Weeknote 14/2021: A week off work

This week has been spent at home. Mostly. It also involved some time wrapped in blankets in friends’ and family’s gardens, as England and Wales return to some degree of limited socialisation but northerly winds mean it’s still pretty chilly. Actually, it was snowing as I started to write this blog post.

As I mentioned last week, there were a few things planned for my time away from work. I celebrated a birthday on Monday. I had the final assessment for my First Aid Essentials in Sport certification on Tuesday. Then, Saturday was my first experience of coaching a group of young people to help them develop their cycling skills. It was… interesting. Oh well, they do say that practise makes perfect…

This week in tech

I haven’t really got much to report this week from the world of tech except:

  • After helping my youngest son out with renewing his Xbox Live Gold subscription (hint: CDkeys is your friend), he found that some updates in Minecraft were conflicting with the Windows Family Safety settings. That can be a minefield, but the error message directed me to the “Minecraft Realms and Multiplayer Troubleshooting” page on the Microsoft website, which helped me adjust the settings. The “I’m Getting an Error When Trying to Play Multiplayer with a Child Account” page makes it even easier to work out what to change, although I was able to leave the Privacy settings as they were (so only his friends can contact him by voice or text). Kudos to Microsoft for making it easy to work out what we needed to do.
  • I also got pretty frustrated with the limitations on my Apple Watch pairing with various old iPhones (or not). The end result is, I’m still selling my iPhone 8 Plus (which still has some residual value) and I’ve bought an iPhone SE for my wife. Expect to see a blog post here soon on the fun and games of moving cross-platform (I switched to Android when I bought a Samsung Galaxy S20 last year). Spoiler: don’t do it unless you really like messing around with tech and various platform lock-ins.
  • Apps asking for feedback really should be more considerate about when they interrupt your workflow:
  • Vodafone let us know that our monthly broadband is going up by £3 a month and by 3.9% above inflation. Apparently, that’s to cover the extra costs of running their network, but it seems to something that many providers are doing now…

Elsewhere in my life

Without going into specific details about my family’s medical history, Mark Booth at Body Limits is bloody brilliant. After just one session with Mark, my son could feel a tremendous difference in the knee pain he had been suffering whilst cycling.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure if carpentry and power tools are “tech” or not, but:

  • I found that drilling holes through plywood can easily split the face of the wood. The trick is to stop, just as the centre of the drill starts to emerge, and then use that centre hole to drill back in the opposite direction.
  • This video was handy as I fought with a jigsaw I’d borrowed from a friend. I had seriously started to doubt my blade-fitting abilities as I got through four of them to slice a sizable hole between two sets of shelves:

More thoughts on hybrid and remote working

I’ve been pretty open about my thoughts on remote and hybrid working and it’s only a few months since I wrote this post musing about the future of the office. This week, I saw The Economist had an interesting video on some of the challenges of working from home:

I was particularly pleased to see they called out having good home working facilities as a privilege many do not have and the consequential need for hybrid working (not just remote). Meanwhile, for those who can go fully remote, The Republic of Croatia is offering a Digital Nomad visa for a year

Back in Blighty, my friend Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) was finally pushed over the edge with one online meeting too many:

“By removing the last filter of meeting organisation, the meeting room, we probably are organising more meetings than ever before.”

Matt Ballantine: “Zoomed Out”

And, as for the impact of remote work on our mental health… maybe let’s consider it’s not just remote working that’s been introduced to our lives over the last 13 months but also a whole load of other restrictions on social contact:

This week in photos

Investigating my not-so-superfast broadband

I’m constantly frustrated by my broadband speeds. They are not bad, but not as good as they should be either, especially not when marketed as “superfast broadband”. And the real-world speeds seemed to drop about 10% when I switched ISPs from PlusNet to Vodafone a couple of years ago. I think I’m out of contract now, so it’s a good opportunity to take a look at what is possible.

