Is your internet provider manipulating the speed of your internet connection?

Light Trails coming from screenThere’s a lot of data traffic passing through the internet and the amount is increasing all the time – especially now that we expect to be able to download or stream entire films and TV programs, and a household of four people could easily be connecting four devices to the internet at the same time. It costs money for internet providers to install the infrastructure to handle all this increasing traffic, so it makes sense (from their point of view) to have some kind of control over the demands that you – their customer – put on that infrastructure.

This control comes in the form of them manipulating the different sorts of demands that you put on their system. For example, are you just trying to send a 100kb email or to stream a 1gb video? This manipulation is known as “traffic management” or “traffic shaping”. The traffic shaping that ISPs are allowed to apply to your internet connection is covered by their policy and should be available to you before you sign up to that provider. Although they are not legally obliged (as far as I can tell) to explain their policy, I wouldn’t sign up to any internet provider that wasn’t open and honest about this (who wants to buy a pig in a poke?) Ofcom have a Code of Practice for internet providers and being open and honest about their fair usage policy and how they shape traffic is required by this code.

Examples of traffic shaping policies could include:

  • Shaping some types of traffic at certain (busy) times of the day – eg slowing your downloading of the latest episode of Downton Abbey if you try to do it at 6pm
  • Shaping your traffic if you have already used this month’s allowance of what they state in their “fair usage” policy – eg slowing everything down for the rest of the month if you’ve already downloaded, say, 100gb of data in the current month.
  • Not allowing you to use the internet at all for the rest of the month unless you pay for some more “data allowance”.

Tangled Ethernet CablesThere are tools available on the internet that allow you to check whether your current traffic is being shaped. Unfortunately, both of the ones that I tried a short while ago depend on having Java installed and activated, and I’ve just discovered that both Firefox and Internet Explorer now consider Java to be so dangerous that they de-activate it. You are supposed to be able to over-ride this de-activation but I think it must be too early in the morning for me because I couldn’t make it happen.

Certainly, there are simple speed tests you can run – such as Speedtest and Broadband Speed Checker – that give you an idea of your internet connection speed, but these don’t attempt to test for traffic shaping and the results would be affected by extraneous factors (such as the distance between your property and the telephone exchange, the quality of the telephone line and the telephone wiring in your property).

The main point that I am making in this blog is that if your download speeds are irritatingly slow – especially when downloading large files – then checking your usage against the stated policy of your internet provider should be included in your list of things to investigate.

Shouting At Laptop

Shouting at it probably won’t help

By the way, I mentioned “downloading” and “streaming” at the beginning of this post. What’s the difference?

Downloading” is when you copy a file from the internet to your own computer, but you are not attempting to open (or use) that file until the copying has been completed. When you do open it, you will be opening the downloaded version. As long as your computer is working reasonably well then even a huge movie file should play at its proper speed and with no interruptions.

Streaming“, on the other hand, is when you are simultaneously downloading the file and using it. If you have a fast internet connection then the downloading is happening faster than you are “consuming” (eg watching) the content that is being downloaded. That’s fine and dandy, but if the downloading is not happening fast enough then your watching is interrupted while the downloading catches up. This is the phenomenon known as “buffering“. What that means is that the downloading process needs to “feed” some data into a “buffer” (an area of memory) before you can continue watching. As we all know, buffering can be very annoying and it can happen because your downloading speed is being “shaped” (ie slowed down) by your internet provider.

If you are thinking of changing your broadband provider in time for working at home during the Olympics, then maybe you should start making plans earlier rather than later.

A while ago I wrote a blog about changing broadband suppliers and the fact that this has been made far easier since the introduction of MACs (Migration Access Codes). My own experience with my own computer support clients is that things do usually seem to go smoothly (unless Talk Talk is the previous provider). However, a recent survey from Thinkbroadband shows that although this is the case for most changeovers, there are some that are very protracted and leave the user without a broadband connection for a considerable length of time. The survey showed the following gaps between service provision:

  • Seamless changeover – 42%
  • Under an hour – 17%
  • 1 to 24 hours – 14%
  • 1 to 7 days – 7%
  • 1 to 2 weeks – 6%
  • 2 weeks to a month – 10%
  • More than a month – 4%

Clearly, if your changeover falls into one of the the first three categories (and 73% do), then you will be alright for working at home. Most of us could probably live for 24 hours without broadband (even if it feels like we can’t survive it when it happens).

