere in Guernsey really. It’s also a fact that, in terms of raw population coverage, we are 4 years behind the UK.

3.) VDSL take-up on the island seems to be very low – only 15% of total subscribers have taken up the VDSL service (weirdly, this 15% figure contradicts the 10% figure used earlier in the report – perhaps older data?). Again, if we compare this take-up figure with the UK data of around 33% (Ofcom 2014, extrapolated by a year), it does appear to be fairly poor. The data is slightly confusing, since it’s not entirely clear if that is a % of households who are already covered by the VDSL footprint, or % of total households. If we had 100% VDSL coverage, the actual take-up number would obviously be higher, but it’s unclear if the % would go up. I think a focus should be made on asking WHY people in Guernsey aren’t opting for superfast broadband. The first obvious answer to me would be price. Comparing with a UK operator, e.g. Sky, they charge £37.40 per month for line rental and 40/10 VDSL. In Guernsey Sure charge £44.98 for line rental and 40/5 VDSL. However that doesn’t tell the whole picture – at any given point in time there is often a deal available with at least one of the UK operators, offering much cheaper VDSL. This means if you regularly switch you can end up saving a ton of money. For example, right now BT are offering 55/10 VDSL for just £28.98 per month. That’s over £5 cheaper than Sure’s standard ADSL! I realise fully that comparing Guernsey to the UK is not necessarily accurate or ‘correct’, but I feel it’s an important area to look at.

I suspect that another reason VDSL take up is low is due to consumers not realising it is even available, or just not really considering it. For many, ‘broadband is broadband’, and the speed they receive is the speed that they get. If their connection struggles when multiple people use iPlayer, I get a feeling many would just blame Sure regardless, and not realise they can get a much faster service. Sure have been pushing Superfast on the radio and in the press over the past year, as well as offering a discount if you sign-up, but this leads me onto my 3rd point. The name ‘superfast broadband’ may confuse some people, especially when in the UK the same product is labelled as ‘fibre’ (even though it obviously isn’t). Maybe a rebrand to make the VDSL service a lot more distinctive in name would help here? See the screenshot from Sure’s website:

sure-broadbandThere are 4 products all called ‘broadband’. Personally I see little point in the ‘Pro’ products since they are practically the same as their non-pro counterparts, except for a static IP and lower contention ratio (and what difference that actually makes is questionable). My point here: is having 4 ‘broadband’ products confusing people, when the UK advertising that we see on the TV is constantly pushing ‘fibre’? I suspect this may be playing a small part.

My final ‘possible minor reason for the low take up’ is the engineer install. For people that have busy lives, having to book an engineer in to fit the filtered faceplate could be a negative reason not to get VDSL. Again, in the UK, more providers are offering self-install options for FTTC that simply involve using a microfilter rather than a faceplate. I do agree that a faceplate is superior, but as long as your internal wiring isn’t dodgy, a micro filter can still work.

4.) The report blatantly confuses DSL sync speed with throughput speed. It compares the average sync speed of Guernsey connections against international metrics of average download speed. The effect of this is obvious: it makes Guernsey’s internet appear faster than it actually is, when compared to other countries. The other concerning aspect is that the Guernsey data is provided by Sure – and not an independent authority.

5.) The term ‘FTTC’ is often used to describe Sure’s VDSL product when, in fact, this is not really the case. As far as I know, they use a mixture of roadside and exchange-based MSAN’s. This means that all telephone and data services terminate at the same place – unlike FTTC where POTS continues back to the exchange.

6.) “We understand through our discussions with Sure, that a number of improvements to its existing copper access network are planned, including (a) expansion plans to install additional MSAN cabinets around the island, with the aim of making VDSL accessible to all properties; and (b) the introduction of vectoring, FTTdp and G.fast in 2017. We also understand the company intends to increase FTTH penetration in Guernsey in the period 2018–2020.” [p.44].

This statement is probably the most revealing, since we get a small glimpse into Sure’s future plans. The first point is essentially that they plan to increase VDSL coverage to the entire island. Clearly this is good news, though they don’t give a timeframe for this, nor does Sure reveal whether they will be funding this privately or asking for States money.  The second point reveals they probably intend to trial some future technologies, such as G.fast, which could offer 500Mbps+ speeds, assuming short enough line lengths. FTTdp is probably a planned intermediary for lines that are a bit too long and exist in the more ‘rural’ areas of Guernsey to receive a fast VDSL service. Vectoring is something which wouldn’t actually increase speeds, but just prevent speeds from going down due to crosstalk, when more people sign-up to the VDSL service. They list 2017 as the introduction date, which is fine, but by then Jersey will probably be near or at completion of their FTTH rollout. The final point is probably the most interesting – Sure intends to offer some sort of FTTH by 2018-2020. Could these be due to potential pressure from JT’s own FTTH network on Guernsey? (even though no real residential customers are actually able to get it yet, apart from the trial locations).

