Never mind the quality…

I’ve recently been having some bandwidth problems. Although I have an “unmetered” account it appears I’m using too much. Actually it’s not all me, I’m in a flat share situation and it doesn’t make sense to have a dedicated Internet line each; at least it didn’t.

The problem first appeared as a drop in download speed. My current provider supplies an 8 megabit ADSL account with a 50:1 contention ratio. At first this meant that we’d get nearly 800K per second when downloading. And that’s normally good enough even for a big download like a demo game or preview video. More recently our rate has been limited to about 30K. The experience that followed is typical, unnecessary, and probably about to become quite common.

My first thought was that somebody had decided to abuse our wireless router with torrents and other heavy use peer to peer file sharing applications. And someone, probably a neighbour, had been doing just that. This I found out through a combination of events. Firstly we’d been having a series of outages: both power and telecommunications. One of these had reset the router to factory settings including re-enabling UPnP. I usually disable this but left it on in the rush. One of our neighbours, quite likely without his knowledge, configured our router to forward several ports to his computer including a torrent application.

After some clean up work the incoming messages stopped and yet even with a single computer connected the download rate was no better than 30K. Next I suspected a problem with our router. It was an old router and although it had both wired and wireless operation, the wired ports had stopped working a while ago. So I went out and bought a new router and got it configured and installed. This did not improve our bandwidth.

I then read that ADSL lines re-train themselves over time. This can take up to 3 days to reset by disconnecting the router from the line completely. It seemed reasonable to leave it a few days to see if the rate would recover. It didn’t.

Next I contacted our provider. They asked me to perform some BT line tests. This was easier said than done for a variety of reasons: Java version incompatibility, DNS problems, a mandatory 3 hour wait between successful attempts, and a flat mate with a World of Warcraft addiction. However, with my provider convinced of the problem, I awaited their solution. They asked me to retest in 48 hours to see if the situation improved. It didn’t. And only then did they give me the information they could have volunteered weeks ago: our line had been capped.

I can see why such measures are necessary. If you have a 50:1 contention and everybody wants all the bandwidth they can get, then everyone will get around 160 kilobits per second. But if you’re the only one using it at any moment, the usual case with on demand applications like web browsing, then you’ll get the full 8 megabits. One problem with it is that a small number of users can hog the available bandwidth. Providers have been dealing with that by traffic shaping and bandwidth capping. But this is a temporary solution. The bandwidth required from everyday legitimate usage is increasing fast. And these schemes don’t scale.

The result is that we are unlikely to get sufficient bandwidth from any current provider in the UK until the bandwidth between users and providers improves. The only solution for us seems to be multiple lines and rationing our bandwidth to keep within the unstated limits of the providers.

The promise of an unmetered account has always been false. But now more providers have been caught breaking it, the regulators have taken notice. So I think the terms “unlimited”, “unmetered” and so on will soon disappear from the advertisements. And once the problem is obvious, the providers will start to truthfully compete on bandwidth and begin to resolve these issues.

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