Sunday, 29 January 2006

Connected Communities Broadband: review

Connected Communities Broadband was installed in our house (on the island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides) on Friday 27th January 2006. We both work from home, doing most of our work online. I do self-employed work for education ICT bodies, while Ruth does proofreading. Consequently, having a reliable broadband service is essential to us.

It is now Sunday 29th; after a few days of rigorous testing, here are some notes from our personal experience. Click on the images in this blog entry to see larger versions.

There are also some pictures of the installation on the Isle of Berneray community website.

Hardware installation

This was quite straightforward. A team of 4 or 5 people do it, taking just over an hour on our property.


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Installation involves having a four-sided dish on a short metal pole attached to the side of your house. In an ironic touch, the dish is similar to the “passing place” road signs, only slightly smaller (and much smaller than a Sky TV dish). The installers first check, using the dish hooked up to their own equipment, that a strong enough signal can be received from the place where the dish goes.

The dish is bracketed to the side of your house. The installers then run a cable from it to a point near to your computer inside (this usually involves them drilling through your house somewhere). They were very good in running it where we wanted (in our case through a ventilation grill, through our basement, and up through the floor into my office). The installers attached the cable to the walls at regular intervals.

In my office, the cable feeds into a box (5 inches by 2) they attached in the corner. This was plugged into the mains, so it needs to be near a mains socket. A third wire out of the box is a five metre Ethernet cable that plugs into your computer, or router.


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If you stand underneath the dish and there is power flowing through it, then you will see various lights. On the right are ten bars; these are the signal strength. When you have a signal they are green; most of the time we have between 2 and 4 green bars. When you don’t have a signal, they are replaced by a single red bar.

The other lights seem to indicate whether power is on or not, whether there is an ethernet connection or not, and whether there is transmission (this is more of an educated guess rather than fact). We have got a mirror on the windowsill, so we can see all of the lights from inside the kitchen.

The installation team were excellent. Friendly and efficient, and had got the hang of it by the time they had come to ours (we were in the second day of installations here). They were careful with doing anything with the house, kept offering to clean up any mess they had made (there was hardly any), explained the paperwork and what they were going to do, tested the service and gave a quick demo on their own laptop when it was all installed. Good people.

 I hope they stay on the job of installing dishes to households, as their attitude and professionalism will help to instill confidence in the service. (Having said all that, a good storm 10 will be the true test of how well the system has been fitted externally!).

Berneray coverage

Coverage on Berneray turns out to be patchy at this point of time. The installers were here for 2 days, and attempted installation at 9 properties. It was successful in only 4. Of the 5 unsuccessful ones:

  • 2 require poles in order for the dish to be in a better line of sight and obtain a signal

  • 2 in Borve could only point to Cleitreabhal a Deas (see below)

  • 1 in Backhill could only point to Rodel (see below)


If your house is one of the minority that has a clear line of sight to the Loch Portain transmitter, then installation should be problem-free.

Otherwise, option two is the Rodel transmitter. This is part of the Connected Communities spine i.e. it forms a relay between other transmitters going down the Outer Hebrides. However, it is not yet a node i.e. you cannot point a dish off it and access the Internet. There are legal issues concerning this that the Connected Communities service is currently trying to overcome.

The Cleitreabhal a Deas node looks like it is currently too far away in order to provide a signal. This is a problem as much of Borve, as well as the houses near Loch Bhrusda (one of which is occupied by the most technically savvy of Berneray residents) are in a line of sight of this transmitter. In addition, it could provide a service to other nearby places/people that want broadband, such as the sole resident of Boreray island

It has been mooted that the power on this transmitter is increased to see if that will increase the signal. In addition, there are still plans to put a relay transmitter on Berneray in order to increase coverage. The closure of the school and uncertainty as to the future ownership of the area have apparently caused a setback there.

Software installation

The only real problem we have had is with setting up our PC and Mac to use the Connected Communities broadband. There is a different disc for the Mac and the PC. The Mac disc has a set of instructions on the back. The instructions on the back of the PC installation disc are so brief as to be useless. They also start at “step 5” and refer to “step 4”.

We both spent an hour or so each figuring out how to install a connection, and we had to learn a bit about networking and stuff. One problem was that we were putting in the wrong password (it wasn’t clear which one to use).

The website didn’t have any useful / relevant  information. In my case, the software seemed to install Connected Communities as a dial-up connection(!) that of course didn’t work. I’ve also had trouble uninstalling this.

After a while (I run Windows XP), I figured out that I needed (in Network Connections) to activate the Local Area Connection option (in LAN or High-Speed Internet), and to manually create a Broadband connection. This worked.

All four of us on Berneray have had some kind of problem with getting the software side of it set-up, and/or dial-up options intruding.

Connection

Connection is pretty much instantaneous, taking less than 1 second. Also, I don’t have to listen to the modem doing its electronic beeping medley for a while, which is something I will not miss.

I am currently starting the connection manually, as I haven’t worked out yet how to make it happen automatically when I start up the computer.

Data transfer speeds

We have the 25 pounds per month package, which provides a speed of 1Mb/s both up and down. In other words, downloading a large file should be just as quick as uploading a large file. We have a limit of 10Gb of data per month.

Various trials we have done since installation indicate that we are getting fast speeds. The speed has consistently been at, or a bit over, 10 seconds per 1Mb of download and upload. For example, this meant that this morning (for the first time on Berneray) one person was able to email another a pair of uncompressed digital camera pictures totalling 4Mb in size. As the recipient, the email with attachments took less than 40 seconds to download.

Web pages are quicker, and in many cases as good as instantaneous (especially when using ONSPEED – see below). File downloads, which are the bane of working, are now feasible and don’t need to be carefully considered first (tying up the phone line; what if I want to do something else online etc).

