For some time we have been really keen to get together a group of thought leaders from the events industry to discuss a range of technology related topics. With a fantastic team effort this event, which we called ‘The Gathering’, was held on the 30th of March at Lords futuristic media centre. Each of the four panels was focused on a specific area of technology with industry experts giving practical guidance, their opinion and answering questions from the audience. The notes below highlight some of the points raised but a lot was covered in the five hours so they are just a very small window on the discussions . To keep the discussion about technology in events going we aim to keep the twitter hashtag #eventtech for questions and comments.

Ticketing and Cashless Payments – Tom McInerney facilitated a panel involving Paul Pike from Intelligent Venue Solutions and Darren Jackson from Ticketscript discussing the latest innovations.

  • Many events are now becoming aware of the customer data associated with tickets. The opinion of the panel was in many cases this is worth more than the face value of the ticket as events should be starting to build profiles from their customers which can then be the cornerstone of many other activities (such as loyalty schemes).
  • Loyalty systems may take the form of branded cards or RFID wristbands but the important element to consider is using these in more than just a ‘closed loop’ way, perhaps opening them up for eating out in the local area or purchasing merchandise providing another revenue stream for the event.
  • Paul Pike discussed trials which are under exploration for this year which would see significant steps in making cashless events a reality.

Social Media – Chaired by Ian Irving the panel included Andrew Cock-Starkey from Lords and Jonathan Emmins from Amplify discussing how events can use social media before, during and after an event.

  • Ian discussed how events should continue to focus on using social media as a core element, enlarging the community past just those that attended.
  • Lords Andrew Cock-Starkey talked about how they have developed a large following for their Twitter feed, using it for continuous commentary on matches and a channel for last minute tickets (which can then be tracked back using offer codes to get quantifiable value).
  • There was lively discussion on managing the ‘negative’ aspects of social media too, engaging with, rather than ignoring those who are complaining.
  • Many of the panel thought the key technologies of the future would be live streaming content to those not at the event and ensuring that those attending can access online resources.
The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

Event Vision – Tom McInerney chaired a discussion between Dan Craig, Loudsounds and Dale Barnes from Virgin Media focused on the key technology elements events will be focused on in the future.

  • Dale talked about how as a major brand when he is asked to deliver services in temporary events locations it really helps to have a technology person to engage with and discuss practicalities. The requirements from sponsors will only become greater as events continue to look for ‘partners’ who can contribute to the event not just push product X.
  • The panel discussed how events which take place at the same locations year after year will become more focused on what investments can be made. Not just in terms of water and power but also internet presentation. In many cases arranging service over multiple years can generate significant savings.
  • Dan discussed how events are continuing to invest in backend systems to simplify event management but also share data quickly with suppliers so everyone has up to date information. Tools like Dropbox and Google documents were sighted as invaluable but increase the pressure on IT systems at events.

Applications – Joanna Wales from Ascot Racecourse, Adrian Strahan and Chris Green discussed the key elements to a successful application and the challenges which still surround creating an app which gains traction within what is becoming an increasingly crowded market.

  • The panel shared their experience of working applications released by several large customers, and that by working within the businesses to find the different things the application could deliver was critical to its success.
  • Chris discussed the issues of delivering a ‘cross platform’ application (i.e. one which works across Android, Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry) this continues to be a challenge however planning for a multiple release during the design and creation process can avoid painful re-working later on.
  • The panel discussed the Edinburgh Fringe application as a great example of an application that was really useful and improves the event experience.
  • Many of the audience thought that applications should be free for events, since trying to charge generally puts off those that might find it valuable. Some discussions identified that a good app will encourage more people to attend and get more out of the event.

Real World Experience – Chris Green, Mike Lang and Tom McInerney fielded questions from the audience and discussed how some of the customers they partner with had developed an on-going technology strategy encompassing many of the topics that had come up during the day.

  • Several questions from the audience focused on how smaller events can take advantage of technology without huge investments. Chris discussed how many technology services can be delivered for growing events – the key is to ensure enough lead time as solutions which have to be delivered in a rush tend to more expensive. There is also opportunity to share some of the costs of connectivity between events that use the same locations.