This survey shows, though, that as many as 1 in 4 changeovers (27%) are not achieved without a hiatus of more than one full day. This may be bearable for domestic use, but if your employer insists that you have a working broadband connection during the Olympics then this could become a serious problem.

With my first-class degree in Stating The Obvious, I can authoritatively recommend starting the transfer process sooner rather than later if this is something you are going to have to do before the summer.

Map of broadband reception in ClaphamThe main reason for the protracted delays appears to be that telecomms contracts have become increasingly complicated in several ways such as:

  • The growing popularity of “bundles” (contracts that include the provision of broadband, TV, and telephone services).
  • The several different infrastructures that are now available for delivering the services (eg cable, ADSL, FTTC, FTTP).
  • The several different contracting possibilities (eg does your provider have to rent your voice telephone provision from BT and then rent it out to you?)

The government is planning to introduce new rules to govern migration procedures, but these won’t arrive until next year. In the meantime, if your current broadband provision is supplied separate from your telephone service (in terms of supplier, not physical phone line), and all you are changing is your broadband supplier, then you are likely to fall into the happy group who experience no interruption to their broadband service when they change provider.

If your situation is more complicated than simply changing a broadband provider, then the advice from ThinkBroadband is to discuss your situation carefully with your new provider so that they can advise what you need to do to achieve the desired result. ThinkBroadband have a migration tool on their website that may help to clarify your own situation.

If you find yourself caught out with no broadband provision, or if an intermittent broadband connection is causing you problems that will be unacceptable when working from home, then a partial solution might be to buy a mobile broadband plan. This consists of a USB device (very similar in appearance to a USB “memory stick”) that contains a SIM card (such as you would use in a mobile phone). You can buy mobile broadband from your existing mobile provider either on a “pay monthly” contract or “pay as you go”. Be warned, though, that the “pay as you go” may not be as attractive as it sounds as you have to use the data allocation within set time limits. It’s not so much “pay as you go” as “pay as time passes” – ie not very different from a monthly contract except more expensive. Neat trick,eh? Bit like buying a paperback from W H Smith only to find that it disappears from your bookshelf if you don’t read it.

Mobile broadband provision is a lot more expensive and a lot slower than provision via a cable or the telephone lines but it has the great advantage of being a backup that is independent of your normal broadband provision. It’s very quick and easy to set up and you can also use it to give you internet access on a laptop or tablet computer when away from your own wifi network. A typical “plan” would include the USB “dongle” and would cost about £10 for 1gb of download per month. You couldn’t use this for downloading movies or other such heavy use, but it would almost certainly be enough to connect to a company system for working on emails, spreadsheets, presentations, WP documents etc.

If you’ve got a tablet PC then you may already have the SIM and a plan that you can simply connect to your home desktop or laptop when the need arises (assuming you have the USB “dongle” into which the SIM is placed).

It’s now just three months to the start of the Olympics, so if you are planning a broadband move, it might be wise to get the ball rolling before the end of May.

Computer clients have asked me several times recently “what is the difference between WiFi and 3g?”

concentric blue arcs representing wifi access

A popular symbol representing WiFi access. There doesn't seem to be anything similar for 3G access.

WiFi is a standard of localised radio transmission that is used to establish a wireless internet connection between a router and a device (computer or similar). So, your Internet Service Provider (your ISP – eg BT, Virgin, Zen etc) provides your internet connection to your premises via your telephone line or via a separate cable. The telephone line or cable is then connected to your modem/router (usually just called a “router” these days). Most routers can then connect computers to this internet connection either by ethernet cables or wirelessly or both. The range of the WiFi wireless connection is quite limited. This can sometimes cause problems in getting a signal to different rooms in the same premises. You pay for this WiFi access as part of your contract with your ISP.

3G, on the other hand, is a standard for transmitting radio that comes from mobile phone masts. In other words, it uses the same infrastructure as your mobile phone voice connection. It is run by the mobile phone companies and you need to have a device that will connect to a specific company’s 3G signal and a contract whereby you will pay the mobile phone company for using the system. Your 3G connection will give you access to the internet just as your WiFi connection does.