For reference, I’m on a Vodafone Superfast 1 business broadband package, which should give up to 38Mbps, with a claimed average of 35Mbps and 73% of customers able to achieve those speeds:

Vodafone's estimated broadband speed for my phone line.

In the real world, I get around 22Mbps down and 7Mbps up, according to various speed checkers. The most I’ve ever seen on a speed test is around 25-26Mbps, with my previous ISP.

Step 1: Check basic broadband availability.

The Kitz Broadband Checker helps here, using BT Wholesale and SamKnows data to check what is available for a given phone number/postcode. There are basic details of the local telephone exchange and there is a rough indicator of how far away it is. It may be 618m as the crow flies, but I can tell you it’s more like 1500m by road/cable (assuming it follows the route I would expect around the local streets and doesn’t run along the alleyway behind my house). I don’t understand all of the acronyms and abbreviations but it seems to me that the site doesn’t (yet) understand whether Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) is available, or just Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) and earlier broadband options.

Step 2: A few more details from BT Wholesale

The BT Wholesale Broadband Checker was my next port of call. This tells me all sorts of things about my line, like that: I should be able to get around 42.5Mbps down (instead of my 22) – which is probably where the real-world claimed up to 38Mbps comes from; that FTTP is available (along with several other products); and that my current FTTC cabinet is Cabinet 10. I’ve spotted this cabinet on my walks around town and so I know it’s not particularly close to home – probably around 1000m by road, though it could be as little as 350m if the cable runs through the alleyway I mentioned earlier.

BT Broadband Availability Checker results for my phone line

Step 3: Check the modem stats

I stopped using my ISP-provided modem a couple of years ago and switched to a DrayTek Vigor 130 modem (since discontinued by the manufacturer) with a Ubiquiti AmpliFi router.

Logging on to the router’s web interface told me that I was syncing at around 27Mbps down and 7 up and on VDSL Profile 17A with a signal to noise ratio (SNR) around 6:

DrayTek Vigor 130 modem online status

That fits with my real-world performance in speed tests of around 22Mbps. Digging a little deeper via a telnet session gave me a whole load of stats:

> adsl status
  ---------------------- ATU-R Info (hw: annex A, f/w: annex A/B/C) -----------
   Running Mode            :      17A       State                : SHOWTIME
   DS Actual Rate          : 27400000 bps   US Actual Rate       :  7265000 bps
   DS Attainable Rate      : 28950732 bps   US Attainable Rate   :  7265000 bps
   DS Path Mode            :        Fast    US Path Mode         :        Fast
   DS Interleave Depth     :        1       US Interleave Depth  :        1
   NE Current Attenuation  :       25 dB    Cur SNR Margin       :        7  dB
   DS actual PSD           :     4. 3 dB    US actual PSD        :    11. 7  dB
   NE CRC Count            :      935       FE CRC Count         :    13805
   NE ES Count             :      261       FE  ES Count         :     7519
   Xdsl Reset Times        :        0       Xdsl Link  Times     :        7
   ITU Version[0]          : fe004452       ITU Version[1]       : 41590000
   VDSL Firmware Version   : 05-07-06-0D-01-07   [with Vectoring support]
   Power Management Mode   : DSL_G997_PMS_L0
   Test Mode               : DISABLE
  -------------------------------- ATU-C Info ---------------------------------
   Far Current Attenuation :       28 dB    Far SNR Margin       :        6  dB
   CO ITU Version[0]       : b5004244       CO ITU Version[1]    : 434da4a1
   DSLAM CHIPSET VENDOR    : < BDCM >

Comparing that sync speed of 27.4Mpbs with the BT Wholesale test in step 2, and my connection is running as quickly as it ever has (though I’m not sure what period the BT Wholesale test ran over for its maximum observed speed).

(It also tells me that my cabinet has a Broadcom chipset, so it’s most likely to contain Huawei equipment).

So, why is my “Superfast broadband” not so… superfast?

So, I have lots of metrics, what’s the analysis?