In summary a fantastic day to network, meet new contacts and learn. We hope to run The Gathering again and are really excited about developing the forum and taking on the feedback from the attendees.

The issue of wireless encryption ‘cracking’ has been in the news again recently thanks to Thomas Roth and his claim to be able crack WPA-PSK passwords in a matter of minutes. The basic methods used are nothing new, primarily a hybrid brute force and dictionary attack, which essentially is like you sitting at a computer and trying every word you can think of as the password. What was different in this case is the use of cloud computing to harness enormous processing power – enough to try 400,000 passwords per second bringing the time to guessing the password down considerably. This all sounds rather concerning, but is it really?  

If you fit the best lock money can buy to your front door and then you leave it on the latch, can you really complain when someone opens the door and burgles your house? The important thing with encryption is the complexity of the password as the time it takes to crack a password depends very significantly upon the password strength. Roth himself said “If  [the password is] in a dictionary it’ll be very fast, but if you have to brute force it and it’s longer than eight characters and its complexity is okay, it’ll take a very long time.” By ‘long time’ he means years and years, and the longer the password the longer it takes, in fact exponentially longer.  

Security Officer

Security is only as strong as the weakest link

So, nothing to worry about then?…well not quite when you consider the way WPA-PSK is often used. The clue is in the name – PSK stands for Pre-Shared Key – and as it suggests the key is shared between all users. If you take a typical event site where organisers, press and crew require a ‘secure’ wireless network often WPA-PSK will be used, but it’s often not as secure as intended for two reasons. 

Firstly, the password or key is being given to many people and it only takes one person to release the password into the wild and the whole network is compromised. Once compromised the only way to secure the network again is to change the shared password which means all users need to be notified of the new key, not very practical in the middle of an event. 

The second issue is that because the password is being shared between many people generally a short, easy to remember one is used, opening up the network to the type of attack described above. Visit many media centres, event HQ’s etc. and you will see the network password printed on A4 pieces of paper stuck to the wall.  

Network security is often seen as a hassle, along with the “it won’t happen to us” mentality but there are more and more reasons to take it seriously. Prior to the news about the WPA-PSK crack there was also news about a plugin for the Firefox browser that could ‘listen’ to other users’ data on a wireless network (either an open network or one where the key is known). Increasingly at events more and more data is transmitted across the network and much of it is sensitive. Yes there are secondary mechanisms such as VPN and SSL that are used to protect some data but often you will find file shares, websites and other data all unencrypted and open to see on the network.  

We do take network security very seriously and have been offering individual user names and passwords for network access for several years which gives us access control with a much better level of granularity, along with the ability to provide a full audit of users. For 2011 we are going a step further and at the Event Production Show in February we will be launching an additional service known as DPSK or Dynamic Pre-Shared Key. Using this service once a user logs onto the network they are transparently given a dynamic, unique encryption key. This means that all users have a different (and very strong) encryption key, ensuring all data transmitted is well protected and users do not need to know the key or share it with anyone. All the user needs to know is their username and password (which stills needs to be ‘strong’) but if that user’s details are compromised the only impact is to that user and that user’s account can be quickly blocked.  

We understand that every event has different needs and aspects such as network security are a balance between risk and complexity so we have developed a range of solutions to meet those different needs. If you are concerned about the security of your IT systems at events then drop in for a chat at the Event Production Show or contact us for a discussion.

Its life Jim but not as we know it. As the virtual world becomes omnipresent it’s fascinating to see new cool things that are going on to bring content from the virtual world seamlessly into the real world. We are working with several customers to explore how events can make use of some of these technologies and capabilities. Some current examples include:

  • Augmented Reality – Worth a blog post on its own, this is hugely exciting even if it sounds a bit way out. A great example of this is imagining yourself as a tourist in a new city. You hold your smartphone camera up to a building in front of you,  the device searches the internet and provides you information about its history. This won’t ever replace a good guide but it does mean that if you want to tour a city on your own you could do – instead of just pounding the known tourist trails you could venture to different parts of the city. Essentially you get your own personal guide. In the events market this also has some possibilities – it could work to identify your location at a festival and tell you about the music the phone is hearing (artist, get the single etc), help guide you to to different parts of a large site or exhibition or even show you where your friends are. It has also got big potential in the game/treasure hunt world.
  • QR Codes – I tweeted about these a while ago. Although not a new invention, having originally been devised in 1994 and very popular in Japan, they are now becoming more popular elsewhere partly thanks to smartphones with cameras which can generally read them. They are a simple way of linking real world collateral with online content and taking the form of a more elaborate barcode which can hold textual information such as a URL. For example you can include a QR code on a poster and when someone scans this with their phone it will take them to a hyperlink or brings up a phone number to call. Not only is this an easy way to get users to a specific URL but it also provides trackback information for that advert.

