How Broad Is Your Band?

I'm glad I'm not a doctor or a dentist. They say that, if you are, every conversation you have with people who know you starts with a description of the pains in their feet, or asking for advice on which tooth-whitening product is the best. It's bad enough with the business I'm in - once people find out I work for Microsoft I can pretty much predict how long it will be before the conversation comes round to a moan about Windows crashing, advice on getting rid of a virus, help fixing their CD-ROM drive, or a discussion on how they get their favourite photos back after their hard drive died.

But worst of all - the ones I really dread - are the broadband questions. "Which is the best broadband supplier (that charges the least per month)". Or ... "Fred next door says he gets twice the speed from his connection after he installed a program called xxxxx". And, of course, "Why does my connection keep dropping just as I get to the page where I click Place Order and I have to go back and do it all again?"

In fact, I had just this conversation the other week with a friend who seems to think I can remotely diagnose the problem while we are all sitting in a restaurant eating dinner. Mind you, I suspect it might be something to do with the fact that his semi-detached neighbour also has a wireless router from the same company and, as the telephone sockets in the two houses are located in the same place next to the stairs and only separated by a party wall, it's just possible that they might be interfering with each other. Besides that, everyone and their dog seem to have wireless broadband routers in their street, and insist on running them on full power, so it's amazing that anyone can actually connect at all. I did think about suggesting he did a deal with his neighbour and they shared the connection. But that probably violates some condition of the agreement with the phone company.

Mind you, he called me today to tell me that he has changed his broadband supplier, and everything is working wonderfully now. And they only charge nine pounds a month compared to the previous supplier who was charging fifteen. And, best of all, the new supplier actually gave him four months free because he had to pay the remainder of the rental for the contract term with his old supplier to be able to switch. That works out at six pounds a month average for the year. How on earth can his new supplier make any money out of that? Is it so hard to get business now that companies have to almost give stuff away? I wonder what kind of technical support he's likely to get. And then, amazingly, the original supplier actually came back to him with an offer to reduce their price to stay with them!

Here in England, we keep getting promised high speed broadband (which they define as "at least 2MB") available to everyone so that the Government can close down all their offices and call centres, and just communicate with the great unwashed online. They even considered adding a tax onto fixed phone lines to pay for it. So it was interesting to read last week about a guy who was quoted 57,000 pounds to have broadband installed in his remote cottage. Mind you, the phone company did point out that they were being extremely generous in that they would pay the first 8,000 pounds, and just charge him the remainder.

Meanwhile, almost everyone I know also moans about the speed of their connection. They paid for "up to 8MB broadband", yet the Web pages and emails trickle in at one and a bit meg on a good day. I suppose its enlightening to see that the Advertising Standards Authority are trying to make broadband suppliers tell the truth in their ads, but it seems like they (the ASA) might as well be banging their head against the wall. Though they did recently win a case against the company who were advertising their 512KB service as "full speed broadband". And, as the FCC define broadband as being an "always on" service, I wonder if I can claim for the seventeen hours that my service was not "on" due to a major failure at the local exchange?

It pains me to compare the cheap deals with the amount I pay each month for a dual failover connection via ADSL and cable - though it would be rather difficult to actually do my job without connectivity. Any maybe I'm just a born pessimist, but I can't help thinking that you only get what you pay for in this life. My experience with cheap computers has proved this time after time. I've discovered that buying well-known brands means I generally end up getting rid of machines to a worthy cause that are still working simply because they are too old to run the latest software or support the peripherals I need for my work - and not because they've given up the ghost and need a new motherboard, hard drive, or power supply.

Yet almost every time I get asked for advice about buying a new machine, the advicee listens politely and then gleefully phones me a week later to say they bought a wonderful new computer from the local supermarket or some back street dealer at half the price. And then, a few months later, phone again to ask me why the light doesn't some on when they press the button, or if I know what the message "Cannot find NTLDR" means...

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