So, if you are at home and using your computer with a wireless internet connection then the normal way to do this is to connect to your router by WiFi. If you are out and about with your smartphone and want to connect to the internet then you will typically connect using the 3G service on your mobile. The upside of 3G is that you can (hopefully) get a 3G connection wherever you are, whereas your WiFi signal only works within close proximity to your router (eg at home). The downside is that the 3G connection can be very much more expensive to use and the 3G service is a bit wobbly. Sometimes you may not even get a 3G connection at all and sometimes it is excruciatingly slow. It can be even worse if you venture outside of London.

So far, it seems as if WiFi and 3G are very separate things for separate devices, but that’s not the case. Take the iPad for instance. All iPads come with WiFi connectivity, but for an extra £100 (gulp!) you can also have 3G connectivity on the same device. Why have both? Because 3G gives you flexibility to connect when away from your router and WiFi gives you affordability when you are close to it. Smartphones also have WiFi accessibility as well as 3G. Kindles come in different flavours as well, and if you have a model with 3G then Amazon provide your 3G connection free of charge. I’m not completely certain, but I think that any device that has both WiFi and 3G connectivity will automatically use the (cheaper) WiFi connection if it is able to do so – ie if it is in range of a WiFi network for which it has the passkey.

Blue WiFi symbols on photo of coffee barAnother common way in which these communications methods merge with the different hardware is in the use of “dongles”. These days, a “dongle” usually means a small USB-connected wireless receiver that provides a computer with internet access via the 3G system. Again, the 3G service (and the dongle) is provided by the mobile phone company of your choice. This is actually a very straightforward way of getting internet connectivity when away from your router but, again, it can be very expensive and the service can be wobbly. You can use these dongles either on a monthly contract or “pay as you go”. The monthly contract is not going to be much higher than your mortgage repayment. The “pay as you go” sounds great until you discover that it expires if you don’t use it. It’s a bit like buying a tin of ham to keep “for emergencies”, only to find that it’s disappeared from your cupboard because you haven’t eaten it within a month. The words “rip” and “off” come to mind.

There are other combinations and possibilities. A lot of smartphones have the capability of connecting to the internet with 3G and then sharing this connection with (for instance) a laptop computer. This is known as “tethering” and it’s my own chosen method for connecting to the internet when I’m out and about. If you want to do this, though, you must ensure that both your mobile phone and your contract with your mobile provider permit it. Things may have changed now, but I do know that a few years ago T-Mobile (in my own case) expressly forbade tethering in most of their contracts and they even “crippled” the phone’s capability to do it on phones that they themselves provided. I’m not sure, though, if that’s still the case.

Yet another possibility is that if you have Windows 7 you can turn that computer into a Wifi Hotspot so that any internet connection it is receiving can be made available to any device close by. I could capture an internet connection using the 3G of my smartphone, pass that to my (tethered) netbook and then broadcast a WiFi signal that I could pick up on my virtual iPad (so-called because I haven’t got an iPad). So, with all this I could save £100 when buying an iPad because I wouldn’t need the 3G connectivity. The downside, of course, is that by the time I get that all set up and working in Cafe Nero or Costa Coffee, then my coffee will be cold and it’ll be time to leave for my next appointment. Besides that, of course, do I really want to look like a super-annuated uber-nerd?

PS: …. and I haven’t even mentioned Mobile Hotspots

Fed up with your ISP (Internet Service Provider)?

Fed up face superimposed on globeIf you are not happy with the service or the deal that you are getting from your broadband provider (your ISP) then you may wish to change to a new one but not know how to go about it. In principle this is not difficult. Unless you are changing from a connection via a telephone line to a cable connection then there’s no change of wiring or hardware required. The only changes that need to be made to your equipment are software settings in your router/modem.

When the internet started it could be difficult to change providers as the company you were leaving could make it very difficult for you to leave and you could then have a period of as long as a month between ISPs and, therefore, without an internet connection.

Clearly, this was very bad for the user and “consumer choice” and very bad for the smooth running of a free, competitive market. As a result, OFCOM (the Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) established the Migrations Authorisation Code (MAC) Broadband Migrations Process.

The main aspect of this process (and your ISP must conform to it) is that changing ISP is now – in theory – much simpler than before and there is no hiatus between connections. In practice, you may have just a few minutes without a connection and the router settings may need to be updated manually.

