Waiting for (BT) Infinity – an update

I mentioned in my last post about my partner’s Mother moving home this week, and how it looks like BT have missed an opportunity to give a seamless transition of her VDSL service.

The new house was only around the corner from the old one, so should be on the same exchange, and maybe even on the same DSLAM and cabinet. It had previously had VDSL service, judging from the master socket faceplate.

20140624_103830

Was the jumpering in the cab over to the DSLAM still set up? Well, we dug out the old BT VDSL modem and HomeHub 3, and set those up.

Guess what…

20140626_144809The VDSL modem successfully trained up. The line is still connected to the VDSL DSLAM.

However, it’s failing authentication – a steady red “b“. Therefore it looks like the old gear won’t work on the new line.

But then the new HomeHub 5 they’ve needlessly shipped out won’t work either: we set that up too, and get an orange “b” symbol.

Evidently, something isn’t provisioned somewhere on the backend. Maybe the account credentials have been changed, or the port on the DSLAM isn’t provisioned correctly yet.

Does this look like a missed opportunity to provide a seamless transition, without the need for an engineer visit, or what?

 

When parents-in-law move homes – a tale of being “default” tech support

Sheesh BT.

The MiL has moved. Around the corner from her old house. She had BT Infinity (BT’s Retail FTTC product) at the old house. She ordered the service to be moved. The voice service was activated on the day she moved, but not the Internet access.

The new house has previously had FTTC with the last occupant, it has the FTTC faceplate. One can only assume that the “double jumpering” to the FTTC MSAN is still in place too.

I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s even coming off the same bloody street cab/MSAN.

Can we just take the old Homehub 3 and VDSL modem over and plug those in? Oh no.

BT have sent a new Homehub 5 and scheduled an engineer visit for Friday, 5 days after she’s moved in.

It just feels a bit wrong, and maybe even on the crazy side. In theory this could have been done as a simultaneous provide – i.e. both the voice and the internet service brought up at the same time, and in this case potentially without an engineer visit!

Who knows why it’s not happened. Certainly the MiL wouldn’t have known to ask for a “sim-provide”, but should she have to?

Releasing a bottleneck in the home network, Pt2 – at home with HomePlug

As promised the next instalment of what happened when I upgraded my home Internet access from ADSL to FTTC, and found that I had some interesting bottlenecks existing in what is a fairly simple network.

Last time, I left you hanging, with the smoking gun being the HomePlug AV gear which glues the “wired” part of the network together around the house.

HomePlug is basically “powerline networking”, using the existing copper in the energised mains cables already in your walls to get data around without the cost of installing UTP cabling, drilling through walls, etc. As such, it’s very helpful for temporary or semi-permanent installations, and therefore a good thing if you’re renting your home.

The HomePlug AV plant at Casa Mike is a mix of “straight” HomePlug AV (max data rate 200Mb/sec), and a couple of “extended” units based on the Qualcomm Atheros chipset which will talk to each other at up to 500Mb/sec as well as interoperate at up to 200Mb/sec with the vanilla AV units.

One of the 500Mb units is obviously the one in the cupboard in the front room where all the wires come into the house and the router lives. However, despite being the front room, it’s not the lounge, that’s in an extension at the back, so the second 500Mb unit is in the extension, with the second wifi access point hanging off it so we’ve got good wifi signal (especially 5GHz) where we spend a lot of our time. The other 200Mb units get dotted around the house as necessary, wherever there’s something that needs a wired connection.

So, if you remember, I was only getting around 35Mb/sec if I was on the “wrong side” of the HomePlug network – i.e. not associated with the access point which is hardwired to the router, so this was pointing to the HomePlug setup.

I fired up the UI tool supplied with the gear (after all, it’s consumer grade, what could I expect?), and this shows a little diagram of the HomePlug network, along with the speed between each node. This is gleaned via a L2 management protocol which is spoken by the HomePlug devices (and the UI). I really should look at something which can collect this stuff and graph it.

HomePlug is rate adaptive, which means it can vary the speed dependant on conditions such as noise interference, quality of the cabling, etc., and the speed is different for the virtual link between each pair of nodes in the HomePlug network. (When you build a HomePlug network, the HomePlug nodes logically seem to emulate a bus network to the attached Ethernet – the closest thing I can liken it to is something ATM LAN emulation, remember that?)

The UI reported a speed of around 75-90Mb between the front and the back of the house, which fluctuated a little. But this doesn’t match my experience of around 35Mb throughput on speed tests.

So where did my thoughput go?

My initial reaction was “Is HomePlug half-duplex?” – well, turns out it is.

HomePlug is almost like the sordid love child conceived between two old defunct networking protocols, frequency-hopping wifi and token ring, after a night on the tequilas, but implemented over copper cables, using multiple frequencies, all put together during an encoding technique called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM).

Only one HomePlug station can transmit at a time, and this is controlled using Beaconing (cf token passing in Token Ring) and Time Division Multiplexing between the active HomePlug nodes, orchestrated by the concept of a “master” node called a “Central Coordinator”, which is elected automatically when a network is established.

