The Perils of ADSL (Part 1)

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 compguy.co.za)

Broadband take-up in the UK currently stands at 73%, having more than doubled since 2005 when Facebook.com 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.

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