  • Places – I’m not convinced on the ‘check in’ features which seem to be gaining traction from FourSquare and Facebook places as I’m not sure I see the value for people to know where I have been (perhaps that’s just me!) however the recent album launch for Cheryl Cole used Facebook Places with some success by linking posters for the album to places and then getting people to check-in for entry to a competition. A similar system could work for artists who are touring or playing festivals.

Essentially all these technologies give the end user the same thing – the ability to connect what they are seeing in the digital with the real world. Whilst we might not associate immediate commercial returns what that the actual return is the free marketing gained when that experience is shared over social networking

It will be interesting to see how these technologies develop and which ones move past fads. One thing is for sure is those who can apply this successfully can run ahead of the market quickly

As the outdoor events season quietens down a bit and focus moves to planning for 2011, I thought it would be useful to list out some of the trends we have seen during 2010 which can help with 2011 planning when it comes to IT and communications at event sites. Although focused on outdoor events most of the topics below apply equally to indoor events. So here we go:

  1. Plan and Book early – Connectivity providers have a few terms they love to use to push up costs – survey and expedite being two common ones. These costs mount rapidly and can generally be avoided by early engagement and planning. Last minute installations can end up being 2 or 3 times the cost of a normal installation. Other things to watch for include the ‘miscellaneous labour charges’, which often appear if a provider has to run cables around a site. This can be minimised by agreeing ‘demarcation’ at a suitable location and then cables being run by the event itself (we do this at most event sites and it can save £1,000s for larger deployments)
  2. PDQ / Payment Systems – In 2010 we have seen a significant rise in the number of events reporting problems with GPRS (mobile phone) PDQ machines – these are the credit/debit card machines used for merchandise, box offices, traders, etc. The problem stems from the fact that at events the mobile networks (Vodaphone, O2, Orange, etc) cannot handle the amount of data that users are trying to pull over the network, and with all the network congestion the PDQ machines cannot process transactions. The reason the problem is getting worse relates to the increase in smartphones using more data and also some reluctance by operators to put in temporary masts due to their high cost. However it is important to note that just because a temporary mast is installed is does not necessary mean that data services will be any better as most temporary masts are more for the benefit of voice calls. The alternative to GPRS PDQs are Wi-Fi PDQs – exactly the same machines but using a Wi-Fi network instead. Obviously this requires a Wi-Fi network to be in place but it means the network is fully controlled and transactions on the machines are much faster. There are options to rent Wi-Fi PDQs (we offer this service) but 2-3 weeks notice is required as the machines have to be configured with the relevant banking merchant id.
  3. VPN for Ticketing Systems – VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a method for creating a secure connection between two locations such as an event site and a central database somewhere. They are often used by ticketing and stock systems which are increasingly being used from event sites. There are two things to watch for, firstly VPNs require good network connectivity, especially upload, which means basic broadband will not support it very well. The second area is that VPNs often require special firewall configuration, particularly if multiple VPNs are to be used.
  4. Wireless Spectrum Management – The use of wireless equipment on event sites continues to grow at a pace – general Wi-Fi, CCTV, ticket scanning, sound systems, audio and video links, etc. all make use of wireless solutions, many of which operate in the same frequency range. Harmony and reliable operation can only be achieved if everyone works together and early communication and coordination is key to ensure there is no interference.
  5. Smartphone Hunting – The rapid increase in smartphone devices with Wi-Fi creates new challenges for onsite networks, even when the event network is not intended for public access. The issue is that smartphones will continually ‘hunt’ for Wi-Fi networks and when they find one they try to connect. This creates a small load on the network whilst they negotiate a connection (which will eventually fail if the network is secure) and with enough devices trying to connect this load builds up to the point where it impacts real users. The solution involves using wireless equipment designed for larger loads coupled with proper network management as low end Wi-Fi routers are not designed to deal with large numbers of users.
  6. VoIP Phones – The use of VoIP phones at events is now commonplace and demand is growing as more people become frustrated with mobile networks at events. Use of VoIP is the best way to avoid having multiple BT lines and the only way to have a flexible solution allowing last minute deployment of additional phones.
  7. Smartphone Apps – More and more events are now commissioning their own apps for use at events but few events are considering the full picture which is critical for success. Most of these applications (certainly the more useful ones) require connectivity at the event to get updates. Typically the mobile networks struggle with demand at events and so the user gets a poor experience and rates the app badly. Many users also turn up at the event expecting to download the app which creates further (significant) demand. One way around this is to provide a locally controlled Wi-Fi network for use by the app. This can then also be used to deliver local content direct from the site.
  8. Public Wi-Fi Access – The increase in smartphones coupled with the massive expansion of publicly available Wi-Fi leads to more and more expectation that events will have Wi-Fi access. The costs of expanding an existing network being provided to site production, technical production, crew etc is not as high as people initially think and opens new avenues for sponsorship, advertising and rich content delivery.

