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A fast Internet connection: The paradox (part 1)

Bill Thompson, in his regular column for BBC News, vented his frustration at the overall lack of speed of Britain?s Broadband network. And whilst I?m not a big fan of Bill, he does make a good point. But removing the main concern that overall speeds are just not fast enough, another concerning issue is that in the UK we have ADSL rather than DSL (ie uploading is far slower than downloading). The Asynchronous aspect of our connections is becoming an issue as the “behaviour” of the network moves away from the traditional client/server model to a far more “peer-orientated one.

I?m lucky to have a 2MB connection (although that means I still only have 0.25MB upload, so not so luck). Due to my keen bit torrent use, I know more than 50% of my incoming data is transferred from my network peers (ie other domestic users, end node users, etc) rather than servers sitting closer to the backbone infrastructure. That?s because the bit torrent data is coming from other “end users” like me, not web servers. Assuming many of them are in the UK, that means I?m probably at the mercy of their 0.25MB upload capability, and thus causing them both a bottleneck and a poor internet experience to boot. From the other perspective, I know that when I?m uploading using even a small amount bandwidth (say 30kbps), my Internet access can soon deteriorate as my request packets are drowned out.

The reason we have this bizarre state of affairs (when most of other “broadband” counties have DSL) is because of the lack of investment on BT?s part. But they?re in no hurry to sort it. The “natural” bottleneck caused by the technical limit of 256kbps on UK ADSL stops ISP?s networks from becoming even more flooded with P2P traffic. It?s estimated that about 60% of all traffic flowing through a domestic broadband ISP is P2P.

Pushing data around the network costs costs ISP?s money. In the past, ISP?s tackled such issues by introducing web-caches, and other similar ideas to help ease the tide of data coming in and out of their network (even now when you request a page or image from a website, are you sure you are always getting a copy “from source”, or is it a cached copy that your ISP stored when they last fetched it for another customer?). Caching p2p is not as difficult as you might think.

Thinking about bit torrent, the ISP could setup local peer repositories on their local network. When a user requests a file from a .torrent, they could capture that incoming stream and save a copy on their local repository. At the same time, they would register as a seed that torrent, but only allow their own customers to download from them (“ah ha ? this is a local node for local people, there?s nothing for you here!”). Much like the way a web-cache works, albeit a bit more sophisticated.

But, despite the technical possibilities, p2p caching isn?t going to happen because, lets face it, most of it is made up of illegal files. BT, AOL, Wannado and the rest aren?t going to want to be holding copies of recently broadcast TV, porn and DVD rips of movies that aren?t even out in the UK yet. They would be committing all number of offences, and unlike the casual user like you or me, the ISP?s have money and assets ? they?re worth sueing.

In fact, the ISP?s don?t really want to think that you, their loyal customer, might be downloading any of this stuff at all really. And here we meet paradox one: ISP?s are happy to sell the ?lifestyle concept? of having broadband, and even run promotions to double their user?s download rates to a minimum of 1MB, but they are unable to offer any genuinely compelling reason why you need it, other than ?web pages download faster?.

“Hey, I just got my 1MB line and now webpages come down EVEN FASTER than before”.

“Well, that?s nothing. I just got my 2MB line and I can download the BBC News front page in 2 seconds rather than 3. It?s well worth the extra £20 a month I?m paying”.

So, why does anyone need a 1MB line (let alone a 2MB line)? Well, there is a good reason – Peer-to-Peer. But I won?t hold my breath for an ISP advert exclaiming the virtues of it.

So, we have this bizarre state of affairs where the key driver, the ?killer app? of broadband is one that the ISP?s don?t want to be seen to be pushing or promoting.

In fact, because no one wants to admit they?re using p2p (assuming that the average Joe isn?t going to want to tell their ISP either, for fear of legal action) ISP?s are taking the opportunity to place caps on their customer?s Internet access.

“You?re not downloading illegal files, are you? Of course not, so it won?t matter if we limit you to 15Gigs a month of data transfer will it? That?s more than plenty of nice, fast, webpages and emails, isn?t it?”.

“Hang on, I have a contract ? you can?t do that”

“Well, we?re doubling your connection at the same time, so effectively we?re renegotiating the terms of your contact”

This wasn?t meant to be one of my paradoxes, I?ve inadvertently discovered one along the way, so I?ll call this Paradox 1.5: “What?s the point of speeding up someone?s Internet access if you?re going to (severely) limit how much they can use it?”. It?s like saying “here, I?ll swap your Ford Fiesta that you drive all the time for this super fast Porsche. The only condition is that you can only drive it 150 miles a month”.

What?s the point of that? Suddenly that nice long drive across Europe that you were planning to take it on, which would have taken no time at all on those Autobahns, becomes a pipedream. You can?t even drive the damn thing to the coast.

This capping policy might be fine for many of their customers now, but is going to severely restrict where the Internet can go in the future. This nicely squares into my second paradox, which I?m going to pick up on in the next post.

Published in Industry Thoughts and Rants Web Services


  1. Also the weak ass upload speed stops you hosting a website at home too.

    The p2p issue, well yes, having low upload speed does limit, but you normally download from more than one user, so…. But I know I have to often stop my torrents when I want to use my connection.

    Is there a technical reason that it is A-DSL or is BT just being, typically, shit.

  2. Matt aka UndeadBob Matt aka UndeadBob

    I am a university student and I am lucky that I have a internet connection here at university (Blueyonder 1Mb/256Kb) but I am also a frequent torrent user. I download my Linux distros from torrent sources and doen’t mind sharing my bandwidth to upload those distros to other people, but I am disappointed that even when I pay £25 a month I still get a lousy upload speed.
    Back at home I host a Linux based webserver (Nildram 512Kbs/256Kbs) the connection is actually more for that than I pay here at uni, because I chose to have a static IP for it. I would move my webserver here to uni, but it would make no difference.

    I think it has something to do with ISP’s ‘fearing’ what users will do with their bandwidth (ISP’s accidentally storing illegal pages in their cache etc..) as well as BT’s lack of care for their users….

  3. Ben you almost brought tears to my eyes while I reading this on the way into work today. What a terriable state of broadband affairs were in here. There’s so much demand for content here (United Kingdom Leads the World in TV Downloads) but our ISP’s are slowly killing the demand with download limits and stupid upload ratios. I swear being on Demon I still get the best upload of all the ISP’s – 256k which sometimes translates into 300k (done multiple tests).

    Sometimes I just want to move to Sweeden! 😉

  4. Wuster Wuster

    Fuck Sweden! Move to Japan, 100MB connection.

    Demon best uploads? Give me a break, BT provide the same speed.

  5. Gras Gras

    I just want a faster connection for my gaming, i.e. so my ps3 and xbox 360 can download faster, internet works fine on my 1.5mb line, was pretty pissed with bt when i found out my 8mb broadband was only 1.5mb.
    See the thing is on the ps3 downloads are of the 800mb size for demos and take an age, i have to leave the ps3 on overnight.

  6. Gras Gras

    Mind you I am glad i never went with talk talk as my bro did and his 2mb broadband is only getting 0.5mb and unreliable too beware all…………………

  7. Anonymous Anonymous

    Well, i’m supposed to be getting a 20megabit connection, and i’m only getting 9 down!, 800 up though ^^^

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