The internet, in our modern world, has become essential. It’s no longer a “nice to have” thing so that you can look things up. Now we’re watching live IPTV, downloading movies, conducting video calls and working from home.
After water, gas and electric we’re fully expecting the modern home to have a rapid internet connection.
In my previous job I was an “Internet Engineer”. It was a fancy job title, but I was in that job for quite some time and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about how that YouTube video, web page, Twitter feed and Facebook post arrives on your device. I was there in the “early days” of home broadband too, when ADSL connectivity was just a dream.
Dial-up internet, that was the thing. You got a modem, stuck it on your phone line and it would output some piercing tones to send data in an audio format to another modem miles and miles away. The HTML web pages would stutter their way onto your huge CRT monitor like a snail but it was, at the very least, a connection to the world.
Broadband via the telegraph pole – ADSL, FTTC and FTTP
The first ADSL “broadband” connections were rolled out by BT shortly after. An exchange upgrade programme took far longer than anyone could bear, and you’d have to get your town or village to register an interest in getting a speedy connection. I say “speedy” because the first ADSL connections meant you could actually load a very simple web page in a couple of seconds instead of the 14-odd seconds you’d previously get on a dial-up modem.
This ADSL technology also had another massive bonus. Unlike the dial-up modem it would not block the line. You could use the phone AND browse at the same time! Yes, it sounds bizarre to a lot of people now, but in the old days you wouldn’t be able to make or receive a phone call if you were using the internet.
As the years progressed we saw the first 512k ADSL lines getting faster. 1Mbps, then 2Mbps, then 8MBps, then 24 Mbps.
Websites got “heavier” and added more functionality. Gone were the lightweight plain-text sites with just a couple of tiny JPG images. Now we had Flash advertisements, animated GIFs and more.
This was, and still is if I’m honest, totally amazing. The BT infrastructure it operates on is good, but the bits of copper cable connecting the upgraded exchange to your home isn’t. The telegraph poles and the cabling was put in a long time ago. If they’d have seen us all pushing data over those two bits of copper cable then they would’ve done it all very differently no doubt. Now we’re driving so much data over – in places – some wonky bits of cabling. It’s astonishing it works at all in places, it really is.
To make things even faster, you’re going to need to put your house closer to the telephone exchange. That exchange is where the “fat pipes” take all the data back (via magical routing that I won’t go into here) to the internet providers. However, to get to those lovely modern “fat pipes” you’re relying on some pretty terrible bits of string hanging off telegraph poles. If you’re lucky enough to live near the exchange, you’re quids in. You get a better connection.
Shorter, even crappy copper cable, is better than longer crappy copper cable.
Sometimes, though, you can live near the exchange and have a bad bit of copper wire, but your neighbour will have a newer cable, or it’ll be routed a different way. The end result could be a totally different experience even though you live next door to each other.
Trouble is, you can’t move your house closer to the exchange. Not unless you’ve got some big wheels.. or you live in a caravan.
So, the solution is to do the reverse.
BT effectively move the exchange closer to you. They installed lots of green cabinets onto streets and footpaths which act as “mini exchanges”. These connect back to your local real “full size” exchange via lovely quick fibre optic cabling. Your old copper cabling is shortened and terminates to a box below instead of the exchange in your town or village
BOOM! You suddenly get closer to the fibre and you get a faster connection.
They call this “FTTC” or “Fibre To The Cabinet”. Some ISP’s will dress it up under different brand names, but – unless you’re using a cable provider or FTTP (Fibre To The Premises) – this is how your “fibre” connection is plumbed in.
Basically put, these green boxes have fibre going into them (from / to the exchange) and copper cables coming out (from / to your home). People will call their speedy internet feed a “fibre connection” but it’s not. Not all the way unless you have that FTTP I just mentioned. Now yes, I could go into even more detail here and waffle on about how FTTC uses VDSL 2 to connect that green box to your house (rather than the ADSL technology connecting your house to the exchange) but, let’s just look at the other major option here in the UK.