  1. Possibly: my connection. Several years ago (pre-broadband) we had a second phone line put in the house (since disconnected) and I seem to recall that some jiggery-pokery was required at the exchange to accommodate that, possibly even running two phone numbers over one copper connection. I thought that might explain why I get about half the theoretical maximum bandwidth (and my neighbour three doors down gets the whole lot).
  2. Possibly: internal wiring on-premises. My modem is connected directly to a line into the house but it’s not the BT master socket – it’s connected by some other external route that I don’t understand. I’ve tried moving previous modem/routers to connect directly to the master socket and it’s not made any noticeable difference to sync speeds.
  3. Most likely: physics. Whilst researching this post, I found information about FTTC speed vs. distance from the cabinet (repeated on various forums). At 1km from the cabinet, the most I will get, even on a 17A (80Mbps) profile, is 28Mpbs and I’m syncing at around 27 (this table at ThinkBroadband suggests even lower). So what about my neighbour who gets 38? Maybe he’s just lucky, or perhaps his line takes a different route around town…

Assuming my analysis is correct, this is probably about as good as it gets, without an FTTP upgrade. And, as the service is cheap (around £28/month including a home phone calling package and with no line rental), we might just stay put for now – after all my Teams calls work in the day and my Netflix and YouTube work in the evening/at the weekend!

SamKnows?

As a little addendum (and there is nothing in this for me), if you’re trying to work out what’s going on with your broadband, I’d recommend checking out SamKnows. I have one of their “white boxes” on my network and have had for several years (ever since the late Jack Schofield pointed me in their direction). In exchange for some real-world performance monitoring, which is aggregated to assess ISPs, I get reliable stats on the state of my connection.

SamKnows stats for my connection

Mobile broadband: not just about where people live but about where people go

As Britain enters the traditional school summer holiday season, hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the coast, to our national parks, to beautiful areas of the countryside. After the inevitable traffic chaos will come the cries from teenagers who can’t get on the Internet. And from one or two adults too.

This summer, my holidays will be in Swanage, where I can get a decent 3G signal (probably 4G too – I haven’t been down for a while) but, outside our towns and cities, the likelihood of getting a mobile broadband connection (if indeed any broadband connection) is pretty slim.  I’m not going to get started on the rural broadband/fibre to the home or cabinet discussion but mobile broadband is supposed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately that’s a long way from reality.

Rural idyll and technological isolation

Last half-term, my family stayed in the South Hams, in Devon. It’s a beautiful part of the country where even A roads are barely wide enough for buses and small trucks to traverse and the pace of life is delightfully laid back.  Our holiday home didn’t have broadband, but we had three smartphones with us – one on Giffgaff (O2), one on Vodafone, one on EE. None could pick up any more than a GPRS signal.

In the past, it’s been good for me to disconnect from the ‘net on holiday, to switch off from social media, to escape from email. This time though, I noticed a change in the way that tourist attractions are marketed. The leaflets and pamphlets no longer provide all the information you need to book a trip and access to a website is assumed. After all, this is 2015 not 1975. Whilst planning a circular tour from Dartmouth by boat to Totnes, bus to Paignton and steam train back to Kingswear (a short ferry ride from our origin at Dartmouth) I was directed to use the website to check which services to use (as the river is tidal and the times can vary accordingly) but I couldn’t use the ‘net – I had no connection.

To find the information I needed, I used another function on my phone – making a telephone call – whilst for other online requirements I drove to Dartmouth or Kingsbridge. I even picked up a 4G connection in Kingsbridge, downloading my podcasts in seconds – what a contrast just 8 miles (and a 45 minute round trip!) makes.

A new communications role for the village pub

Public houses have always been an important link in rural connectivity (physically, geographically, socially) and Wi-Fi is now providing a technological angle to the pub’s role in the community. From my perspective, a pint whilst perusing the ‘net is not a bad thing. Both the village pubs in Slapton had Wi-Fi (I’ll admit standing outside one of them before opening hours to get on the Internet one day!) and whilst visiting Hope Cove I was borrowed pub Wi-Fi to tweet to Joe Baguley, who I knew visits often (by chance, he was there too!).