As always, whether you a run a small event or a large event, we are always happy to provide advice, support and services to your event to ensure technology does not get in the way of delivering a great experience.

Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID as it is more commonly known, is not particularly new, having been around in various forms for a number of years. It suffered in the early days being seen as a technology looking for a problem to solve which, coupled with the high cost of deployment and issues around reliability, has seen it struggle to make an impact in the events industry.

Technology always takes a while to mature (I owned my first handheld smart device in about 1999 and it was hopeless by today’s standards!) As it matures the price comes down, the reliability and features improve and, most importantly, people have a chance to understand where it can used effectively.

RFID is in that position now. You do not think twice about using an Oyster card which is a great example of effective RFID use.  The  cost of RFID cards, stickers, wristbands etc has been falling fast and the reader technology is now widely available, positioning RFID nicely for an explosion in use.

Back to basics first though, what exactly is RFID? In simple terms it is a small ‘chip’ embedded into a card, sticker, wristband or other object which can transmit, receive and store small amounts of information when placed close to a special reader. It is this ability to store information on the chip which differentiates modern RFID with older systems such as those used in retail stores on high value items, and from where the term ‘smartcard’ comes. The second key feature of RFID is that the card or tag does not need to be inserted into a reader it can just be held close to a reader, making it ideal for rapid transactions.

Recently there have been a few announcements of exhibition venues, seen as a significant potential market for RFID,  moving towards an RFID based solution for tracking visitors and over time I think this will increase but it probably will not be a rapid transition as there are already fairly good systems in place using bar codes and scanners. The real opportunity lies in other areas such as festivals and big shows where RFID offers real promise of solving a number of challenges.

Take music festivals for example, the holy grail maybe for every attendee to have an RFID enabled wristband that is used for access to the event and as a means of cashless payment but that will take a few years yet to become mainstream. More immediately RFID can be used to assist in the management of crew and equipment. Crew catering is a pain for many organisers, a hassle to manage and often a black hole of cost. Using an RFID ‘smart card’ for each crew member pre-programmed with their meal allocations, coupled with an RFID reader at the catering location and now meals are processed quickly and efficiently. That’s only part of it though as now the organiser has real-time information as to how many meals are being consumed, what the forecast is for tomorrow, even what the peak times are. These data points seem trivial but actually provide cost saving information when you discover for example that on average the crew are only consuming 70% of the meals allocated (and paid for).

Expand the ‘catering card’ to be the ID card (as it already has information such as name and contractor company programmed onto it) and it could be used for checking in and out equipment such as radios, plant and cabin keys. Away go endless pieces of paper replaced by a real-time screen showing who has what. Go one step further and program qualifications into the system and then the cherry picker or manitou can only be checked out by a crew card which has the correct accreditation. The same system then extends to authorisation for restricted areas, providing the ability to ‘cancel’ a card centrally if it is lost.