The internet is, for someone writing reviews and uploading videos (and using connected home devices, smart home stuff and many other gadgets), really important. I’ve had FTTC for quite some years now. It’s worked faultlessly but, with Sky TV ramping up their prices and the combined Sky TV, EE FTTC broadband, line rental and phone bills costing over £75 a month – it was time for a change.
We’re quite lucky on our estate. All the cables (including BT) run under the footpath. Also under there is a Virgin Media cable. Every month, without fail, Virgin send me a letter. I did actually ask them to stop, but they still do it. They tell me about their fantastic deals. About the “exclusive offer” they can give to me and how their 200Mbps broadband will fix my internet speed worries.
In all honesty, I’ve always avoided Virgin Media. Do a bit of Googling and you’re quickly swimming in a sea of negativity. They seem to get quite a bad rap, but you can never really judge it properly on the internet because the “complainers” tend to shout louder than the happy people.
After many years, I’ve buckled. The cost of Sky seemed OK, but one night I sat and compared the channel list with Freesat and found that we only properly watch two of the “paid for” channels. My son likes Nick and Nicktoons, but every other channel we watched was actually free-to-air. So we were forking out £38 per month to Sky.. for two channels.
Sure, I know there’s “Box Sets” and stuff, but it really didn’t seem worth it, so I ended up switching. I cancelled Sky, they let me go fairly easily (which was slightly weird after 12 years or more) and even tried to charge me £10 to keep the pause / record functionality of the box they’re letting me keep. That didn’t seem to make a great deal of sense as a Freesat PVR box can be purchased for around £120 which will do all that.
Broadband from underground – Cable Broadband / Virgin Media
Anyhow… I signed up to Virgin Media. This, for those that can get it, operates in a different way to the ADSL / FTTC offerings that are delivered on the BT phone cables. Instead of going over telegraph poles everything is delivered through a coaxial cable. Yes, although Virgin (and competitors for that matter) will tell you that it’s “super fast fibre broadband”, it’s again actually only fibre to the box at the side of the road.
BT (or, should I say, Openreach) put stickers on their boxes to tell you that “Superfast broadband is in your area”, whereas the Virgin boxes tend to be a bit more understated and can vary due to the history of cable deployments here in the UK. They’re grey in our area and tend to look like this inside (picture via chriswoods.co.uk). Notice the phone cables (more on this in a moment) on the right and the coax connections on the left. This is an old Telewest distribution cabinet that Virgin have since taken ownership of..
So, remember in the example earlier? Your house was effectively moved closer to the “fat pipes” and the last “hop” from the street cabinet was over the BT copper cable on telegraph poles? Here, with Virgin, that last “hop” is via coaxial cabling.
The technical term for this particular setup is FTTN, or “Fibre To The Node”.
Cable TV in the UK was originally rolled out by many different companies, but over the years each one got swallowed up and we’re now left with Virgin Media. Originally the coax cabling was designed to carry analogue TV. Now Virgin delivers TV, internet and phone over those networks and they’re growing the network by cabling new streets. If your area is cabled then there’s probably a small port on the footpath outside your home with “CATV” or “NTL” written on it. You’ll have also received quite a bit of marketing material from Virgin Media themselves. If all else fails, check their website – just submit your postcode and it’ll tell you if the service can be delivered.
The internet service delivered over the coax is far, far faster than the current FTTC offering. Up until recently it could be argued that many people don’t actually need that additional speed, but with the advent of on-demand TV and movies plus every phone, tablet and gadget seemingly needing an internet connection, speed is key. Oh, and capacity of course. If you’ve got a few people in your house all watching TV via the internet then that ADSL line will get saturated pretty quickly.
Virgin Media now uses DOCSIS3 across their coax connections. This means that there’s no crosstalk. Each house has its own coax feed and the coax is shielded. The Virgin Media DOCSIS 3.0 technology can, in theory, deliver 800Mbps over coax and 1Gbps has been proven.
Sadly Virgin Media and their cable network isn’t as vast as the traditional BT network, so many of you may not be aware of how this all gets installed. As I was going to have it plumbed in for the first time, I figured it was worth covering in more detail.
Getting it from the footpath to your house.
