Why we should never take broadband for granted

By Stuart Sumner
12 Oct 2011 View Comments
Computing reporter Stuart Sumner

Who remembers dial-up? Half a minute to download an email, several minutes to download a picture (which gradually slipped down your screen like a venetian blind), and don’t even mention trying to download a film.

Actually I should start further back. Who remembers the pony express? Three months to deliver your letters, if it wasn’t waylaid by bandits, in which case eight months and they’d arrive covered in blood.

Anyway, at the time dial-up was great, especially once we’d managed to squeeze 56k speeds out of our creaking copper networks.

But then came broadband, with multi-megabit speeds (eventually), if you ignored the nature of the contended service, you didn’t live too far from the exchange, and you weren’t over your download limit for the month.

Today, something in the region of 20Mbit/s is the (advertised) norm, unless something seriously untoward happens. Earlier this month something  seriously untoward happened to BT’s broadband service, when a power failure in the Birmingham area affected users as far afield as Belfast, Edinburgh, Swansea and London.

Losing internet access today is like running out of beards at an IT convention: it’s bewildering and upsetting.

In the early days of the electricity network, blackouts were frequent, and accepted as part of the experience. Not that they’re especially infrequent today, with a fire causing a 24-hour outage in parts of south-east London last year, and earthquakes in New Zealand, Japan and the east coast of the US resulting in longer blackouts more recently.

There were also “brown­outs”, as electricity demand got close to or exceeded the supply, decreasing the current available for all.

We’re currently experiencing similar phenomena in the digital broadband world, as our funky new fibre-optic networks still prove themselves susceptible to human error, the odd gremlin and sheer oversubscription.

But it’s in the mobile space where I see the major frustrations. I live and work in London, an area you’d assume to be well served for both speed and capacity. However, you’d be wrong. It takes an age for my supposedly 3G service to download anything more complicated than an email.

While operators such as Verizon and AT&T claim to be bringing 4G to the US in 2011 (by which they mean, reasonably fast 3G with a misleading name), we’re not likely to see anything approaching 4G until 2013 at the earliest.

Frustratingly, it’s not a lack of technological progress that’s delaying us, but legal wrangling. Providers O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere are having a spat about spectrum allocation, and it’s the consumers who are losing out.

Maybe it’s time to switch networks. Or perhaps ditch the phone and read a book. That’ll show those telcos who’s boss.

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