Cyberman: Rhodri Marsden
Our greed for speed is not being satisfied
Wednesday 29 March 2006
In Berlin at the end of last week, German and Japanese scientists pooled their resources to smash the world record for data transmission. Using a fibre-optic cable, which I imagine as being about 4ft thick, they achieved a nippy rate of 2.56Tbps (terabits per second) - the equivalent of 60 DVDs worth of data every second. However, while the magic of pulsing light gives these lucky scientists the opportunity to shunt home videos back and forth over Germany in the blink of an eye, us UK broadband customers continue to indulge in our favourite pursuit: moaning about the speeds we're able to attain. Last weekend - working independently of any scientists - my attempt to download a grainy five-minute video clip took 20 tedious minutes, which I immediately followed up with a disgruntled visit to a speed-checking website to test out my connection.
Internet service providers get a lot of stick - as their technical support departments will no doubt confirm - but a number of factors always compromise connection speeds. Firstly, there's a common supposition that a 2Mbps connection means that you should be able to download at a rate of two megabytes per second, when it's actually two megabits (one eighth of the speed). Rates vary wildly depending on the server you're downloading from, how fast it's able to send the data to you, and how many other people are trying to do the same thing. But, naturally, this doesn't stop complaints from those who've been lured with a 2Mb promise. "A two-pint milk bottle has to hold two pints of milk," says a slightly irritated chap called Rob on an online forum. "I think that we are being taken for fools."
Aware of our dogged pursuit of a fat, faultless data pipe, companies are always dangling upgrades in front of us. Friday will see BT launch its wholesale ADSL Max service to ISPs, having upgraded more than 5,000 exchanges across the UK. This will give 99.6 per cent of the population access to broadband, and means 78 per cent of them can choose a rate of between 4 and 8Mbps. As BT isn't charging ISPs any more than they currently do for providing an existing 2Mbps connection, there should be some free upgrades in the offing. In the meantime, 24Mbps speeds are being offered in certain areas by UK Online and Be Unlimited, which have both introduced ADSL2+ technology into some local exchanges, and NTL is trialling 100Mbps broadband over their cable network.
But while the future of download speeds might be rosy, the chances of emulating those German scientists is slim due to a combination of the technological limitations of ADSL, and an unwillingness on the part of the ISPs to offer a service that might allow us to host a website on our computer or, God forbid, make file-sharing easier. So if you find yourself with 60 DVDs to send and don't have a fibre-optic cable to hand, it's probably better to pop them in the post.
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