Route to ruin?

This gripping detective story starts around 18 months ago, when I ignored my own advice by fixing something that wasn’t broken; namely, my broadband connection. I’d been quite happily using Zen’s Home 1000 broadband service ever since my rural village’s exchange was upgraded to allow, albeit fairly slow, DSL access – at 1Mb/sec it wasn’t fast, but at least it was rock-solid. Then Zen launched its 8000 Active account and encouraged customers to migrate to this “up to 8Mb/sec” service powered by BT Max…

Route to ruin?

Before proceeding further, a closer look at ADSL Max is in order. The actual download speed you can expect depends on various factors such as contention in external networks, remote-server performance and the quality of your line – and the latter can be affected by all sorts of things, most commonly line noise. ADSL Max is delivered across what amounts to a “best effort” network: it attempts the fastest speed your line can handle, then slows down if that proves unstable until it finds a compromise speed that supports a steady connection. This rate-adaptive downstream line speed might lie anywhere between 8,128Kb/sec at the top end right down to a paltry 288Kb/sec at the bottom. Not that an end user will ever experience the full 8,128Kb/sec because, after overheads, the true payload speed maxes around 7,150Kb/sec and, as mentioned above, other external factors reduce the practical throughput further still. But I was pleased with doubled throughput and a reduced monthly bill – who wouldn’t be? Pleased, that was, until the floods came to South Yorkshire.

Now even a misanthrope like me can’t blame Zen or BT for the floods that submerged the local exchange, along with pretty much everything else in the village. The electricity and telephone lines were restored within a couple of days and village life resumed, and I’m lucky to live halfway up a hill where a metre-and-a-half of water couldn’t do too much damage. Some living in the middle of the village lost everything, whereas all I lost was the reliability of my broadband connection.

Unfortunately, this happened when I was in the middle of writing a book, a time-consuming job that didn’t leave me much time to investigate why my line kept dropping every few minutes, rarely staying up as long as 20 minutes. I got used to watching the ADSL light flash on the router as it re-synced and came back up again. It has to be said that this was no more than an occasional irritation – I might find that email took a little longer than usual to collect if the connection happened to re-sync in the middle of a polling session, and now and again I couldn’t connect to a website, receiving a 404 error that went away if I tried again a few seconds later. It didn’t really start to impact on my net usage until I needed to stream some video, which proved impossible, since it just dropped the connection every few minutes. Connecting to virtual worlds such as Second Life or There became effectively impossible, too, while large downloads, like updating the PlayStation 3, stopped working altogether and my Xbox 360 decided that I could no longer participate in Xbox Live multiplayer games.

With my book project complete and the manuscript submitted, I could start to investigate exactly what was wrong. This was now some three months after the floods, so I didn’t immediately consider water damage as a likely cause – after all, we hadn’t been submerged up here on the hill, and any water creeping into the lines should have long since been sorted. Instead, I started to do what anyone experiencing what their ISP will refer to as an “intermittent connection fault” should do; namely, to methodically check every component inside their property.

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