You can take the boy out of the North West, but…

Last week, a record was released to help raise money for The Christie Hospital in Manchester, a tribute to the life and memories of one of it’s more famous patients, a certain Anthony H Wilson, music impresario, tv journalist, and “Mr Manchester”.

It’s not supposed to be a floor-filler, but more of a fond eulogy, a modern poem, that’s been set to an arrangement of New Order’s “Your Silent Face”.

“Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come round, because something that’s lost cannot be found…”

The first time I saw and heard this I really was teary-eyed, with a lump in my throat.

Not only was it set to a favourite piece of music, but many of the faces staring back at me out of the screen were, like Tony Wilson himself, those from my own upbringing in the North West.

I was never lucky enough to meet him in person, but I was one of those people that grew up in the age of Tony Wilson, the music of his bands on my walkman, his face on my TV. Not only did he run a record label and a nightclub… but he read the news too. Was there anything this man couldn’t turn his hand to? Best of all, he was from the North and vociferously for the North.

It also made me think of a more innocent time in my own life. When I had my whole life ahead of me, when I felt I could do anything. When we’d get the train into Manchester and visit places like Afflecks, and if you’d asked me where Granada was I’d answer “Quay Street”, not Spain.

New Order’s Bernard Sumner wrote about Tony, “He always seemed so young and enthusiastic in spirit, he had the attitude of a man in his 20’s…”, and it was with this enthusiasm Tony made those around him believe that Manchester and the North West could do anything, if only they tried… “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

When I graduated from University, I chose to move South, where I’d been offered a job. South to follow the money. Ravaged by 17 years of London-centric Tory policies, the North West didn’t look so attractive to someone in their mid-20’s with a freshly minted degree, I guess.

I found myself wanting to dig inside me for something that I’d become worried might have been lost from so many years in the London rat-race, my own Twenty-something spirit, that bit of me that lives for today, that thinks it can do anything, my own inner Northerner. Was I worried it was buried under a metaphorical jam of red London buses? I needn’t have been.

I looked and I’ve found it. It’s bruised and battered, but it’s still there.

Try as the world might, you can take the boy out of the North West, but you can’t take the North West out of the Man.

One day, I’ll stop wandering. One day I’ll come home.

Those who know me will know that my own family has twice already been touched by cancer. There’s a 50% chance everyone in the UK will need to be treated for cancer in their lifetime. If you liked “St Anthony” you can buy it, and if you didn’t, you can still donate money to The Christie Hospital in Tony Wilson’s memory and help others in the future. Give, and give generously.

CashZone cash machine: Terrible UX

The cash machine at my local Co-Op used to be run by the Co-Op Bank. Then, this banking bit of the Co-Op had an encounter with a capital shortfall somewhere in the region of £1.5bn, and has since been restructured and rehabilitated.

As part of the restructure, the Co-Op group own less of the bank, and most of the cash machines which aren’t in a branch have been sold off to a commercial operator called CashZone, as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

It still gives out money, that’s fine. It’s the getting to the point where you get it which is frustrating.

The menu system is a paragon of terrible UI design. Here’s an example…

You tell it you want “Cash Only” from the list of options, and it asks you if you want to see your balance. No! If I’d wanted that I’d have pressed “Cash with Balance”. Likewise, if I’d wanted a receipt, I’d have pressed “Cash with Receipt”.

If I press “Cash Only”, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that I only want that.

Most of all, the “circular questioning” of the CashZone menu system seems to seriously confuse some folks. It’s clear that the transactions are taking longer since the machine was converted. It frequently has a queue of 4 or 5 people in front of it, where as it seldom had a queue of 1 or 2 before.

How is this supposed to be an improvement in service? Well, it isn’t. It’s a step back.

The CashZone menu system is an example of a terrible user experience, designed by someone who probably never has to use the damned thing.

However, Co-Op have made £35m out of wasting our time, so that’s okay, I suppose?

Update: One of my twitter followers @jamesheridan pointed out that CashZone may receive a micro-payment for showing a balance enquiry. Still doesn’t make it any less slower or sucky.

Premier Inn Wifi – If only it were consistent.

I recently heaped praise on Premier Inn for providing a good wifi service in one of their hotels.

Sadly, this is not consistent across all their properties. I’m currently staying in another Premier Inn just down the road from the one with the good wifi (which was already full for this evening).

The wifi performance here isn’t great at all…

This is as good as it got. Fail.

This is as good as it got. Fail.

It does have sensibly laid out 5GHz and 2.4GHz spectrum like the other Premier Inn, so it seems the wifi architecture is sound, however what’s different here is the backhaul technology.

The other property was on what appeared to be a VDSL line from a more specialist business ISP. It also had the advantage that it was only shared between about 20-odd rooms.

This Premier Inn is much larger, but based on the ISP (Sharedband) it is likely to be using a link-bundled ADSL2 connection, and is shared amongst many more users – about 140 rooms. I’ve noticed several other Arqiva-managed hotspots using Sharedband as the backhaul technology, and these all have suffered from very slow speeds, high latency and signs of heavy oversubscription and congestion.

Notice the “star rating” on the Speedtest above. One star. Lots of unhappy punters?

