Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Castle Enters Broadband Era

When I got back to the castle around a month ago, the broadband was so slow that my computer thought the Internet was broken. Roughly 50% of web pages failed, depending on how bandwidth intensive they were. In consequence, I would have to try over and over again to get anything done. A single web transaction could take the whole morning.

For the first week, I was unable to access gmail at all. During the second week a single email would take 5 minutes to open. I would go away and do something else. 

Things have improved somewhat and I am currently running on 0.1 to 0.2 Mbits. However, everything is like wading through treacle. My productivity is right down, and even limiting myself to core web tasks results in me running behind i.e. it will take a whole day to do the things I would normally manage in an hour.

I have tried phoning BT/Orange/EE till I am blue in the face about bandwidth issues at the castle, but nothing has ever been done. When I got the phone line installed initially, broadband was running at 1.7 Mbits which was not ideal but perfectly workable. For all other services a drop in flow by a factor of 20 would be considered unacceptable and I pay the same price for the service as people in town who get 1000 times the flow that I do.

Anyhow, enough of this rant against "rural broadband" which actually should be called "rural  dial-up masquerading as broadband".

Around 5 years ago, I tried tethering my laptop to my mobile to see if I could use broadband over the phone network instead. There was one window in the castle where I could get a mobile signal. The experiment was a failure. I could get broadband but it was the same speed as the landline. In fact, it was essentially unusable as it also cut out every few minutes.

Anyhow, as I am at the castle for longer than usual and the Internet pain was grinding me down, action was required. Time had moved on, and I tried tethering to my mobile phone again. At some windows on the top two floors of the castle I could get a signal. Sometimes there was an E associated with the signal bars, which I understand is 2G+. In one room there was an H, which I understand is 3G+. I measured the bandwidth in the H room which is essentially the top of one of the towers: 3.5 Mbits ! The castle has never had it so fast.

Sticking my phone to a window pane with a sucker and working in an attic room was not the most comfortable or convenient web browsing experience, so following the advice of a friend I purchased a 4G router. This arrived late yesterday.

Anyhow, today was commissioning the router. Much pain as it was second hand and was password protected. I had to download a manual (very slowly!) to find out how to do a factory reset. Eventually, success in the attic room, but how to get the signal down to the kitchen wing for guests and indeed my main desktop computer there?

I normally use mains wiring to get Internet around the castle, as a single stone wall will kill WiFi, but this was not working for some reason. :-( Again much debugging. I walked round the castle testing which sockets worked with power line plugs and which didn't. Gregor had talked about "new" and "old" wires when I complained about networking not working through the wiring. This seemed nonsensical to me i.e. how can an Ethernet packet know the difference between an old and a new wire? In fact Gregor was totally right. From which sockets were working and which were not I deduced the signal was not getting through the new fuse box which is wired off the old fuse box.  

Essentially, through relatively recent improvements in the castle wiring, it no longer worked as a single network! :-) This is not strictly true, as during my testing, the odd Ethernet packet would successfully jump from the new wires to the old wires. It was about 1 in 4. This phenomenon would also appear to be intermittent, as it might explain why my media sever on my old wiring does not always talk to my media client on my new wiring. 

My proposed solution was to run a 50m mains cable from the boiler room in the kitchen wing to the attic room all the way up the servant's staircase to ensure the powerline plug connected to my 4G modem and the powerline plug connected to my desktop computer were on the same mains circuit. Would this work?

Hurrah, it did! I lost a few Ethernet packets in initial testing but then this soon stopped. I took some bandwidth measurements on my desktop, comparing the landline "broadband" with the mobile broadband. These came out at 0.2 Mbits and 10 Mbits respectively. For most people 10 Mbits is slow, but at the castle this is a factor of 50 improvement! In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

before: existing landline bandwidth test result

after: new mobile network bandwidth test result

new Internet journey 1/5: 4G router in tower window talks to powerline plug on extension cable
new Internet journey 2/5: 50m blue extension cable drops down servants' staircase


new Internet journey 3/5: extension cable plugs into socket in boiler room

new Internet journey 4/5: powerline plug takes signal from mains wiring (by-passing landline router on left)

new Internet journey 5/5: signal makes final hop to desktop NUC computer via yellow Internet cable 

As all mobile broadband users know, unlimited data is so expensive that it is not the norm and having a monthly data allowance puts this fear of God (and excess data charges) into uber-geeks like myself who eat bandwidth like hot dinners. Giff-Gaff do an "unlimited" package for £25: 20 Gbytes at full speed over a month, throttled back to 0.386 Mbits for any data over this but with no extra charges. While the throttled speed would be a problem for most users, it is still faster than the castle's landline, so here the package is a good option and this was instrumental in the 4G router purchase.

I will be making a claim against EE for a broken Internet service for the last 6 months, which is the period of time that the bandwidth has definitely been too low to be usable.

So the outcome is that the castle has workable Internet for the first time in 10 years. The larger picture is that the Internet is so important to basic life operation nowadays, that I have been through extreme pain over the last month and my mission to get something workable over the last week, has been like a drug addict trying to get a fix. The problem, of course, is with the service providers who know perfectly well their service is broken, but neither fix this, inform their customers nor provide compensation.

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