So what’s holding back wide-scale use of RFID? Cost was a problem but now the price point is much more attractive. Reliable networks at events is often cited but these days the networks at events are expected to be like an office network and a correctly designed RFID system has built in tolerance (for example Oyster readers process most information locally and then send updates to the central system later). The biggest barrier is probably the concern over the change to processes that are required when any new system is implemented. The solution to this is not to use a ‘big bang’ approach but a 2-3 year strategy that will reap long term rewards. The lessons learnt along the way will ensure the holy grail of full attendee RFID is a much smoother affair.

This week see’s the 25th Showman’s Show at Newbury Showground, Etherlive will be exhibiting on two stands (one indoors in the warm and one outside) demonstrating some of the latest event technology solutions. Press release follows:

For further information contact:
Becky Martin-Jones / Mark Hook
T. 01454 629 741 

Cashless payments and next generation wireless infrastructure hailed as priorities for 2011 event technology

October 2010 – Etherlive is hailing cashless payments and next generation wireless infrastructure as the key innovation priorities for the 2011 events season.

The event technology specialist, exhibiting at this year’s Showman’s Show[1], is exploring new opportunities to introduce cashless payment systems.  This follows a pilot scheme this summer at WOMAD, which replaced paper-based crew meal tickets with electronic cards.  In addition, Etherlive is currently planning trials of next generation wireless technology in advance of next year’s festival season.

Tom McInerney, event director at Etherlive explains, “We’ve had a busy 2010 season providing core communications technologies to some of the UK’s most prestigious events.  We are now dedicating some significant time to delivering continued value and innovation by trialling new technologies including our 4G offering.  Having a secure technology infrastructure with extended coverage means that event organisers have a sound foundation for new services like CCTV, off site sound monitoring and audience interaction.

“Working with festivals such as WOMAD has shown us how effective cashless payments can be and we’ll be looking at new ways to apply this technology. RFID technology is ready to be deployed in volume at festivals and the installation at WOMAD was a first.

“These are exciting times for the event sector – technology has so much potential to make a difference to user experience, and the bottom line of the event organisers.”

Etherlive will be exhibiting on stands 67 and 168 at Showman’s, which takes place on the 20-21st October at the Newbury showground.

About Etherlive

A successful event depends on great performances. From WOMAD and The Green Man Festival to the Southampton Boat Show and the Three Counties Show, Etherlive is the one that makes IT work. Etherlive sits behind the scenes delivering reliable Wi-Fi internet, telephony, laptops, PDQs and interactive messaging. Whether in a field or a building, Etherlive makes connectivity simple.

[1] Showmans, 20-21st October –

In the first part of this article we discussed some of the challanges associated with using ADSL technology to support an event or business. Despite the government’s sabre rattling and some serious investment from certain parties in newer fibre technologies, ADSL is, and will continue, to be the way much of the UK gets its broadband for some time to come. So until we all enjoy fibre links to the doorstop (don’t hold your breath) it helps to know a little bit about ADSL and how you can get the most out of it…so we’ll continue where we left off:  

