Archive for the ‘Broadband’ Category

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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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Some musings on Powerline adapters

July 12, 2021

I’ve been using a set of Powerline adapters in my home for several years. I’ve also recommended Powerline to several of my friends and family to solve networking problems in their homes. But they’re not a panacea for all ills. There are some idiosyncrasies which I discuss here. I hope this proves useful to someone.

Note: I’m writing from a UK perspective. While not a qualified electrician, I’m familiar with UK domestic power wiring (240V). I also have a passing acquaintance with European (Portuguese and Danish, 220V) and US (110V) domestic wiring.

What is Powerline?

Powerline (also known as Homeplug) is a technology that uses the mains power cables in your home to carry computer network signals to deliver a network – usually your broadband connection – to places in your home that are otherwise hard to reach. The signals are carried by a high-frequency radio signal over the copper electrical cables in the wall. It’s a technology designed only for domestic networks. It’s not intended for commercial use.

You plug an Ethernet cable from your router, or a point on your existing network, into one Powerline adapter which is plugged into an electric wall power socket. Then you plug a second adapter into a power socket somewhere else in your home and run an Ethernet cable from it to your remote device, which could be a computer, a wireless access point, a TV or a switch to which you connect other computing devices.

Example of the use of Powerline in a home

What types of Powerline adapters are there?

There are different versions for different power systems including US power plugs, UK power plugs, European (Schuko) power plugs and Australian power plugs.

There are versions that occupy a power socket, and there are versions which present a power socket when they’re plugged in; these are known as “pass through” adapters.

A pair of Powerline pass through adapters (UK version)

And there are different speed adapters. The lowest speed, the original versions, were labelled 200 Megabits per second (Mbps). There are 400Mbps, 500Mbps, 600Mbps, 1000Mbps, 1200Mbps and 2000Mbps versions. But in real life I’ve been unable to achieve anything near the claimed maximum speed, so I’d suggest you use a higher speed version than the network you’re trying to connect. I’m using 2000Mbps adapters to carry a 74Mbps network; my neighbour is using much less expensive 600Mbps adapters to carry a 12Mbps network.

Update: I’ve (possibly temporarily) upgraded my broadband to 400Mbps. This has allowed me to do some further testing of my 2000Mbps Powerline adapters. When they’re plugged into adjoining sockets I can get a full 400Mbps through them, unsurprising perhaps. As I move the second adapter to more and more distant sockets the speed drops. Downstairs it drops to around 200Mbps, and at the farthest point (on this ring main) it drops to 160Mbps. Then I wondered why the PC in that room was getting only 96Mbps… I swapped the ethernet cable for another, also marked Cat5e, and magically the speed increased to 160Mbps. So the rated speed of the Powerline adapter, the quality of the electrical wiring, the distance and the quality of the ethernet cable used for connections all make a difference to the actual speed you can achieve.

There are many Powerline manufacturers. In principle, adapters should all inter-operate, but the whole network may drop back to the speed of the slowest adapter, and each manufacturer has slightly different ways of setting up and configuring devices, so it’s generally easiest to use a set of adapters of the same speed all from the same manufacturer if you can. I’ve deployed TP-Link devices and I’m very happy with the build quality, reliability, operation, configuration and performance.

Some adapters offer more than one Ethernet port, so you can use them as a mini switch, connecting more than one device. Some adapters have a WiFi access point built in, so you can instantly set up a new WiFi network without any other devices, or you can use Powerline adapters to extend an existing WiFi network.

This pair of adapters shows one that combines both multiple Ethernet ports and a wireless access point

Decide how you want to use Powerline in your home and then select appropriate devices.

Will Powerline work on any home electric circuit?

To get the best performance you should plug the Powerline adapters directly into a wall socket – extension cables and particularly surge protection devices will attenuate the signal or even filter it out altogether.

Furthermore, it’s recommended that adapters are plugged into the same electrical circuit. Some houses have a separate circuit (ring main in the UK) upstairs from the one downstairs, and some houses which have been extended may have a separate circuit in the new build from the original building. Almost all houses have a separate circuit for sockets in the kitchen.

This doesn’t mean they won’t work across circuits, but they may not. Much seems to depend on how the circuits are protected. Older fused circuits appear to allow Powerline adapters to work across circuits; mini circuit breakers (MCBs) also seem to work, but residual current devices (RCDs) are more problematic. You may need to borrow a pair of adapters from a friend and try them, or make sure you can return the Powerline adapters to your supplier if they don’t work in your home.

Will Powerline work across phases?

In the UK, almost all domestic properties are supplied with single-phase power, but in other countries three-phase is more usual. Powerline adapters aren’t designed to work across phases, so if you’re trying to use them in a three-phase installation you may need to try and rearrange the circuits so the sockets you are trying to connect are both on the same phase. Consult an electrician.

You may be able to use an additional pair of Powerline adapters to bridge phases – I discuss this in more detail later. If you’re in the USA you may be more likely to get them to work across phases – that’s because you are very likely to have a 3-phase 110V installation and a high-power device that bridges two or even three phases. This may allow the Powerline signals to pass. There’s no hard and fast rule about whether they’ll work or not. You’ll just have to try it.

