Rising Broadband Speeds: Freedom – at what cost?

David Cooper of RW Communications comments that uSwitch recently reported that the average broadband user in Britain is receiving faster connection speeds at a lower average price than ever before. The utilities price-comparison site stated that broadband costs have dropped by 36% over the last four years. At the same time the average speed offered by ISPs has risen to around 8Mbps. It’s not unusual to see speeds of 20-24Mbps advertised.

Both consumers and businesses have already directly benefited from the rise of broadband culture. A large number of our customers have a requirement for staff to work from home and this, I think, will be the main benefit of high broadband speeds. It would seem sensible to assume, going on past experience, that rising broadband speeds can only be good for businesses across the board. However I suspect that the benefits will not necessarily be as black-and-white as everyone might think.

In the last 18 months IP Telephony (IPT) services have started to enable big changes in working practices. Workers can now receive calls on their office landline number anywhere they go simply by plugging their phone into a broadband connection. This gives many workers a hitherto unavailable degree of freedom, while at the same time offering affordable calls. IPT has enabled an increase in the number of home workers across many industries, bringing greater convenience, flexibility and productivity.

Big increases in broadband speeds won’t make much difference to IPT directly. There’s only so much voice-related data traffic a connection will need to carry. However in other ways these speed increases will continue to make geographically flexible working practices seem more attractive, particularly as office WANs finally become a viable proposition.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have proven incredibly useful for remote workers. However, once connection speeds move into 50-100Mbps territories we should start to see remote network performance comparable to that which you would get inside your office, almost as if you were sat next to the server. It’s worth mentioning that this will only be worthwhile if the connection speed is reasonably symmetrical. Home broadband packages tend to be biased towards downloading. There is little point in having an office network with a 22.5Mbps download speed but only a 1.5Mbps upload speed.

It would seem sensible to assume that higher broadband speeds will probably enable increases in convenience and productivity in much the same way that IPT has. But rising connection speeds may in some ways be a double-edged sword. As well as allowing for new business applications, ‘fat connections’ also open the door to a range of sophisticated distractions. Some of the most obvious possibilities are Video on Demand, streamed HD TV and rocket-fast netgaming. Admittedly with true 50Mbps connections employers could easily monitor workers via remote desktops and video links with little effect on surfing speeds. But apart from the obvious manpower issues, this may not always be the best way to maintain good staff relations.

Fast connections offer the potential to continue what IPT has already started; empowering the worker while also benefiting the employer, but it’s important to get the balance right. We all know a ‘crackberry addict’; somebody who has to take their office email with them everywhere they go. Similarly, in making it easier for people to work from home, faster connections might also make it much harder for some people to ‘switch off’.

In any case, home users aren’t likely to get the speeds being advertised. A typical home 24Mbps broadband package might have a contention ratio of, say, 50 to 1. This means that 49 people on your road might be taking a share of your 24Mbps pipe. For this reason the actual speed of home connections can vary wildly depending upon the time of day and, sometimes, the distance to your local exchange. As with air travel, it’s a little-publicised fact that providers often sell more tickets than they have seats available. Occasionally, when too many people connect at once, one user simply may not be able to connect. This, of course, is why business connections cost so much more: organisations effectively pay for guaranteed bandwidth. Any home-broadband company that offered even a 2Mbps connection on a 1:1 contention ratio would probably go bust overnight.

It seems unlikely that the trend outlined by uSwitch, of falling prices and rising speeds, can continue indefinitely. ISPs only have a certain capacity available. I think it is likely that either prices or contention ratios will begin to increase. Either way, the consumer is eventually going to have to pay somehow. While advances in home broadband are generally positive, it’s worth remembering that new technologies always bring new challenges.