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“Full Fibre” Broadband – first impressions

November 11, 2021

Updated 19th November following a visit from a Swish engineer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Swish Fibre has been digging up the pavements and verges in my neighbourhood recently, with the promise of “full fibre” broadband with speeds of up to 1Gb/s. “Full fibre” is marketing speak for fibre to the premises (FTTP), meaning high speed fibre-optic cable all the way to your house.

Note: What most ISP’s call “Fibre” is actually fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) which is then carried as ADSL over copper – your normal telephone wire – to your house. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because what you have is called “Fibre” that you actually have a fibre connection to your home.

The Swish offering is simple, either 400Mb/s broadband for £45/month or 900Mb/s for £75/month on a rolling one-month contract. If you subscribe for 12 consecutive months Swish will increase your speed to either 500Mb/s or 1Gb/s. This is a symmetric service: upload speeds are the same (similar anyway) as download speeds. This is not usually the case with domestic broadband, indeed the “A” in ADSL stands for “Asymmetric” meaning faster download than upload.

I registered my interest as soon as I was aware of the project, and was recently offered free installation and six months’ free subscription which I thought I’d take up. I was told that many people are trying the 900Mb/s service free, dropping back to 400Mb/s at the end of the free period. I didn’t see the point in this, as I didn’t want to get used to the fastest service and then be disappointed when it dropped back. I also can’t imagine what you’d need 900Mb/s broadband for; so for my free trial I’ve opted for the 400Mb/s service.

What am I comparing it with?

I currently have Sky Superfast Fibre Broadband, which is fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) at the end of my street and then carried over my telephone line. I can usually get 70-80Mb/s down and 18-20Mb/s up. Over my home network, which is a combination of Powerline adapters (yes, I did upgrade them) and Wi-Fi access points, I can achieve around 60Mb/s download, wired or wireless. This, including telephone line rental – necessary for ADSL, costs £32/month, but that’s a special deal, the full cost when that offer expires will be £37/month, so not a lot less than Swish, but Swish doesn’t require, or include a phone line. We hardly use our landline any more, it simply carries the broadband, so I’d probably get rid of the landline if I were to switch to Swish permanently.

First impressions

Installation

This was relatively straightforward, but took about four weeks from placing my order to having working broadband. I recently had an underground cable duct installed to carry my phone line as part of a bigger relandscaping of my front garden, so getting the fibre connection from the Toby box in the pavement (sorry, can’t work out why they’re called that) to my house was trivial.

Toby Box

The way fibre is installed is that the engineers have to connect a small duct from the Omnipoint (where the external fibre connects to the internal fibre) on the outside of your premises, all the way to the fibre distribution point somewhere up the street. Once this duct is connected they blow the fibre filament along the duct. Yes, blow it, with air from a large fan/blower device, the vortex in the pipe carries the fibre filament along. In my case the fibre distribution point was something approaching 200 metres away. However about 75 metres from the distribution point it all stopped. Apparently the infrastructure team which had been tasked with connecting all the intermediate ducts together had missed one, and the fibre could get no further.

A week later the infrastructure team returned to remedy their omission, and about 90 minutes after that another installation team arrived to finish my installation. This went smoothly and within an hour of their arrival I had live full-fibre broadband.

Communication

Could be better. Swish is good at selling but the installation/scheduling team isn’t so good at customer communications. I was told I’d be contacted about a site survey. I wasn’t. Now under the impression nothing had happened I threatened to cancel the whole contract within the period I’m legally allowed to change my mind. Within minutes of this threat a scheduler called me to say they’d done the survey, that mine was a completely standard installation, so installation would be free, and could they install it the following week?

Note: most people don’t have a cable duct, and Swish has been positioning the Toby Box in a location where they expect to dig a trench to the house – unlike conventional copper cable, fibre isn’t self-supporting so it is rarely run overhead unless it has a supporting cable. Digging trenches or running overhead cables will probably be chargeable in addition to the standard installation charge.

After the first installation team hit the “break in the duct” problem they said I’d hear from the scheduler about finishing the installation. I heard nothing, despite emailing her. About a week later a Swish van appeared at the end of my drive to resolve the issue. Only once that had been resolved did anyone contact me regarding reattempting my installation.

Once I’d initially posted this blog I got a lot of communication. Swish certainly monitor social media. I had a call from a senior technician regarding my speed issues and offering to lend me some other equipment. Then I got a call the following day from a scheduler asking if an engineer could call later that day! Well done Swish.

Equipment

The installation requires three bits of kit:

  • An “Omnipoint” on the outside of my house which is where the external fibre meets the internal fibre cable. This is black and about 12cm x 5cm. This is connected by a fine black fibre-optic cable through a hole in the wall of my house to the…
  • Optical Network Termination point (ONT), a white box on the internal wall. This is about 15cm x 10cm x 3cm and is the point where fibre is converted to ethernet.
  • And finally a router (or RG – residential gateway) which has a 4-port switch and a built-in dual-band wireless access point.
ONT box

The ONT and the router each require a power supply, so you need two mains sockets nearby.

The installation team was very happy to install the ONT wherever I wanted it, which in my case was my study, from where I run all the tech in the house. The router can be placed anywhere provided it’s directly connected to the ONT with a Cat6 ethernet cable.

Swish Smart/RG router/ Residential Gateway

Performance

Initially disappointing, but that’s largely been resolved. See the update below.