Above you’ll see the plate with “CATV” stamped on it. In addition to this access plate you’ll see a smaller plate outside every house on the street.
Allow me to be super-geeky for a moment (this is another level). See, some of these were put in during the early 1990’s, so you may find that newer homes built in the street don’t have them, or there’s some for houses that have been knocked down etc. Basically they’re connection points, and someone has to come along and install the very final section to the front of your house.
This bit can be tricky. Some installs are easier than others. If, for example, you’ve got a driveway that takes the width of your house then the installers may need to cut into it. Most of the time they’ll try to avoid this and use a soft (grass, soil etc) area to trunk the cabling. It’s fed up your garden, hedgerow or garden border inside a plastic flexible tube to give it some protection again any digging you may do.
For us, things didn’t go too well.
Virgin, from what I understand, got some subcontractors to come and whack the cable in. This gets done before your “full” installation, which happens at a slightly later date. Of course, if you already have an old installation sitting on the front of your house then you’re good to go and you’ll just need the final bit doing.
If you lift the smaller “CATV” panel (on the footpath) after the install then you’ll see something like this..
Notice how there’s two cables, not one? Well, the other cable is actually for your telephone. Calls are carried over the “good old” copper cabling as they have been for many years, so you actually have two main cables fed into your home.
This (again, switching to ultra-geeky mode) get me thinking. What if Virgin Media did DSL over the copper cable in addition to their broadband over the coax / DOCSIS ? There’s the potential for even more speed when you think about it. However, even though it’d technically be possible, it would need more equipment and an increase in cost. Sooo…
Anyhow, the contractors, who were probably on piecework if I’m honest, did their job and left. As it was early February (and dark when I got home) I didn’t see a great deal. Subsequent checking revealed that they’d only gone about 1.5cm-2cm deep at best, but they may have been betting on the fact that I don’t stick a shovel into my grass all that often.
Near to my house they cut into our concrete, which totally went all over my neighbour’s drive, and bodged a bit of instant tarmac in. This looked properly crap if I’m honest, but I didn’t notice it until the weekend.
As you can see, they used my neighbours driveway as some sort of base for their operations and didn’t ask to walk all over it or put their equipment on it etc. When I saw it in the daylight I was gob-smacked. We have good neighbours and you really can’t put a price on that.
Now, I’ll be fair to Virgin Media here. I raised this as a complaint when I noticed the mess a couple of days later and they jumped all over it. The guys that did the job were contacted, they were given “guidance” by Virgin. The management of the sub-contractors got in touch too and they offered to come and clean up all the mess. They also personally went to see my neighbour and apologised, which I was really impressed with.
Honestly, I know Virgin get some grief, but they really exceeded my expectations when I complained. They also offered to come and re-do the work but, because I sometimes like to think that I’m the “only one who can do things properly”, I’d jet-washed both drives, pulled out all the instant tarmac guff and re-laid the cable a bit deeper. I then went off and got some instant concrete and made it basically look as it did before. I will admit that Virgin compensated me and added credit to our account for some of this and again, once I’d emailed them the photo of the install they acted on it extremely quickly.
Here’s how things looked after a bit of gardening, some compost and a tub of patching concrete..
OK, back a few days to the story. Here’s the end of the coax and copper cabling. It gets left like this so that another engineer can do the final stage of the install.
A few days later and the engineer arrive to install. It wasn’t a fully branded Virgin Engineer, instead we had a Kelly Communications engineer. These guys did our BT FTTC modem install and setup many years ago too. They tend to do the “in home” bit for kit like this.
First though, he needed to put a box on the front of the house.
You’ll see houses with various types of these wall units. It just depends how old the install is. The front cover does have a tendency to fall off sometimes, but you can whack it back on fairly easily. Here’s what’s inside. It’s a bit ugly if I’m honest :)
Notice in the centre that there’s the two blue-coloured copper cables connected up for the phone line.