It works like this:

  • Contact your existing provider and “request a MAC”. They may insist that only the account holder can do this and that contact must be by a specific method (eg phone, in writing).
  • They are obliged to provide you with a MAC within 5 working days.
  • Contact your new ISP, establish a new contract with them and give them the MAC provided by your old supplier. If you do not “use” the MAC within 30 days of its issue (ie if you do not move to a new supplier in that time) then the code “lapses” and your previous service continues. You can ask your old ISP for a new code if you still wish to move away from them. You do not have to pay anything for a MAC.
  • Your old and new providers then work out the actual transfer of your broadband provision between themselves. You will be informed by your new supplier when the changeover will take place.
  • When the changeover has taken place you may need to change the settings in your router. Your new ISP will advise of the settings. This is reasonably straightforward (if a bit geeky). It is one of the computer support services that I provide for my computer clients in London.

Note that your old supplier must provide you with the MAC even if you have an unexpired contract with them. You may, of course, be laying yourself open to charges for premature termination of contract but the point here is that the ISP can’t stop you from moving away to a new provider.

In theory, that’s all there is to it and my experience when using the process both for myself and when helping my computer clients is that it does usually work well. However, we all know that getting assistance and co-operation from the large ISPs can be very tortuous and difficult (and it’s quite possible that that’s the very reason you want to move away from them). I am in the middle of helping a client move from TalkTalk to Zen Internet. I logged into the client’s online TalkTalk account on their behalf on 19th December and submitted a request for a MAC via an online form. Nothing happened. No MAC. No acknowledgement of my submission. Silence (definite lack of “talk talk”).

I phoned them on January 4th and was told:

  • I can’t request a MAC via a website form – but they admitted that it didn’t tell me that on their website.
  • I can’t request a MAC on behalf of my client even though the client has given me all of their account details and authorised me to act on their behalf (a favourite trick of ISPs – hide behind vague references to “data protection”).
  • They can’t find any evidence of the form I submitted on 19th December.
  • Even if they’d found the form, it could take up to 28 days for them to acknowledge receipt of it. It’s somewhat ironic that this company is called “TalkTalk” and is in the comunication business!

Since they hadn’t told me that my request for a MAC via an online form would not be granted, and since they said it can take 28 days to even acknowledge receipt of an online form (assuming they haven’t “lost” it in the meantime), then it seems to me that they are in breach of the legal requirement to provide a MAC within 5 working days of it being requested. The supervisor of the original “adviser” that I spoke to acknowledged that “that would appear to be true”. He was either unwilling or unable to help me any further and insisted that the way to get the MAC would be for the account holder (and no-one else) to telephone TalkTalk (not send an email or complete an online form) and request it verbally.

TalkTalk’s main achievement during that (30 minute) conversation was to reassure me that I’d been giving my client sound computer advice in recommending that they move away from TalkTalk asap. I’ve been recommending Zen Internet for about 3 years now and continue to do so (I do earn a small introductory commission from them for introducing clients via this link).

Monthly broadband costs can now be reduced to well under £10 per month. If you are paying substantially more than this – because, for instance, you’ve had your current contract for a couple of years or more – then it may well be worth either shopping around or contacting your current provider to see if they can offer you a better deal (I’ve heard that AOL will now drop your monthly charges substantially if they think you are about to abandon them – how the mighty are fallen).

If you have been wondering if your broadband speed is all that it should be, or wondering whether you are getting a good deal on your broadband contract, or puzzled about the terminology or technology, it could well be worth visiting http://www.broadband.co.uk/

A good site for checking your current speed and comparing it with other people in your neighbourhood is http://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/

Personally, I think that the overall service and the quality of the technical support are more important than the monthly cost or the speed of the connection (within reasonable limits, of course). I’m paying about £18 per month to Zen and I’d much rather do that than pay £7 per month elsewhere.

Why? They answer the phone quickly, they are based in the UK, and their focus is on solving the problem rather than obeying the list of instructions they have been given regarding support calls. They don’t spend 20 minutes asking you everything from your postcode, to your mother’s maiden name, to your inside leg measurement, and then force you to do the umpteen checks that you already did before picking up the phone (eg re-booting the router). If the problem isn’t fixed there and then, they send progress emails and these are signed by the person responsible for the issue. Why can’t other organisations realise that this is the way to keep customers?

Zen have once again won the PC Pro Award for best Internet Provider – see http://www.awards.pcpro.co.uk/downloads/ROH2010.pdf

You can contact Zen by clicking on the button below:

Discover Award Winning Broadband from £17.99 per month inc. VAT. Order Now.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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