This post was originally published on the Huffington Post on 26th November 2014.
Everyone in my generation remembers the days of dial-up internet. The intrepid moment when you clicked the ‘connect’ button and, as the sound of a strangled digital cat assaulted your ears, you wondered whether you had time to boil the kettle, take a shower or cook Sunday lunch before the connection was made. It mattered of course, because you were paying by the minute. Your parents had already growled at you in annoyance that you were using the ‘damn thing’ at all.
We have undoubtedly seen huge progress since then. For most of the internet’s journey, increasing the speed of uploads and downloads has been key to our freedom to roam expansively online. From averages of a few thousand bits per second fifteen years ago to 15Mb today, this massive hike in speed capacity has allowed us to enjoy Facebook, Twitter, iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix all at once if we so wish and in super high spec.
But today we have come to a fork in the road in our journey towards perfect internet connections. Speed, once our facilitator, our enabler, our ‘Make It Happen’ man, does not help us as it once did.
As a tech nut, I plumped for a 40Mbps broadband package for my home. But the truth is, my wife, two children and I could not use it all even if we simultaneously binged on high spec online content.
And yet, we still regularly encounter problems. My wife’s online banking will fail mid-transaction, my son’s Final Fantasy XV will crash, my daughter’s YouTube will buffer and my BBC iPlayer will tell me that my desired content is not available currently, although strangely it was two minutes ago. We are nowhere close to using up our speed allowance, so what is going wrong?
The truth is speed is only one and increasingly unimportant factor. We need to do something about the quality of our broadband connection, not only in the UK, but across the world.
I work in Internet technology, so I talk frequently about ‘digital supply chains.’ Quite simply, it’s the supply chain from Facebook or Twitter at one end through the core of the web, to your nearest internet exchange (the London Internet Exchange is the biggest in the world), into the ISP’s networks, down your road, into your house, through your router and across your WiFi.
It’s vast and complex supply-chain.
But physical supply chains are intricate too. Back in the 70s, British Leyland struggled to put the correct car parts together. If the car you bought had all its doors on, it had been a good day at the factory.
Then the Japanese came and showed us we could do it better. They consulted their customers for an assessment on the quality of their products, while making adjustments to their supply chains. Physical products are now perfect. If your new car or smartphone had a defect in it, you would send it right back, with a justifiable sense of outrage. And yet, if YouTube is taking ages to load a video, you sigh, get up and put on the kettle.
Why the inconsistency? Well, perhaps because we assume there is nothing we can do about it. Only, there is.
Professor Jonathan Pitts of Queen Mary University of London has devised a set of algorithms that can work out the quality of a connection as you or I would perceive it.
By knowing how good the quality is, or is not, something can be done to fix it. In an amazing 30 per cent of cases, the problem originates with home WiFi and can be easily solved.
This software can be downloaded for free on the BBFix website, giving internet users the power to investigate the origin of problems in the service they are paying for.
But we also need a culture change. We need to stop asking our ISPs and our government for higher broadband speeds and start asking them for a better quality service. That in the end is all that matters.