The rest of the report is mostly generic ‘how to offer NGA broadband’ that could’ve been cut and paste from any other report from any other country. There are also some odd numbers relating to FTTH rollout costs on Guernsey, implying it would be more expensive here than on Jersey? Regardless, the report doesn’t really conclude anything that anyone with common sense hadn’t already concluded. I do get the feeling that Guernsey will go down the ‘superfast copper’ route, whereby gradually the fibre is brought closer to our homes but never actually into them. G.fast will bring fibre within 100’s of metres, and is also the preferred approach of BT. But ultimately it is still a copper wire that does the final stretch, and will still be susceptible to interference and dodgy joints.

My wish-list for this year is only 2 things, however: Native IPv6 and a faster VDSL tier option. 12% of the world’s internet connections are now on IPv6, and it’s time that Guernsey actually led in this area rather than follow. In terms of VDSL, the least I would like to see is another upload speed bump. The report actually highlighted the upload speed requirements for small business and content creators, and that it was lacking on the island. Perhaps make it so that the ‘Superfast Pro’ product was 80/20 – at least the absurd price for this product could then begin to be justifiable.

Telefonica Movistar Fiber Optic – 300Mbps

We’ve been waiting well over 10 years for a decent internet connection in Spain. Some of my previous posts dealt with how bad the ADSL was, with speeds no higher than 3Mbps (on a good day), regular dropouts and sky-high latency.

We investigated a whole host of solutions: Fixed wireless, satellite, and more recently 4G. The 4G connection looked promising, but would’ve proved to be very expensive, given the limited data caps available.

Earlier this year, to our massive surprise, Movistar’s online checker showed that all of a sudden we were able to get Fiber Optic (Fibra Óptica) down our very rural road. Whilst the nearby village had fiber installed, I didn’t think they would bother to go into the more rural areas. Apparently I was wrong!

Fiber terminator

Fiber Optic ‘Termination Box’

The Movistar technicians came to install our new service – it took a couple of months from order to delivery, since apparently they needed to run a further cable from one of the junction boxes down the road in order to actually reach our property, which had to be done by a different group of technicians.

The first obvious thing that makes this different from ADSL is you get a new ‘Fiber Optic termination’ box, with the black cable being the Fiber coming into your property directly from outside, and then this will be internally fused to a smaller cable inside which goes to the connector on the lower right side of the box.

The second component, which surprised me slightly, is a sort of ‘ONT’/Fiber modem, which seemingly converts the Fiber Connection into an Ethernet one. 'Fiber Modem' - of sorts

The output from the Ethernet connection cannot be used directly by plugging it into a computer (unless you set it up to connect as a PPPoE connection), since at this point you have not logged onto the network, and thus will not obtain any IP address. I must admit, I did expect that in 2016 they would’ve developed a single box solution (combined Fiber modem and router), but maybe there are technical or cost reasons for not doing this. It does mean however you need an extra power socket, and ethernet cable, as well as the box taking up additional space.

Wireless Router

Wireless Router

The final component is the wireless router, which has a single gigabit WAN port and 4 gigabit LAN ports, as well as power, and a PSTN phone connection – allowing you to connect a telephone into the socket, and it behaves the same as a traditional one delivered over copper wires. You also get a phone number assigned to that port, the same you would get if you had a copper line.

Now, on to the speed testing, as always!

Speedtest - 3rd party 802.11ac router

Speedtest – 3rd party 802.11ac router

This particular test was actually done on my iPhone, since my laptop doesn’t have fast enough wi-fi, and I couldn’t test with ethernet. The download and upload speeds are both in excess of the quoted amounts – a rarity for most internet connections! The latency is also very good, though not perfect. However, this was tested over 802.11ac wifi on a clear 5Ghz channel, using a 3rd party wireless access point. As you’ll see below, the supplied Movistar router leaves a lot to be desired.

Speedtest - Movistar router

Speedtest – Movistar router

Sadly, the supplied Movistar router is really, really bad at wireless. It is a 2.4Ghz only, 2 stream, 802.11n access point. Something you’d expect to find in a cheaper device 5 years ago, and certainly not expected when provided with a fiber optic connection. For many people, this will be their primary wireless router, and the fact it only achieves 1/3rd of the internet connection speed is frankly embarrassing. They could’ve at least offered a dual-band option, or 3 spatial streams, but it seems this router was designed with VDSL speeds in mind rather than fiber. So I strongly recommend obtaining any decent 802.11ac access point and plug it into the ethernet ports, if you want to achieve the maximum speeds. Most modern wi-fi cards, even if they only accept 802.11n, will make use of the additional bandwidth in the 5Ghz spectrum to achieve higher speeds, even if they are only 2×2 MIMO. And modern devices, such as the new iPhones, can easily make use of 802.11ac to achieve the 300Mbps speeds that this internet connection provides.

Overall, however, I am very impressed at the service speeds. And I can now truly say that we are the owners of an ‘ultrafast’ internet connection. Hopefully soon to also be the owners of a Gigaclear connection in the UK – hopefully! More on that once I eventually get it…

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.

Virgin Media: 152 Mbps

3829132984

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.