April 6, 2020
By Alan Pritchard, Principal Consultant
This morning’s BBC flagship news programme Radio 4 Today appeared to struggle with the nation’s broadband as Martha Kearney’s line badly broke up as she was presenting from home. Guardian Media Editor, Jim Waterson, didn’t miss it and took to Twitter to vent his frustrations: “Radio 4's Today programme has now lost three items in a row due to terrible home broadband/mobile connections.”
Does this mean that we have a national connection problem? Or is this more of a one-off issue in these testing times? Although we don’t know the exact circumstances, we can make some suggestions as to probable causes.
For those that recently saw our article on Home Broadband with tips on how to get the best performance from it, we thought we would provide some additional insight and background.
More than ever before, people all over the world are making internet calls from home. Internet call specialist, Zoom, has seen its daily active user count up 378% from a year ago, as of March 22nd. Whether using video or audio, the quality of the connection from the device is dependent on the many bits of technology involved to get to the internet. Your internet connection needs every part of the chain to do its bit to ensure quality is maintained.
When audio or video starts breaking up or sounds distorted, packets of data are being lost due to errors, or not enough capacity. In simple terms, this is the same as those annoying situations when watching Netflix or iPlayer and the dreaded rotating buffering symbols appear on screen and everything freezes, hopefully followed by it catching up.
Whilst the internet service providers have recently said there is enough capacity to cope with current UK demands, unfortunately no matter how much cloud capacity BT or Netflix have, its only as good as the weakest link in the chain, which is the last mile to your home or even the last few metres inside your home (Wi-Fi).
Home Broadband now is being put under a lot of strain and stress which is heightened and feels more acute when its being used for work, entertainment, and shopping, simultaneously by everyone in the home. Video calling and streaming need the best quality broadband possible and unfortunately most homes in the UK do not yet enjoy that.
Some simple remedies we mentioned in our previous piece, particularly those regarding Wi-Fi, can be improved at reasonable cost. For example:
For issues outside the home i.e. broadband coverage and speed, the remedy is unfortunately not quite as easy. The UK has a very low penetration of the gold standard in broadband – fibre to the premise (also known as full fibre). Whilst 5G may help, that will take time to appear given how long 4G has taken to roll out across the UK and even now there are some areas where individuals still cannot get 2G reliably.
Commentators are speculating that once social distancing measures come to an end and some normality resumes, our work styles will have changed forever as a result of COVID-19. Working more from home will be the norm. A lower carbon future is also likely to nudge us in the same direction. However, this will need better quality broadband UK wide, given most would agree it’s now an essential utility.