Sunday, 30 March 2014

Broadband ... the new UK postcode lottery?

So, your company has grown enough for you to move out of your front room or from that tiny office above the launderette and find somewhere better. Or you are on the run from your creditors and need to move house. If you are an iProfessional then you need your broadband. This is most likely to be what is called ADSL, which stands for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (or Loop). Fortunately you have a wide range of suppliers to choose from, even if most of them actually sell you something they bought from BT Wholesale.

What is more difficult is predicting just what kind of broadband you will get once you are connected up.

Having spent almost the last 20 years of my working life managing a database of digital television reception data I have some experience of the difficulties of predicting such things. With broadcasting it is the vagaries of how radio signals travel across the landscape and interfere with each other. With ADSL it is the layout of the phone network and how signals deteriorate as they travel down the, often ancient, copper wires between exchange and your premises and how they interfere with each other in the exchange. ADSL uses a high frequency carrier signal to carry the broadband data between you and the exchange. If you're lucky enough to have a 'fibre to the cabinet' (FTTC) connection (branded as 'Infinity' by BT) then the ADSL part only has to go between you and the green cabinet in the street. The onward connection to the exchange is handled separately using optical fibre. (Note that just because your exchange is 'enabled' for FTTC it doesn't mean every cabinet is.

The Wikipedia entry on DSLAM ADSL modems gives some interesting figures for the likely connection speed for the latest ADSL2+ technology which ranges from 25 megabits over just 300 metres down to 800 kilobits over five kilometres. You can see that since the line length in rural areas is usually longer, the connection speed is slower.

You can do a line speed check once you are in your new premises by putting your telephone number into checkers on the BT web site (and others ... more in a moment). However, it's likely you won't know the number until you move in. Even if you do, it can be misleading. When I moved house last time I was able to check broadband speed with the previous occupant's computer. Despite this, when I moved in, with a different ISP, my speed was significantly higher ... but it could have been lower.

I asked a question about broadband on Linked-In's BBC Alumni group and it has generated a lively discussion, just demonstrating how frustrating it is for anyone trying to run a business that needs broadband, even if they are in an urban area. The news today has the Guardian reporting on customers in central London who can't get a phone line installed and Facebook saying they'll use drones to provide rural broadband connections. This is clearly a significant problem, but one you don't know you have until it's too late. [April 1st: More criticism for BT about how rural broadband is, or isn't, being rolled out]

So, if you are planning to move office, what can you do? I'm assuming that your proposed office isn't a serviced one with a ready-made internet connection. Firstly check that there is a phone connection already in place. This should be a direct line. The property web site RightMove now has a broadband speed checker attached to each result. This is probably based on the post code rather than a line to the premises but it's a useful indicator nonetheless. An alternative is PlusNet who, if you say you don't have a phone number, will allow you to search on post code and choose a premises from a list (which BT won't let you do). These will be useful but, sadly, there is no totally reliable way to know until you know the phone number.

One final note, a respondent to my LinkedIn topic said that moving from a consumer supplier to a business supplier got him an increased speed; so talk to your ISP ... or move to a new one. Good luck.

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