I’m currently getting better performance on a 3G modem. (No 4G coverage on my provider in this area.)

It would be great if Premier Inn could offer a more consistent experience in it’s wifi product, and I mean a consistently good experience such as the one I enjoyed just up the road in Abingdon, and not the lowest common denominator of the congested barely useable mess here.

They aim for a consistent product in the rest of their offerings and for the most part achieve it, however if I was only staying here in this property, I’d be asking for a refund for the wifi charge.

Update at 1am in the morning, after the fire alarm went off around 11.30pm and caused the hotel to be evacuated…

I can just about get 3Mb/sec down (and less than 256k up) out of the connection here now, and I assume the large majority guests are sleeping. Still less than great. This is very obviously based around oversubscribed link-bundled ADSL stuff.

Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start… Continue reading

Today’s wifi moan

Currently in St Julians, Malta. This spectrum makes me sad.

Of course, there's nothing in the 5GHz spectrum

Of course, there’s nothing in the 5GHz spectrum

Congested to hell, barely useable and riddled with “supposedly faster” wide channels.

What makes me even sadder is that the hotel wifi firewall is blocking all sorts of stuff, including ssh and vpns. Sigh.

Guess I’ll have to go back to the beach…

To the airline that can’t get wifi right

So, from the great wifi experience with Premier Inn earlier this week, to today’s naff one with BA.

I’m in BA’s lounge at Gatwick, and using their wifi service. Yes, it’s free, but it really is shockingly slow.

Is this IP over Gastropod carrier?

Is this IP over Gastropod carrier?

Let’s take a quick look at the radio spectrum with Wifi Explorer…

5G Spectrum, not congested, but lots of SSIDs on the same Aruba radioheads.

5G Spectrum, not congested, but lots of SSIDs on the same Aruba radioheads.

There’s an uncongested 5GHz spectrum, and the networks which are visible are all originated from the same three Aruba radio heads, so even though there’s multiple SSIDs on the same channels, at least they are orchestrated.

2.4GHz is a somewhat different story.

BA-wifi-Gatwick-lounge-2-4G-spectrum

Icky, congested 2.4GHz.

However the one which really has earned the “slap” has to be the “wide” 2.4GHz signal…

No1 Lounge Staff, thanks for breaking it for everyone.

No1 Lounge Staff, thanks for breaking it for everyone.

Apparently, the staff at the No1 lounge think their own wifi is so bad, they have brought in their own DrayTek access point and are happily stomping over 60% of the 2.4GHz spectrum with their ridiculous wide signal.

It might be free wifi here, but it’s barely useable. :(

A hotel that got wifi right

Normally the one to highlight when something is done badly, I also want to give praise where it is due.

I’m currently staying in a Premier Inn in leafy Abingdon. The data service here that I’d normally tether to is next to non-existent, dropping out all over the place. It looks like I’m in the shadow of some structure, between me and the Three UK antenna. There are also a couple of water courses in between, which might be hindering the signal.

So, I’m forced onto one of my pet hates, paid-for hotel wifi. Remember that Premier Inn are marketed as a “no frills” hotel – but they are almost always spotlessly clean and consistent.

It was either pony up for that or go and track down (and pay for) an O2 PAYG data sim, as I do at least have line of sight from my room here to one of their masts.

Firstly, I fired up Wifi Explorer, and took a look at what is deployed here.

Nice, uncrowded 2.4GHz spectrum, sensibly placed channels.

Nice, uncrowded 2.4GHz spectrum, sensibly placed channels.

Not only was the 2.4GHz likely to work okay, but they also had 5GHz too!

Wow! 5Ghz as well.

Wow! 5Ghz as well.

So, I decided that it was worth a spin. I signed up for the free half hour. Then I actually found I could get real work done on this connection, so I gave it a speed test.

Reasonably speedy too. I'd guess it's a VDSL line.

Reasonably speedy too. I’d guess it’s a VDSL line. Might get crowded later, I guess?

Not only have they got 5GHz, but they have recently slashed their prices. Some would say that it should be free anyway, but £3 for the day, or £20 for a month seemed a reasonable deal, especially if you’re staying in a Premier Inn a lot (I’m actually back here again next week).

I’ve not tried connecting multiple devices simultaneously using the same login, but I suspect you can’t, which is possibly the only downside.

However, big props to the folks at Premier Inn for actually having a wifi install that works, even if that means having to pay for it. I’ve seen much worse services in high-end hotels which have under-provisioned, congested (and often expensive) 2.4GHz networks.

Credit where it is earned, indeed.


Update: Sadly, it seems Premier Inn have decided we can’t have too much of a good thing, and need to manage our expectations. It’s alleged that they have therefore plotted with those dastardly people at Arqiva to make Premier Inn wifi universally shit.

Please read this item from Bill Buchan, which reports that the wifi is now clamped to 2.5Mb/sec on the premium “ultimate” offering.

The question I’ve got is if the “ultimate wifi” is, as they market it, 8x faster than the free wifi, then I make the free wifi out to be <500Kb/sec.

I can just imagine a load of product management muppets sat around some buzzword infested meeting room table, cowed by groupthink, agreeing this is a good idea.