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Life in the slow line: Recombu Digital’s capital not-spot

I bet you think Recombu Digital has an amazing broadband connection? We do now, but for most of 2012 it’s been a very different story…

One of the hot topics in the broadband news scene we’ve been covering at Recombu Digital since March is rural broadband.

It turns out that Great Britain is like a Swiss cheese, riddled with broadband not-spots from the size of a village to a whole country (it’s called Wales).

In a not-spot, the only thing broad about your DSL connection is the gap between its advertised Megabits and the few hundreds of kilobits you end up using.

But broadband not-spots are a rural thing, right? In the cities, especially London, bustling mercantile capital city of the second Elizabethan Empire, everyone’s surfing on a rocket, yeah?

Uh-uh.

Broadband services for W1W 8BW

Here at Recombu Digital we do all the things other technology news sites do: we write about the latest developments in broadband and digital TV, we talk to the industry, we review new products and services, we even make videos about it. We need bandwidth.

Our offices are under 200 metres from Oxford Circus, in what you’d think might be one of the most connected parts of the country. We’re just over 500m from the local BT exchange, at Howland Street – also known as the world famous BT Tower.

High capacity users in our neighbourhood include the BBC, the University of Westminster, and an awful lot of businesses. At this distance from the exchange, an ADSL2+ connection should whizz along at 20Mbps or better.

You might think that the neighbourhood of BT Tower would have been high on BT’s priority list for fibre-optic broadband. It’s packed with upscale homes and businesses of all sizes.

Virgins at workAs you can see from our enquiry with SamKnows (above) there’s no fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) within range, ADSL averages 7.5Mbps (more on that later).

Good, but not good enough, so in late 2011, as we prepared for a New Year move to our new offices, our IT genius put in an order for a Virgin Media 100Mbps symmetrical fibre optic connection.

We’re not talking about about the usual hybrid of fibre and high quality coaxial cable that delivers your domestic Virgin Media connection, but a little green fibre all the way to our IT cupboard, connecting our little editorial office to the internet, and to our HQ in bucolic Hampshire. Full-on Fibre to the Premises.

Contrary to the post-code checker data, Virgin Media doesn’t go down our street, so they were going to dig up the road, all the way up to Regent Street.

At this point, I’d like to say that Virgin Media Business and our ISP – hSo – have both been as helpful as they could, but this is a tale of the roadblocks and bureaucracy which can scupper any fine project.

While we were waiting, for superfast broadband, hSo put in three ADSL lines – one for our phones and two bonded lines for our broadband. As the office filled up with new hires (at one point there were 10 of us), we were sharing what should have been at least 15Mbps, given our distance to the exchange.

Instead, our shared capacity varied from six or seven Megabits to under one Meg. Our upload speeds were a couple of hundred kilobits at most, which is no fun when you’ve got videos to post online. If YouTube accepted DVDs via Royal Mail, we’d have used that.

Meanwhile, our fibre heaven began to recede.

An Olympian task

Negotiations with our landlord dragged on, for reasons above this keyboard-wrangler’s clearance, adding months as the lawyers argued the toss (and no doubt exchanged a few absurdly expensive letters).

Recombu Digital launched into full newsgathering mode in March, and we quickly became aware of another threat: the 2012 Olympics. Yes, the National Sports Day would mean a blanket ban on street works from late May to the end of September.

Virgin, quite reasonably, wouldn’t start surveys or schedule street works until we’d got the go ahead, and they already had quite a lot to finish before the Olympic road-digging ban kicked in.

So May came and went, and we resigned ourselves to a long summer of snail’s pace broadband. The Olympics were a speedy high point, as like the rest of London life it was vastly improved by fewer tourists and half the population going on holiday. Streaming BBC Sport was still off the menu though.

Patterns emerged, like the Lunchtime Slowdown as our line-sharers all logged in to watch cat videos and Holy Moly, and the Five O’Clock Respite when they went home.

The last mile

The last couple of months have been like a very long night before Christmas.

As September drew to a close, we were delighted to see warning notices of Virgin’s civil works in Little Portland Street.

The navvies (they prefer ‘civil engineering contractors’) moved in to dig a trench and lay the conduit for our cable, and a little green pipe popped out of the ground by the front door. Our anticipation grew as we looked forward to superfast switch-on on November 13.

Virgin Media in Little Portland Street

It wasn’t to be. Virgin found places it needed to do more digging between our office and its hub, which needed permits from Westminster Council.

Meanwhile, they found small jobs to do – our feeder cable was fitted up the wall and into our office, disappearing into the little green pipe and leaving a coil of green-covered fibre inside.

Virgin was gradually feeding the cable from their hub to us, but small blockages along the way each needed access to a manhole in a busy street. Our live internet date slipped headed to the end of November.

Finally, a Virgin Media van appeared outside one cold evening, feeding cable into the new manhole outside. (They’d have been a day earlier if someone hadn’t parked their car on top of it. We know who you are.)

Just three visits remained: the splice team who installed a junction box and fibre switch in our new IT cabinet, followed by a couple of days to test the connection; hSo fitted the fibre-to-Ethernet converter; and finally, on December 10, our network guru arrived to make us live.

But there’s one more twist in this tale.

Virgin Media lay fibre optic cable

Almost superfast

We’ve got speedy wireless, we’ve got even speedier Ethernet. We’ve got Spotify streaming on our Sonos music system. We’ve bagged a Wii U to test its media streaming features. Videos upload in seconds.

It’s like waking up from a nightmare. Now we’ve got nothing to blame but ourselves when we don’t get our work done.

And it’s only 20Mbps (symmetrical, but even so). For reasons best known to themselves, despite a very long lead time, Virgin hasn’t switched on our 100Mbps circuit.

So we’ve had a Christmas present which we’re very happy about, and we’ll get another very soon, when the link gets five times faster. Rest assured, we’ll find a way to use it. 

Looking back, the amazing thing is how much we’ve achieved in 2012. If you’re suffering a terrible broadband connection – you have our sympathies. We’ve been there.

We're getting there

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