From this comes the magic of broadband. Thanks to for the image


  1. It’s just copper – The POTS (plain old telephone service) hasn’t really changed that much since the days of the 1880’s. In the 1970s things started to go digital at the back end but in terms of actual delivery to the home it has remained a pair of copper wires. It was well known even then that the wires carrying all those voice calls could do much more. In fact a copper line being used for a phone call is only using about 0.3% of the theoretical throughput. Early work on using the phone system for data goes back as far as 1948 but it was the mid-1980s where most progress was made, first with ISDN and then DSL. DSL actually covers a number of variations (often called xDSL) of which the most common is ADSL or Asymmetric DSL.
  2. Why do speeds vary so much? – ADSL currently uses a technology called Discrete Multi-Tone (DMT). Essentially it divides your copper line into 247 different 4-kHz channels. You get the equivalent of 247 channels divided across the phone line with which to potentially send data back and forth. Each channel is monitored and, if the quality is not good enough, the signal is shifted to another channel. The system constantly shifts signals between different channels, searching for the best channels for transmission and reception. In addition, some of the lower channels (those starting at about 8 KHz), are used as bidirectional channels for upstream and downstream information. As the system constantly monitors all the channels and stops using those that do not provide a good enough signal it is not unusual to see the overall line speed vary from day to day or hour by hour depending on interference or even weather conditions!
  3. ADSL needs to ‘train’ – In an effort to make sure everyone got the best speed possible and knowing the variation in the condition of the copper which makes up our legacy telephone system, ADSL is designed with an inbuilt sliding scale. Once the modem is installed and the service is live the modem will start negotiating with the equipment at the exchange, initially trying higher speeds and then slowing down until it finds a compromise between speed and quality. Over the first 48 hours or so it will continue to do this, varying the settings it uses automatically.  Some modems are better at doing this than others so it’s worth investing in reasonable kit if you want to see the maximum speed your line will maintain.
  4. It say’s up to 20Mbps, I’m getting 2Mbps! – Distance is the bg problem as the further you are from the exchange the weaker the signal is by the time it reaches you, which means more of those little channels are unusable.  In the real world unfortunately very few people will get the headline speed. There are some steps you can take to help the situation though. Firstly, try to minimise any additional cabling so that you are not adding to the length in you house, ideally an ADSL modem should be connected to the master socket (where the the phone line enters the house) to minimise any further loss or interference. Make sure you use a reasonable quality micro-filter, saving an extra £1 on the cheapest filter may end up losing you some speed. All ADSL modems are not the same, some are more sensitve  and use better quality components leading to a more stable and better performing connection so do your research when purchasing.  If you do have to run additional cable in your house then make sure it is connected correctly as mis-wiring can cause all kinds of problems. It is also worth routing any cable away from power cables and pipes where possible to minimise any interference.
  5. Sharing the service – One of the main challenges with ADSL is the contention within the service. In most cases ADSL is offered as a consumer service which is cheap. Like everything with a price point that means it has a catch which is normally the contention ratio. A contention ratio is managed by the ISP and means you could be sharing your 20 Mbit/s download with up to 50 people at the same time (each ISP has different rules, you’ll see it in the very very very small print). If all users in the same contention group play fair the chances of everyone downloading content (websites, email etc) at the same time is low and therefore everyone enjoys the Internet at a fast speed. However the model falls down when people download much larger files, stream video content or share files with others. It’s not the user’s problem (or, to be fair the ISP since there has to be some money somewhere!) it’s just a reality of offering a competitively priced service.

ADSL is in many ways a great technology for home use but does have significant limitations when it comes to business or critical services, especially when you consider there are no real guarantees on service or performance. You can never predict exactly how a line will behave until it is installed and has been running for a few days – not ideal in our case where we are deploying services for short periods. There are a few other options though:  

  • Bonding and Load Balancing– this is a complex area in itself and often mis-sold but there are cases where it makes sense to ‘bundle’ multiple ADSL lines together to give improved performance. There are many cases though where this approach will not significantly improve things and can lead to all kinds of other problems (VoIP and VPN for example are very intolerant of many bonded solutions).
  • SDSL (Symmetric DSL)  – A variant of DSL which as the name suggests offers the same upload and download performance. The catch? It is limited to 2Mbps per line and many exchanges do not support it. Where it can be used though it is normally offered as a business service with little or no contention so will often outperform a much ‘faster’ ADSL service. SDSL lines can also be bonded or balanced in a similar way to ADSL but again there are catches.
  • Alternative Leased Line technologies – There are several newer technologies being rolled out which although they still use the copper wires can deliver much higher speeds. Presently they tend to only be available in major towns and cities and are more expensive than broadband DSL services but they are an alternative to technologies like fibre which are very expensive unless an existing service is in place.
  • Optic Fibre, Satellite & Wireless MANs – Beyond the copper wire there are several other technologies to deliver high speed connectivity which all have their pros and cons too. The detail of these will have to wait for another day.

The key point though is that if you need connectivity at an event it is very important to talk through with someone the requirements and options available. It is all too easy for an event to be hampered by poor connectivity and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. In the last few months alone we have used all of the methods listed above at events, from a 1Mbps ADSL line to 2Gbps of optic fibre. It is also worth noting that in general there are at least 4-6 week lead times on getting phone lines and DSL services installed so good up front planning is also very important!