When you send an Ethernet frame into your HomePlug adaptor, it’s encapsulated into a HomePlug frame (think of your data like a set of Russian Dolls or a 1970’s nest of tables), which is then put in a queue called a “MAC frame stream”. These are then chopped up into smaller (512 byte) segments called a PHY block, the segments being encrypted and serialised.

Forward error correction is also applied, and as soon as the originating adaptor enters it’s permission to transmit (it’s “beacon period”), your data, now chopped down into these tiny PHY block chunks, is striped across the multiple frequencies in the HomePlug network. As they arrive at their destination, acknowledgments are sent back into the network. The sending station keeps transmitting the PHY blocks until the receiving node has acknowledged receipt.

Assuming all the PHY blocks that make up the MAC frame arrive intact at the exit HomePlug bridge, these are decrypted, reassembled, and decapsulated, coughing up the Ethernet frame which was put in the other end, which is written to the wire.

The upshot of this is that there’s a reasonably hefty framing overhead… IP, into Ethernet Frame, into HomePlug AV MAC frame, into PHY block.

Coupled with the half-duplex, beaconing nature, that’s how my ~70Mb turned into ~35Mb.

The thing to remember here, the advertised speed on HomePlug gear is quoted at the PHY rate – the speed attainable between HomePlug devices, which includes all the framing overhead.

This means, where HomePlug AV says that it supports 200Mb/sec, this is not the speed you should expect to get out of the ethernet port on the bottom, even in ideal conditions. 100Mb/sec seems more realistic and this would be on perfect cabling, directly into the wall socket.

Talking of ideal conditions, one of the things that you are warned against with HomePlug is hanging the devices off power strips, as this reduces the signal arriving at the HomePlug interface. They recommend that you plug the HomePlug bridge directly into a wall socket whenever possible. Given my house was built in the 1800s (no stud-walls, hence the need for HomePlug!), it’s not over-endowed with mains sockets, so of course, mine were plugged into power strips.

However, not to be deterred, I reshuffled things and managed to get the two 500Mb HomePlug bridges directly into the wall sockets, and voila: Negotiated speed went up to around 150-200Mb, and the full 70-odd Mb/sec of the upgraded broadband was available on the other side of the homeplug network.

Performance is almost doubled by being plugged directly into a wall socket.

In closing, given everything which is going on under the skin, and that it works by effectively superimposing and being able to recover minute amounts of “interference” on your power cables, it’s almost surprising HomePlug works as well as it does.

This HomePlug white paper will make interesting reading if you’re interested in what’s going on under the skin! 

80 down, 20 up, releasing a bottleneck in the home

A couple of weeks ago, I upgraded the Internet connectivity at home, from an ADSL service which could be a little bit wobbly (likely due to poor condition on some of the cabling) and usually hovered between 2Mb and 3Mb down, to FTTC – reducing the copper run from about 3.5km down to about 200m.

The service is sold as “up to 80Mb/sec” downstream, with upload of up to 20Mb/sec, which turns out to be achievable on my line, as my ISP’s portal reported the initial sync as 80Mb, and this gives around 75Mb of usable capacity at the IP layer once you’ve knocked off the framing and encapsulation overheads.

I eagerly headed off to thinkbroadband.co.uk and speedtest.net to run some tests. They confirmed I’d only get 40Mb/sec until I replaced my trusty but ageing Cisco 877 – that’s one bottleneck I already knew about and had a replacement router coming. But, never the less, I was happy with a >10x uplift on the previous downstream speed, and off I went happily streaming things, as can be seen from my daily usage…

Guess when I switched to FTTC?
Guess when I switched to FTTC?

Yes, some of that usage in the first day or two would have been repeatedly running speed tests in giddy abandon at the bandwidth at my disposal, but the daily usage is now generally higher.

There’s a number of reasons that could be behind that, but I suspect that among the most likely are services which support variable bit-rate video delivery, which include things such as YouTube and BBC iPlayer will be automatically upping to the higher quality stream.

The new router arrived on the 9th, and it was off with the speedtests again… and that’s where I found an interesting bottleneck in the house.

I could happily get 75Mb/sec in one room – where the router and main access point was. However, in the lounge, which is in an extension at the back of the house, I could only get around 30Mb/sec, despite having an access point in the same room.

I’ve ended up with multiple access points in the house, because the original “cottage” was built in 1890 and has fairly thick walls made of something very, very tough (from experience of hanging up pictures) which is also largely impervious to radio waves it seems, while the extension is attached to the “outside” of one of the original external walls, as well as being the furthest point away from where the Internet access comes into the house. This meant that I wasn’t left with much choice but to infill using a second wireless AP.

But both APs are of a similar spec and support 802.11a/b/g/n, and I was connecting on the less congested 5Ghz spectrum on both. So, where was the bottleneck?

The attention turned fairly quickly to the HomePlug AV network which I was using between the front and back of the house. It hadn’t caused me much concern in the past, but now it was prime suspect in my quest to wring the maximum out of my shiny new upgraded circuit.

