“Net Neutrality” is a phrase we may be hearing more often in the coming months

So what is it?

“Net neutrality” is the concept that all data that whizzes around all of the internet is dealt with in exactly the same way irrespective of its content, source, or destination. So, for instance, if you visit my website (www.davidleonard.london, as if you didn’t know) and click on a menu option to display a particular page, then all of the computers that are involved in delivering that page to your browser (including your ISP – your “Internet Service Provider”) will treat my page in exactly the same way as they would treat, say, a request to Netflix to deliver a movie to you. Delivery of my page will not be slowed down because I’m just a one-man band. Delivery of the movie won’t be speeded up because it’s important that movies are “streamed” quickly and Netflix have paid one or more entities to get it delivered quickly. You might want to pay your ISP more money to have ALL of your internet traffic delivered more quickly (eg by moving from ADSL to fibre optic) but your ISP will not differentiate between the traffic that it delivers to you.

Net neutrality 01

No-one at any stage “judges” the content and decides that anything is more (or less) worthy or important than anything else. Net neutrality means that pornography, Facebook, and the weather forecast are all treated just the same – x megabytes of content from one provider travel across the internet, and are delivered by ISPs, as quickly as x megabytes from another. Of course, the website that is serving the content may send it out quickly or slowly, and your own internet connection may be quicker or slower, but there is no discrimination in transit in terms of the type of content or who sent it or who requested it. The principle of net neutrality also says that your ISP is not entitled to decide what content you are allowed to download and what you are not.

What is the alternative?

One alternative would be for the senders of data to be able to pay for preferential treatment. So, Netflix for example might be interested in paying to get their movies delivered to you more quickly so that you don’t spend ages downloading it or experience “buffering” if you are streaming it. They could pay your ISP to bring this about.

Another example of something that could happen if net neutrality is ended is that ISPs could decide not to allow their customers access to certain websites at all (if, for instance, they themselves offered a competing product or if they chose to take some moral stance against a particular website or particular type of content).

But this is all more complicated than a simple, straight-forward case of “free competition” versus “meddling”. One view of “free competition” says that if someone wants to pay for a better service then they should be entitled to do so. The opposite point of view says that “free competition” demands that everyone is on “a level playing field”.

Net neutrality 02

Why will we be hearing more of this issue?

During President Obama’s administration, the US Federal Communications Commission committed the US to new regulations that supported the principles of net neutrality. I think maybe you can guess what’s coming next. Yes, President Trump has appointed a chair of the FCC who wants to abandon net neutrality. The FCC is currently seeking public opinion on the matter and so you may come across websites that are openly lobbying for one side or the other.

But we are in the UK, not the US!

The situation in the EU is that net neutrality is written into the guidelines published by BEREC last year (BEREC is “The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, representing EU national regulators).

It’s hard to imagine, though, that we wouldn’t be massively affected by an abandonment of net neutrality in the USA. And post Brexit? Better ask David Davies.

Net neutrality 03

The images in this blog post were taken from the following websites (respectively), discussing net neutrality from a US point of view:

bluefletch.com

dailytech.com

eff.org

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).

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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