Birth pangs of the ADSL nation

Feature

Birth pangs of the ADSL nation

There is a serious problem with ADSL that has so far received relatively little attention.

A month ago I suggested that we may be witnessing the beginning of a new Internet era in this country thanks to the arrival - finally - of a low-cost and easy-to-install ADSL option.

As I mentioned there, one of the best places to keep a finger on the pulse of this fledgling ADSL nation is ADSLguide atbbs.adslguide.org.uk, which has become the cyber watering-hole of choice for the fast Net set.

The heart of this site can be found in its discussion boards at bbs.adslguide.org.uk/wwwthreads.pl?Cat=.

As a quick glance indicates, the Pipex user group is by far the most active. But glancing through the postings for this and other Internet service providers indicates that the transition from the old- to new-style broadband world has not been easy.

In fact, as many who have joined in the big-pipe feeding frenzy in the last month or two can attest, the service has been anything but "always-on".

For no apparent reason, ADSL connections have gone down, often several times a day, and even for days at a time. As a result, help lines are constantly engaged, and even e-mail support seems to be hopelessly overstretched.

After a fairly fraught period that saw many of us scrambling to rejoin good old-fashioned dial-up services to provide the missing connectivity - and not a few users threatening all kinds of dire legal action in the face of their absent ADSL - it looks like the culprits have been found.

As an interesting posting from the managing director of Pipex on one of the ADSLguide forums at bbs.adslguide.org.uk/showthreaded.pl?Cat=&Board=pipexΝmber=237435
explains the problem was at many of the ADSL-enabled local exchanges, and requires some software upgrades.

Another of those in the vanguard of the UK ADSL revolution, Eclipse Internet, has a useful online checker at www.eclipse.net.uk/index.cfm?id=bbavailability
that lets users find out whether their exchange is one that is affected by the problem.

Although it is good that the issues are on the way to being resolved, this episode does emphasise the fragility of the ADSL connection in the UK. If the arrival of a few thousand new users causes large chunks of the entire end-user infrastructure to fail, this does not bode well for the future.

This is not simply an issue of loss of consumer confidence in ADSL, serious though that is. As my previous article on the subject suggested, one of the knock-on benefits of broadband uptake is likely to be that its always-on nature will encourage users to turn routinely to it for everyday needs. A corollary is that as soon as ADSL becomes in the least unreliable people will hesitate to turn to it - much less depend on it - for key aspects of their lives such as online banking or even supermarket shopping. For there is a serious problem with ADSL that has so far received relatively little attention.

The ADSL connection is not a pipe that can be plugged in anywhere, it is linked semi-permanently to one company, the ISP at the other end. If the service is down, for whatever reason, it is not possible simply to log in to another service provider.
In this respect, ADSL is worse than dial-up Internet connectivity. For dial-up, as many people have worked out, it is advisable to have at least a couple of low-cost back-up accounts in addition to your main one. Then, if the connection is unavailable, you simply dial into a back-up provider, perhaps paying by the minute for the emergency service.

With ADSL this is not possible. As a result, opting for always-on implies that downtime for your particular service can only be filled by swapping back to a dial-up modem. Using an inherently digital line for analogue purposes means that the best connection speed is likely to be worse than that before converting the line to ADSL - an ironic situation.

In the best of all worlds, users would at least be able to use their otherwise defunct connection for a slow but solid 64kbps digital link via ISDN dial-up, but unfortunately this is not an option in the UK.
Next week: GNU Linux is boring

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This was first published in May 2002

 

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