Finding the longest piece of cat5 cable I have (a big yellow monster of a cable), and running that through the middle of the house to the AP, revealed that my suspicions were correct, but I also knew that the bright yellow cable snaking through the kitchen couldn’t stay there.

In the next few days I learned more about HomePlug than is probably healthy, and that will form the basis for my next article…

…and you’re not gonna reach my telephone.

Or, when an FTTC install goes bad.

Finally got around to getting FTTC installed to replace my ADSL service which seldom did more than about 3Mb/sec has had it’s fair share of ups and downs in the past. Didn’t want to commit to the 12 month contract term until I knew the owner was willing to extend our lease, but now that’s happened, I ordered the upgrade, sticking with my existing provider, Zen Internet, who I’m actually really happy with (privately held, decent support when you need it, don’t assume you’re a newbie, well run network, etc…).

For the uninitiated, going FTTC requires an engineer to visit your home, and to the cabinet in the street that your line runs through and get busy in a big rats nest of wires. The day of the appointment rolled around, and mid-morning, a van rolls up outside – “Working on behalf of BT Openreach”. “At least they kept the appointment…”, I think to myself

BT doesn’t always send an Openreach employee on these turnups, but they send a third-party contractor, and this was the case for this FTTC turn-up…

Continue reading “…and you’re not gonna reach my telephone.”

Superfast Broadband Roundup – 19th September

Surrey County Council have advised that they have awarded their “final third” superfast broadband deployment to BT. The contract is worth around £33m.

It’s worth noting that the SCC deployment is being done seperately from the BDUK umbrella, and it’s been revealed BT were bidding against two other independant contractors, as opposed to their usual BDUK bidding rivals Fujitsu.

If you fancy being the person who manages the BT deployment in Surrey, they are currently seeking a Programme Director to run the show. I’m not sure what happened to the last occupant of the role, if there was one?

Of course, one advantage of going with BT for this deployment is that assuming BT in the main use their existing FTTC/FTTP service models, it shouldn’t be a problem for any ISP to deliver “superfast” service to homes and businesses on the Surrey deployment. It will be done using the same interconnects and some provisioning.

Compare that to more “bespoke” superfast networks such as Digital Region, which had been viewed as unattractive to work with because of the additional overheads for a consumer ISP of dealing with their processess and provisioning systems, in addition to the “defacto” wholesale broadband providers such as Be/O2 and the ubiquitous BT.

So, while I was at the IX Leeds meeting last week, I was interested to hear of a new service from Fluidata, which aims to solve the problems commonly associated with delivering service over multiple local access wholesalers, which they are calling “Stop@Nothing”.

Their plan is to offer a wholesale “middleman” service, interconnecting to various local access networks, both national (such as BT and O2) and regional (such as Digital Region), among others, and being able to deliver these over an inter-regional backhaul network to the ISP on a common pipe (or pipes), and provide a common API to the ISP for provisioning, regardless of which last mile network is delivering service to the customer premises.

I can see this helping the ISPs in two ways – potentially doing away with the time and cost implications of integrating a new wholesale broadband provider platform into your own provisioning processes and systems, and in giving ISPs who don’t have any local presence cheaper access to regional projects (such as Digital Region), without the risk of building into the area – maybe this becomes something can be done later if volume warrants it. It potentally also gets around issues such as minimum order commitments from individual ISPs, as these are aggregated behind the Fluidata service.

I haven’t got a clue how cost effective Fluidata’s product will be, as I’ve not seen any pricing for it. I can only assume that it’s competitive or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Meanwhile, the group of determined farmers and country-dwelling folk behind B4RN in the North West continue doing their own thing, their own way, and have recently been digging into a local church hall in Abbeystead:

There’s a whole series of videos on their YouTube channel about how they are progressing and details on the physical elements of their infrastructure such as digs and fibre installs.

DR still in the doldrums – An Open Letter to Digital Region

A few months ago, I wrote about what I percieved to be going wrong with Digital Region, the local-authority backed superfast broadband wholesale network in South Yorkshire.

It seems that matters have not improved since then: a Sheffield-based hosting company, KDA, has written an Open Letter to Digital Region, which pretty much confirms that everything which was true several months ago is still true today, and goes on to suggest that there’s enough experience and skill in the tech community in South Yorkshire to turn this around, if only those in charge were willing (able?) to change tack and allow the community to steer the organisation.

It’s also alluded that a cut-price disposal of the network assets, which should rightly be the South Yorkshire taxpayer’s, for a cut-price may already be in hand, and that a failure of DR will be associated generally with the South Yorkshire tech industry, tarring it’s (generally good) reputation.

DR shouldn’t be the way it is – DR should be more agile than the large telcos, and find it easier to be more focused on the needs of the local userbase, but it isn’t. It seems to be strangled by inflexibility and bureaucratic behaviour, which needs to change if it’s to survive, and deliver the promise that the local authorities set out to achieve. But, at the moment, I’m doubtful that this will happen. The peppercorn sell-off probably feels like an easy way out, however much it’s short-changing South Yorks residents and business in the process.

You can read the full text of the Open Letter here.