We tried it this morning with a huge file. From the Education Arcade video archive, I chose the 9:15 to 11:00 session video (partially as the footage mentions what I do for a living!). This is 209 Mb in size; remember also that when you download files, the amount of data that is downloaded is often larger as various system data is also transferred; the true data download size for this file is nearer 230 Mb.

Over Connected Communities broadband, the file took 32 minutes and 50 seconds to download.

I wouldn’t dare, or bother, to try the full file download on dial-up. A 1Mb file on dial-up has just taken 2 minutes and 14 seconds to download; assuming the same speed, the 209Mb file would have taken 7 hours and 47 minutes. In other words, based on this one observation, the broadband download is 15 times faster than the dial-up download. Yipee!!

There is one caveat, in that there are few people connected to the service at the moment; in addition, doing testing on a weekend will, I suspect, lead to quicker speeds as schools and health centres are not online. How the speed degrades as more people join up to the service will be something we will be keeping a close eye on.

An added bonus is discovering that ONSPEED works in conjunction with this broadband service. ONSPEED is a bit of software that costs 25 pounds a year. It compresses some (but not all) files (especially graphics) that are being downloaded to, or uploaded from, your computer over the Internet, by routing your Internet data through its system. The data is decompressed on your computer and displayed in your web browser as normal. Click on the picture to the left to read the data statistics from one brief Connected Communities broadband online session.

The speed increase depends largely on what type of data and file types you are downloading or uploading; the claim on the ONSPEED website of 5 times faster is perhaps pushing it, but it does make a significant difference. I would say that in most sessions it increases the speed by between 50% and 100%. As well as increasing the speed of download, using ONSPEED helps reduce the amount of data download/upload that you do. This could be useful if you think you will get close to your monthly data allocation.

Reliability and robustness

It is here where there is a significant problem for the two of us. Every few hours, we lose the signal for between 10 and 20 minutes. Turning the system off and on at the mains has no effect; the signal/connection comes back on of its own accord. This is a problem that has to be sorted out before we can confidently use the service for contracted work of our own. It may be a tuning problem. At least one other Berneray resident with broadband has also had brief periods of signal loss.

Alternately, it may be a signal strength problem. We have noticed that our signal fluctuates between 4 green bars and only 1 green bar (out of 10), and that the other aerials on Berneray show only 2 or 3 green bars. We aren’t technical and therefore don’t know, but it is possible that boosting the power on the Loch Portain transmitter will eradicate this problem?

In addition, we have had no wind or rain for quite some time now (yes, we are in the Outer Hebrides!). How the service will cope with strong winds and lashing rain is a big question that many people have asked, and will be a major factor in the long term success or failure of this kind of broadband. It is notable that during the hurricane of January 2005, we never lost our phone line connection (despite our mains electricity and water being lost). Our online work at the time was therefore unaffected by the weather. It is hoped that the Connected Communities service can be equally robust.

Summary

The bottom line is that, with a few caveats, the technology works. You can sit in a house in the Outer Hebrides and access stuff over the Internet at fast, broadband speeds. You can send and receive large email attachments in seconds, watch online TV, download video and do all manner of things that you wouldn’t on dial-up. The equipment is unobtrusive, and professionally installed.

Those caveats. The loss of service issue with us is a problem that will impact on work. Coverage out here is still patchy, with only a minority of houses in Berneray able to currently have installation. We haven’t seen if or how weather affects the service yet; and also, we haven’t seen how quickly they can fix things when they go wrong. There needs to be much better software installation and related information, else the support/help service will get swamped. These issues will unravel one way or the other in the near future.

Having broadband also frees up your phone line. A few of us who have it here on Berneray have suddenly noticed the novel phenomenon of being online and having the phone ringing at the same time. Actually it’s proving personally very irritating, especially marketing phone calls which we never had before as they could never get through. We may contemplate getting rid of our phone line in the future.

Anyway, at this moment while I type this I am sitting in my "office" (a 10 second "commute" from my kitchen, bedroom, video game room etc) on Berneray, with a panoramic view of the Sound of Harris on one side (seals jumping out and in of the water, a heron fishing where my garden meets the sea, distant mountains on Harris and Skye). On the other side of me, my laptop is video streaming the evening news from New Zealand (it’s been hot there today) and Hawaii (soaring property taxes in Oahu angering residents), without buffering or download delay. The life / work / play balance doesn’t get much better than this…

4 comments:

  1. Would it not be better (bearing in mind your remarks about the phone remaining usable when all else had failed)to hang on to the landline phone for emergencies, but to ask if you might have the number changed, and then be ex-directory ? We are ex-D. and get very few nuisance calls where friends are plagued with them.Just a thought.

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  2. Yes, good point. I forgot about our "no single point of failure" or "backup system for everything" strategy. For the electricity, we have a generator, portable gas stove and candles. For Internet, we need both landline phone and broadband.Will consider a number change / ex-directory plan.

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  3. Don't forget to sign up at the telephone preference service - www.tpsonline.org.uk - that should cut out most of your cold calls. Or just unplug your phone when you don't want to be disturbed.

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  4. An interesting account. I had been toying with the idea of using them for broadband, but in the end they had faffed around too much and BT got their act together and upgraded out local exchange. Yay! Ok, I don't get synchronous upload/download speeds, but after so many dialup years it's a relief to finally have a fast connection (quoted as 5.5Mb but in reality around 4-4.5Mb).The final nail in my dialup coffin was when ISPs were offering broadband for the same cost I was paying for 24/7 dialup. Although my 2Gb monthly download limit is a bit restricting, and I usually have to pay for exceeding it.What has your signal been like in bad weather? I always wondered if wireless broadband would get affected by weather like FM radio does.Even though I'm not using Connected Communities, I do use the mug their sent me every day. :D

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