Are there any problems using Powerline?

Because the signal is carried on domestic wiring by high-frequency radio it may interfere with other devices – radio hams have reported Powerline causing interference with their radio equipment Also Powerline itself can be affected by interference from other devices plugged into the power network – I’ve seen reports that microwave ovens cause interference to the Powerline network when they’re operating.

Is my Powerline network secure?

All Powerline adapters are secured with a private key. They are configured by default with a standard key, so out of the box all adapters should work together, even those from different manufacturers.

It’s unlikely that your signal will pass your electric meter. It is also unlikely to pass onto another electrical phase, so it’s very unlikely that your neighbour will be able to connect to your network. But if you live in an apartment block, or in a shared house, then it may be advisable to change the encryption on your network to avoid possible eavesdropping.

All Powerline adapters support this. You can force one of your adapters to generate a new, random, private key and then pair the others with it. Consult your user’s manual on how to do this as each manufacturer, and even different models, may do it differently.

Can I use more than two adapters?

Yes, you can. If you’re using the default configuration you can simply plug in another adapter. If you’ve changed the encryption you will need to pair the new adapter with one of the existing adapters. Again, consult your user manual(s) on how to do that.

My experience is that adding a third and a fourth adapter worked fine, but more than that degraded performance significantly. I currently use three on my home network. They are all on the same electrical circuit, and with broadband speed at the router of 74Mbps I can achieve a 70Mbps connection at each of the remote adapters.

If I can’t get them to work well across electrical circuits, can I bridge them?

You can, but I’ve tried it in my home and my experience suggests that the performance may still be significantly reduced.

You will need to find a socket on one circuit that’s physically close to a socket on the other circuit, plug a Powerline adapter into each of these, and connect them together with an Ethernet cable.

However, to avoid creating a network loop, which will cause problems, you must arrange that the adapters on one circuit are unable to communicate with those on the other circuit via the electric cabling. To do this pair one set of adapters with a new private key (see above and refer to your user manual). You’ll end up with two adapters on one circuit using default encryption, and two adapters on the other circuit, paired together using a new random private key. Then you connect an adapter on one circuit by Ethernet cable to an adapter on the other circuit, creating a bridge.

I believe it is possible to use a specialist connector to bridge circuits at the fuse box/consumer unit, but I’ve only seen devices that do this for 110V US circuits. I’ve not found a UK 240V or a European 220V version.

Is Powerline better than wireless networking?

This depends on the situation, but in many situations, in my opinion, yes. My networking mantra is, “If you can wire it, wire it”. Connecting networks with physical cables is more reliable, more secure, and usually more performant than wireless.

But if you have multiple electrical circuits and have problems getting Powerline to work effectively then short of running an Ethernet cable round your house – which can be messy and expensive – wireless may be the better solution.

I use both. I prefer Powerline, but I have a room which is on an electrical circuit which won’t work reliably with Powerline from my router no matter how it’s connected. So I’ve installed a wireless repeater to get a decent bandwidth signal to the smart TV in that room.

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To fibre, or not to fibre, that is the question

March 19, 2021

OK, I’ll come clean. I already have fibre broadband. That’s FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet). Then the connection from the cabinet on the corner of my street to my house is copper wire multiplexed over my phone landline.

My ISP (Sky) offers a maximum speed of 80Mbps (mega BITS per second), and when I test it with a computer hard-wired to the router I get all of that.

But there’s a chap with a digger making a hole in the pavement outside my house.

He’s a contractor working for Swish Fibre, which is installing an entirely different sort of fibre broadband. This is FTTP (Fibre to the Premises). This means fibre all the way to my house with a potential maximum speed of 1Gbps. I could get the basic 400Mbps version, 5x faster than my current broadband, for not much more a month than I’m currently paying Sky.

Fibre to the premises…



There are, however, some questions which I’m pondering.

Do I still need a landline?

My existing Sky broadband includes an analogue phone line. Of course it does, because it’s the copper wire that connects me to the phone network which also carries the broadband signal from the cabinet to my home. Do I still need a landline? Probably not. I was getting approximately 20 times more scam calls than genuine ones, although Sky Talk Shield has done a brilliant job of stopping those. I think we currently get no more than three landline phone calls a week.

Could I get those people to call our mobiles instead? Yes, I could, and that would solve the problem of the scam calls.

Can I use the extra bandwidth?

At the moment I’m using PowerLine adapters, rated at 500Mbps – which IRL actually means 50-65Mbps. This is OK, it’s almost the full broadband bandwidth. But what’s the point of increasing my broadband connection to 400Mbps if I’m throttling it to 50Mbps internally?

So I’m now debating, do I lash out £200 on some 2000Mbps Powerline adapters which might get much closer to 400Mbps, but I won’t know until I install them? Or do I embark on chasing plaster and drilling walls and installing an internal Cat6 Ethernet network to actually make use of the higher bandwidth?

Do I need this at all?

Or do I admit that, now I’m largely retired, 50Mbps is plenty, and I just stick with FTTC from Sky? In which case I might lash out on some new PowerLine adapters just to get the full 80Mbps over my existing network. Now that seems like an easy way to improve my broadband speed without getting building dust everywhere…