The fatter coax cable on the right is connected via an in-line coupler to the inside of the house. We only wanted the main TV wired in, so the two connections (from the street and then into the house with the yellow stickers) were left like this should we decide to have another room cabled up later. Virgin would install a splitter here, then patch it round the outside of the house if we wanted that…
When the engineer had gone, I took the opportunity to rip out all the old Sky cabling that was tacked onto the sides of the house. There was three feeds! A single feed that was there when we first moved in and a dual feed that an engineer had put in a while ago. Now we just have the Virgin cable(s) coming up from the driveway (by that lovely weed there) and my Ethernet feed that goes from the lounge into my garage (where I have a NAS box for storing photos and other geeky items).
Inside the house, a new telephone socket is added and a new “isolator box”. Inside this, amazingly enough, is an isolator. I don’t think they even bothered with these isolators in the old days. They basically protect you from an electrical surge should there be a lightning strike etc.
This then feeds down into a splitter, which means you’ll have one cable for your set-top box (we got one of their new Virgin TV V6 boxes) and your cable router (we got a Virgin Media Hub 3.0). The router we have does all the clever bonding of streams, connecting channels together so that lots of “little pipes” becomes one very fat bonded pipe. On our package we pay for the Vivid 200 speeds, which should mean that you received “Up to 200Mbps”.
Trouble is, if you connect to the 2.4GHz channel on your shiny new Virgin Media Hub 3.0, you might only get about 50Mbps when you do a speed test. There’s lots of reasons for this, and you should perhaps switch to the 5GHz channel if possible. I’ll go into this in a moment but remember that speed to one particular device isn’t always the benefit of fast broadband connections. Instead, it’s the fact that four or five devices in the house can all get very quick speeds at the same time. If you want a solid, decent and fast connection, I’d always advise an Ethernet cable.
If you’re testing speeds then Virgin have cunningly added their own speed test servers on the Ookla Speedtest app so you don’t get bogged down with slower speeds on servers which might be outside the Virgin network. This, actually, is an important point. When I worked for an ISP I would often get calls from people complaining of “slow speeds”. A lot of the time these slow speeds were actually from servers outside of the main network. So, as an example, if the customer is downloading a massive file from a website and it’s running slow, it’s perhaps the server at the other end or the “hops” in between causing the slowness – not the broadband link from the home to the exchange or even to the ISP. Putting the “test download file” or installing your own speed test server within the ISP is the best bet, because then you know that the network piece you’re responsible for is working fine.
Next up. WiFi. 2.4GHz WiFi has been around for a while now and it has got a lot faster recently, but your neighbours will have it too and the spectrum has become quite crowded. See how many access points you find at home – I’ve got about 17 of them, and we don’t exactly live on top of each other round here. However, 2.4GHz WiFi travels quite well. It gets through walls and obstacles better than 5GHz. But, if you switch to 5GHz WiFi, you benefit from enhanced speed, even though the coverage may not be quite as great.
So, after switching my phone to the 5Ghz WiFi, I did a speed test..
Granted, I was right next to my router at the time, but this was done at 10PM and I was properly impressed. I remember when a 100Mbps network connection was the fastest you’d ever need. In fact, there’s servers in datacentres all over the world still connected to 100Mbps switches, but here I’ve got way over 200Mbps. Amazing really.
I’m paying £55 per month as a special “first year deal” for the Virgin Media Full House Bundle. After the year is up it’ll be £76 per month. That gets me over 245 channels, evening and weekend calls and the 200Mbps speeds. You also get on-demand and all the catch-up stuff plus the ability to watch (many, but not all) channels remotely on a smartphone and remotely controlled recording etc. It might sound like a lot of money, but consider that this includes everything – the line rental etc. Oh, and they also do Virgin Mobile, which means that customers get good deals on mobiles and SIM-only plans. This is an MVNO operating on EE, so the coverage is very good.
Sky have recently tweaked some of their offers, so a “similar” package is being offered for £58 per month during the first year and then £66.99 after that, however it doesn’t include any calls and the broadband speed is slower. They also cap your downloads at 25GB per month. If you add an “unlimited download” option and then include evening and weekend calls it comes in at £72 per month for the promotional period, then £80.99 – and you don’t get 200Mbps internet.