Indeed, it was a tweet from Joe, spotted when I got home, that inspired me to write this post:

No better in the Home Counties

It’s not just on holiday though… I live in a small market town close to where Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (OK, Milton Keynes) meet. Despite living on a hill, and my house being of 1990s construction (so no thick walls here), EE won’t even let me reliably make a phone call. This is from the network which markets itself as the

“the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable mobile network today”

3G is available in parts of town if some microwaves stretch to us from a neighbouring cell but consider that we’re only 58 miles from London. This is not the back of beyond…

Then think about travelling by train. On my commute from Bedford or Milton Keynes to London there is no Wi-Fi, patchy 3G, and it’s impossible to work. The longer-distance journeys I used to make to Manchester were better as I could use the on-train Wi-Fi, but that comes at a cost.

Broadband is part of our national infrastructure, just like telephone networks, roads and railways. Fibre is slowly reaching out and increasing access speeds in people’s homes but mobile broadband is increasingly important in our daily lives. Understandably, the private enterprises that operate the mobile networks focus on the major towns and cities (where most people live). But they also need to think about the devices we use – the mobile devices – and consider how to address requirements outside those cities, in the places where the people go.

What exactly is a 4G mobile data network?

I’m not a telecoms expert but, every now and again, new technologies come along that cross over into my world. One of those is the evolution of mobile telecommunications networks and there’s a lot of talk right now about “4G”. So what is it all about? Well, I’m sure there are a lot of detailed technical references available on the ‘net but I recently heard Ben Roome from Nokia-Siemens Networks being interviewed on the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast and he gave a quick overview, which I’ve reproduced here:

  • First generation mobile networks were analogue – that is to say that the signal could vary, a bit like tuning in to get a (broadcast) radio signal.
  • Second generation (2G) networks came on stream in the 1990s and used digital signals for communication.
  • There were various “interim” generations (2.5G for example) to try and squeeze more data over networks but the advent of 3G allowed mobile broadband data access, although many 3G handsets still use 2G for voice communications (modern radio networks can handle 2G, 3G and 4G using the same hardware – all that is required is a software update).
  • There are different standards for each generation of network, and 4G networks use LTE (Long Term Evolution) or WiMax (since the ITU relaxed standards to allow other technologies than LTE Advanced as LTE was not originally considered a fourth generation network technology but is now regarded as a sufficient improvement over 3G to be called 4G). To achieve duplex transmissions (i.e. send and receive at the same time) channels may be divided by time or spectrum (frequency) – WiMax uses time division (as do some LTE variants) and was effectively an interim 4G technology that was good for fixed wireless access (i.e. wireless connections, to a fixed location, cf. mobile networks). 4G networks have the potential to offer big improvements in latency (round trip speed between asking for something and getting a response delivered) but high speeds also need a high speed backhaul between cell towers (i.e. the core network). Most backhaul is microwave, but the core architecture does makes a difference and LTE networks are “flatter” (all IP from handset to cloud and back again) so they have simpler routes and improved management (hence improved latency).

Commercial 4G networks are in operation in Germany, with trials in UK. Broadband is a huge driver of economies and society so coverage requirements may be greater (i.e. 98% in place of 95%) when the UK governement auctions the radio spectrum next May as 4G is a technology that can genuinely offer universal access. The UK 4G trial in Cornwall is intended to see if 4G offers an alternative to fixed line broadband. Fixed lines currently averages 6.4Mbps, with 3G offering 1.6Mpbs – so the question is “can 4G beat offerings and offer a solution for people in areas with poor copper infrastructure.

Whilst the increased coverage requirements may mean that less money is raised by the spectrum auction, Ben Roome commented that those countries who are leading the world in this area make the most of the infrastructure with “beauty contests” for spectrum rather than charging. The UK has gone down the charging route – hopefully that doesn’t mean that we’ll all have to pay too much in years to come for something that people really value.