Returning to the UK after a very long absence has been an eye opener on a number of fronts, not least the state of internet provisioning. To describe it as 'patchy' would be charitable, 'dishonest' would be less charitable but more closely reflective of what consumers in particular have to tolerate. If you are one of the growing band of mobile workers, dependent upon wifi for home office use alongside 'standard' 3G/4G mobile and struggling to get beyond ADSL speeds in your home environment then this story may well ring true. Let me explain.
The UK internet supply market is incredibly complex. Numerous providers, both physical in terms of owning cable/copper and virtual, owning a service but dependent upon a primary data provider litter the market. Such is that complexity that comparison sites aplenty attempt to clear the clutter but inevitably providing buyers with a myriad of often confusing options, where internet access is co-mingled aka 'bundled' with TV, voice and SMS services.
The cabling choke point
The choke point comes in the switch from ADSL to cable/fiber.
My internet usage goes back to 1990 so I'm old enough to remember when a 28K line, two tin cans and a bit of wet string was sufficient for most data purposes, only to discover a few years later that ADSL was a 'must have' to download those all important 1MB files. The emergence of SaaS solutions that need to carry large amounts of data added pressure but it has been the emergence of streaming services that has made the switch to high speed lines an imperative. In short, there is a severe imbalance between supply and demand.
To make matters worse, the UK's internet infrastructure is undergoing a many years and much needed upgrade. Having said that and despite technology advances, there are numerous gotchas that impede progress. Net net, consumers (and some businesses) find themselves unable to get a straight answer to the burning question: 'When will we be wired.'
Right now, your chances of getting that high speed line looks more like a case of playing a lottery than getting the answer to a well thought out plan.
Virgin Media - your name is mud
For example, let's pick Virgin Media - and I pick them as a specific example although there are others - where, upon entering your post code and confirming your address, you'll be greeted with a cheery notice telling you to expect a high speed line 'soon.' Trust me - it's a meaningless expression because once you start digging into the realité, confusion abounds.
In our area for example, there was a much publicized 'prize,' confidently assuring residents that Virgin would be supplying the much coveted high speed access in 'the summer.' That was 2016 and nothing happened. Attempts to pin down Virgin Media proved fruitless as the local retail store had no information beyond that which is available to the public. Eventually tracking down a person with information at the Virgin call center revealed the shocking 'no plans' answer. I had to double take on that given what I understood from the public domain.
I asked how it could be that there are 'no plans' for consumer yet the commercial division of Virgin were happy to quote for a leased line. The answer was a case of classic left and right hand operating independently of one another.
We have no visibility into what the business people are doing.
I am betting that process functions aside, there was never any thought given to the likely crossover between consumer and business in the internet connectivity world and so both those divisions are operating from completely different systems. i have seen this before in a wonderful case of CRM implementation fuckuperry back in the late 1990s.
In a last ditch effort to root out more facts, I discovered that Virgin recently approached the local council with a view to putting on a public drop in event 'sometime this month' where engineers will be available to answer questions. When pressed, the email response I received was a tad ambiguous with the carefully phrased 'it is our intention' to start work this month. The way I read this, Virgin is effectively hedging its bets, hoping to garner enough committed sign ups to make service provision economically worthwhile within the 'intended' timeframe.
Lunacy of disconnects
There is a certain lunacy attached to this. It comes in two parts.
First, as part of the email back and forth, it was suggested I register my interest on the Virgin site. Been there, done that twice. Which would suggest to me that while the public facing cheery messages may appear comforting, the back end systems sucking in those requests is not connected to the very people who are supposed to be signing up customers. How messed up is that?
Second, given I was getting nowhere using conventional means, I wondered whether a leased line is an option. Here, there are, once again, plenty of options and, unlike in the consumer world, prices are negotiable. Leased lines carry several advantages but also come at a hefty price. You can, for example, specify the upload speed which, right now could go from 25-100MBPS. Those speeds are well above what is normally available to UK consumers, even with a high speed fiber line. More important, contention, that nasty thing that freezes up your Internet streamed TV on occasion, is eliminated by virtue of your line being allocated a static IP address.
Every provider I contacted confirmed that a high speed leased line of up to 100/100 IS available. I was even given a copy of the ducting map to allay my fears that cable might prove impossible. Guess what? There's an access point right out side my property. And here is where the the current consumer communications, coupled with the economics of throttling consumer access become weird at best.
Leased lines for our use case run about £300 per month. That's roughly the equivalent of six typical consumer packages. A leased line will take up to 70 days to install. Consumer? A leased line router runs around £1,000 at retail, a consumer box? Maybe £100. Leased lines are only available to business users and often, the provider wants to bill a company. Riskier than consumer? Probably given corporate failure rates. Do you see where this is going?
My back of the envelope calculations suggest that while providing a leased line may appear more attractive to the provider (and hence the willingness to commit right now) and, yes, there are advantages to the user, especially where streamed services are required, the fractional economics of providing to a potentially large pool of consumers is much more attractive - yet elusive. Unless I am missing something fundamental, the providers are not doing themselves any favors and, despite best efforts, cannot provide clear answers as to why consumer access is such a mess.
I brought this up with Stuart Lauchlan, who has long suffered similar access problems and revels in getting a 1.5MBPS uplink from his existing provider, the ever failing BT. He recently dismembered the UK government's eye catching but repeated £400 million infrastructure investment promises. Lauchlan has not been able to pin down where that money is being allocated but is reasonably certain a good chunk it won't go into direct provisioning. Like me, he is skeptical of service provider promise but lives in the hope that one day, he will be untethered from the local coffee shop's wifi.
Finally, I returned to my email conversation with Virgin and asked why anyone should believe what they are saying today. The answer was less than clear, merely reiterating the planned public pitch. Go figure.
Whether we end up getting a service or default to a leased line is very much in the hands of the service provider gods. Promises have been made or inferred and yet the carefully chosen language suggests a wholly different outcome is possible. I can imagine many communities where the same frustrations are felt. The problem is more than that bald statement. With more homes serving as informal second offices and the spiraling up of demand for streaming services, the need for high speed internet is no longer a 'nice to have' but an occupational necessity.
The economics don't make sense as an argument for holding back investment when weighed against the risks although I can imagine new providers will have to do a lot of deal making to persuade a critical mass of subscribers to sign up.
Even so, the obvious disconnects between business units inside at least one provider point to the broken nature of decision making among at least one major provider.