Running a broadband speed checker, even with only a single device connected by cable to the router, I achieve barely 100Mb/s most of the time. I have managed to get it up to 400Mb/s but only very briefly while downloading a large video file from BBC iPlayer. If the broadband had been running at 400Mb/s continuously then this file should have taken around a minute to download; it took several minutes.

I tried again with a video file from Channel 4. The maximum speed achieved during this download was 80Mb/s, which is exactly what I get with Sky Fibre broadband.

Most of the time, obviously, the broadband is running at a low speed, which is all it needs to deliver the content I normally demand, but I did expect it to leap up to use the maximum available bandwidth when required. But it doesn’t. Maybe BBC and Channel 4 can’t deliver content at that speed?

Network activity while writing this blog post. Peaks at 0.55Mb/s

This means my Powerline and WiFi adapters are not stretched at all. Even with a speed checker I can’t get either of them much over 60Mb/s, and they did that with Sky broadband too.

Yes, they are capable of more. The Powerline adapters are rated at 2000Mb/s, which generally means they’ll achieve around 400Mb/s in the real world, and one of the WiFi adapters is capable of 1300Mb/s.

Even the WiFi access point built into the Swish Smart/RG router can’t deliver more than 120Mb/s on a speed test when I’m sitting next to it. And its range is poor compared to either the Sky router or my Apple Airport Express. It must be noted that the Airport Express has a 100Mb/s ethernet port, so it couldn’t handle the full speed of this connection even if Swish were able to deliver it.

Update 19th November – a visit from a Swish engineer

After initially posting this blog, I was contacted by Swish who said they would like to help resolve the issues I encountered. An engineer arrived to look at my installation today. He swapped the Smart RG router out for a “Plume Pod“, which they tell me is their default choice of router for customers who don’t have their own wireless network/mesh/access points. This is a massive improvement. My wired network is currently getting 400Mb/s everywhere – here’s the test I just ran on my Mac:

The engineer installed two further Plume Pods to replace my WiFi access points with a mesh. In initial use (I’ve been using the new system for a couple of hours) this works well, although the Pods have to be quite close together to build a viable wireless mesh. We tried ethernet cabling to a distant second pod, but it simply wouldn’t connect over the cables I’d installed in the house. The Plume Pods appear incredibly sensitive to the category of ethernet cable and refuse to connect over anything other than full Cat6 cables over any more than a few metres. Cat5E works for short cable runs (in our tests 10 metres or less) but Cat5 is just a no-no. The Plume Pods won’t drop back to a lower speed, it’s gigabit ethernet or nothing. This is only to connect them together. If I connect a Plume Pod to a gigabit switch and then run a Cat 5E cable from that to any devices other than another Pod, it works fine – indeed the speed test I’ve posted above was conducted with my MacBook Pro connected over just such a cable, and I managed to achieve 400Mb/s to my Mac over a long Cat 5 cable. We connected the Plume Pods wirelessly in the end, but because of the separation this required a third, intermediate, Pod. I will be re-cabling with Cat6 very shortly.

I can also now get 400Mb/s wireless speeds! Close to a Pod both my Mac and my iPhone achieve very close to 400Mb/s. My PC is a different issue but we suspect that’s a WiFi drivers or a hardware problem which I’m investigating, however I can wire it and get 400Mb/s. Even my wireless NOW TV Smart sticks are getting between 42 and 68 Mb/s – and they’re hiding behind TVs which doesn’t do anything to improve a wireless connection.

If you subscribe to Swish and get a Plume Pod as a router then that first one is provided free of charge. Any further Plume Pods are chargeable at £90 each (I’ve been lent these for now). To cover my house properly would require a fourth Pod, but for the moment I’m sticking with Powerline adapters to get to the furthest corner. Rated at 2Gb/s the Powerline adapters are currently delivering around 160Mb/s – a bit disappointing but I think this due to the electrical wiring in my house.

After letting the network settle down – apparently it takes a few days to configure itself to the normal network usage – I’ll try some more speed tests. Following that I might try reverting to a single Plume Pod and my original WiFi access points and see what speeds I get with those.

Further updates to follow.

Observations

Things I’ve noticed during this exercise which may help you if you’re looking to install broadband that’s faster than 100Mb/s.

  • Ethernet cables make a huge difference. Replace all your Cat5 cables with either Cat5e or Cat6. For long runs use Cat6.
  • Even if an ethernet cable says Cat5e on it, it may not work at more than 100Mb/s. Test it. Connect it to a gigabit device and to your computer. Both Macs and PCs will show you the speed of connection of a network cable. If it doesn’t show it’s connected at 1000Mb/s then replace it.
  • Speed testing software varies hugely. Don’t believe the first speed you get. Most speed checkers are browser based. To get a more reliable indication, find one that allows you to download an app to run locally. To give you an idea, I ran two speed tests one after the other. The first was the Ookla Mac app, this gave a download speed of 396Mb/s and an upload of 401Mb/s. I then ran the Which? Broadband Speed test app which is browser-based. Same Mac, same cable, moments later, this gives download of 104.5Mb/s and an upload of 359.9Mb/s. Which is right?
  • Make sure all your network infrastructure – computers, WiFi access points, switches, Powerline adapters, ethernet cables, smart TVs and set top boxes, are capable of gigabit speeds.

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