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Is Wireless Technology Ready To Serve The Final 5%?

Posted on: August 12, 2016, by Nic Elliott

Rural working

I recently came back from a working holiday in Dorset. We have friends who live in a beautiful little cottage in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a great retreat for the summer to house-sit there while our friends are away.

It’s on a farm right off the beaten track. It takes at least 15 minutes by car to get anywhere, often down single track roads. To say it’s rural is an understatement.

When we went last year, I had the joys of using a 2mbps ADSL connection. We got by though, and I was able to do basically everything I needed to do for work while on that connection. About the only normal practice we had to shelve was the automatic uploading of photos from our phones while on the Wi-Fi.

‘Fibre To The Mast’

This year we were treated to “Fibre To The Mast” technology. Yes, I kid you not, that’s how the marketing literature from the ISP explained it. I had a look outside and saw a small round receiver stuck to the side of the cottage.

So this was really what I would call a wireless broadband connection. The copper line running to the cottage was still connected, but only to be used as a good old-fashioned phone line.

My access to the internet had to go over the air waves, in a similar fashion to both Wi-Fi and cellular communications. In this case to a mast that must have been installed somewhere, or a transceiver mounted to the side of a building.

Marketing messages aside – and I think there is probably a whole other blog post to be written about “Fibre to the …” and how ridiculous that is – this was my first experience of a wireless ISP outside of using 2G/3G/4G for internet use.

Well the results were interesting.

On the pack from the ISP, they touted “superfast” speeds, ability to stream Netflix and iPlayer and, well, do anything you would normally do on an internet connection with a family these days. No buffering was a particular feature.

So what was my experience? Not particularly wonderful.

It’s not just about bandwidth

The bandwidth varied, and while it was most often much more than the 2mbps the old ADSL line used to give, it would fluctuate a lot from under 10mbps to about 22. Hardly superfast by any definition used widely.

But the bandwidth wasn’t what hampered my use on a daily basis. It was the latency, and sometimes the packet loss.

Generally, I was able to work fine and use all of our hosted and web applications (use the term cloud if you really want to). But page load times would vary considerably, and it was linked directly to the latency.

It would sit down at 20 or 30ms for ages, and then for no reason that I could perceive, or spot a pattern for, would climb right up to 1500-1800ms and basically stay there.

It would spike up and down, but only between range of maybe 800ms and up. It wasn’t even consistent.

I could detect no correlation with time of day, and there certainly wasn’t a link to what we were doing with the connection.

High latency slows you down

Latency that high will take a well-served website like the BBC and turn it into something that takes 8-10 seconds to load the page.

But the worst symptom was video streaming.

When you raise the latency like that, it can be a symptom of all sorts of things, but regardless of what it is, it makes it harder to create single flows of data at decent bandwidths.

The higher the latency, the more difficult it is to get to the bandwidth (if it’s there at all, as high latency can be a result of the congestion in a network – a lack of bandwidth because of sharing).

Netflix and iPlayer became basically unusable.

Here is why I know that time of day wasn’t a factor. Bringing my one-year-old daughter downstairs at 5am so she could watch Cbeebies on iPlayer while I staggered around, bleary eyed, making a cup of tea showed that it couldn’t have been congestion on the ISP network.

5am is hardly peak time for anyone but us parents.

Stuttering and laggy, we had to find an alternative to the “third parent” that is the TV on a number of occasions over the holiday. (No TV in the cottage by the way, in case you’re wondering why we are using the internet at all to stream).

Measure all the characteristics of a connection

As we at Evolving Networks have said since we started: we love bandwidth, but there’s much more to an internet service than bandwidth alone.

If you don’t keep latency, loss and jitter in check, then your internet connection will just get unusable.

So my question is this: is wireless technology ready to plug the gap for the final 5%?

I don’t think it is. But with talk of a 10mbps Universal Service Obligation, I can see wireless providers coming to the fore to sell supposedly superfast services where otherwise you would have to dig, in those rural areas like our friend’s cottage in Dorset.

My fear will be that on paper they are high bandwidth, but if we only narrow our focus to the bandwidth of the connection and not the other crucial measures of connection quality, then the problem of the final 5% will remain a problem.

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