Networking

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Why your broadband's so slow

Don't be so quick to blame the ISP

Initial vibes received in Jamestown, California. More comments picked up in Cupertino. Dispatched to silicon.com from home two weeks later after a bout of pneumonia that downed me for more than 10 days

These days home and office users are able to order and install their broadband connections unaided. And for the most part they have performed as advertised - if you read the small print.

What does 'up to 8Mbps' actually get you? Mostly a slow dribble for download, and even worse, five per cent or so of that for uploads. This was inadequate yesterday, and will kill web 2.0 economies tomorrow.

It's not surprising, then, that we have seen a rapid rise in public complaints as well as political and regulatory activity in the past couple of years. But at last the industry is responding with a few real programmes involving upgrades heading toward a genuine 50Mbps service.

So real broadband is coming? Perhaps and perhaps not. Now there is a new problem looming that puts the onus on the end user instead of the supplier. The reality is that eventually a lot of users will buy and be supplied with 50Mbps but they will only be able to access 25Mbps. How come? Poor virus protection software and old hardware are the first impediments.

I first became aware of this in the US where companies such as Verizon are delivering real broadband to the home and office. And just a week ago I was privy to observing the broadband speeds of a variety of laptops running different antivirus applications.

The chart below shows the per cent data throughput on a modern, high performance machine operating at two extremes, with the best and worst antivirus software identified on the market today. Notice the cliff-like fall off in performance at 10 and 25Mbps.

Credit: Peter Cochrane

The second series of tests shows a comparison between the modern machine and a three-year-old model. The individual antivirus products tested are labelled 'a' through 'g'. This presents a far more drastic set of performance challenges.

Credit: Peter Cochrane

Two more factors that could hamper broadband speeds are firewall software and operating systems. To date I have no hard evidence but I have had conversations confirming that there may be a few 'elephant pits' waiting here too!

It seems to me this class of problem will open up the need for honest online testing and diagnostic services. And broadband customers will have to be sure it is not their hardware and software that is the problem before they start complaining to their provider.

Surely the telco/netco/ISP quarter will also use this information to defend their delivery against contracts that suggest huge speed increases. They may be delivering but the customer may not be seeing it!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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