ADSL. Never before has one technology been responsible for liberating thousands and frustrating just as many at the same time. Some may think I’m overplaying its importance but this one implementation of technology has made huge changes to our lives. I’m not suggesting it’s the light bulb or the printing press but as we install temporary connectivity services for our event customers around the UK it astounds me how high expectations are with regards to connectivity. Even better (or worse – depending how you see the world) is how quickly everyone has forgotten the pain of the dial-up modem which, until a few years ago, was our only way onto the Internet!    

Everyone wants Wi-Fi (from

Broadband take-up in the UK currently stands at 73%, having more than doubled since 2005 when had only just been bought by Zuckerberg and friends for a mere £200,000. Fast broadband was something most people just didn’t have. I don’t mean people out in far flung corners of the country (that’s a generalisation I know…I’ll get to it shortly) but I mean people in towns and large villages where you were still stuck paying by the second for modems to squawk and shriek their way through six or seven emails at a time.    

Now we expect, nay demand, always on fast Internet. Fast enough we don’t have to wait for the download to finish or the web page to render. Even in my short time on the planet I struggle to think how I ever survived on a 33k dial up modem (yes I had one). I remember the first time I used my newly purchased snap on modem module for my Palm Pro PDA at other people’s houses. I literally got rounds of applause for checking the weather using my Freeserve account through an 0845 telephone number. Nowadays if someone hasn’t got “20 Mbit/s” (megabits per second) broadband with Wi-Fi connectivity prevalent within the house I don’t stop for coffee, let alone dinner.    

My point, I guess, is that broadband (now synonymously coupled with Wi-Fi) has become as ‘expected’ as the TV or the complimentary coffee. Not only does it mean companies like Etherlive exist to meet that expectation but, with or without technical partners like us on board, it’s expected to be provided and work, 100% of the time.    

So in this, the first of two articles, we go back to the basics a little – what is ADSL? What are its limitations?  

  1. First things first – ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, referring to the technology rather than ‘broadband’ which can be applied to other technologies such as cable modems. The term ‘asymmetric’ alludes to a very important point, ADSL is designed to offer better download speeds than upload speeds, no one had thought about all the content sharing that was possible when ADSL was conceived in the early 90’s!
  2. What flavours of ADSL can you get – Like any technology the only constant is change. Depending on the technology at your closest telephone exchange dictated which generation of ADSL you are stuck with. The original ADSL was approved in 1998 and has been superseded many times but you may still only be able to work with this technology because your local exchange hasn’t been upgraded. The latest forms of ADSL are ADSL2 (2002) with 12.0 Mbit/s download and 1.0 Mbit/s upload and now ADSL2+ (2003) supporting a maximum download of 24.0 Mbit/s and upload of 1.0 Mbit/s
  3. Don’t forget your filter – The little white box which should go on every phone socket that has broadband is a simple bit of hardware which blocks all signals above a certain frequency from entering the phone line. Without it your broadband will not work properly and you will probably have some unpleasant sounds when you make a phone call!
  4. It’s all about distance – Simple really, the further you are from the exchange the lower the speed you can expect. You only get the full ‘headline’ speed when you near enough live next door to the exchange. Also add on to that the fact that older wiring will tend to perform more poorly as cables deteriorate over time. Once you get to a couple of km from the exchange you may be lucky to get a 1Mbps connection.
  5. ‘Unbundled Exchanges’ – This refers to whether an exchange has been opened up to other telecommunications companies, currently it is still primarily cities and large towns that have unbundled exchanges. The advantage of unbundled exchanges is that other companies can provide and control the level of service, whereas in a standard exchange it all goes back to BT (no matter who you use). 
  6. Beware of the small print – I won’t go through the full technical details in this article (we’ll save the best for part two) however there any many ‘gotaches’ with ADSL which you should check before signing up with an Internet service provider. These include, but are not limited to, the contention ratio of the connection (how many people are sharing it, often up to 50), the ADSL technology (ADSL, ADSL2, ADSL2+ etc), download limits, throttling or blocking of certain protocols (important for peer to peer fans) and other terms of use. Not all providers are the same and on the whole the less you pay the lower the level of service you can expect.

That’s part one of our review. Even with other options (explored in the next part) ADSL is sometimes the only option. In the next article we’ll also look at some of the more technical aspects associated with ADSL and what you can do about squeezing every little bit of speed from your connection.