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Just What is B4RN Broadband?

(Michael Bryant)

As more and more of our target population have been connected and are using the B4RN service, the installation and follow-up teams have gathered some impressions about new users' experiences and it is becoming clear that there is still a certain amount of confusion about various aspects of what might be involved in making the switch to B4RN. We have covered many of these topics before in our newsletter, but perhaps it is time to go over some of these issues again.

Just what is B4RN broadband and how does it differ from the ordinary variety?

B4RN broadband uses one of the fastest and most reliable ways of bringing internet connectivity into your home, by using optical fibres all the way to the router (which provides your local connectivity interface for all the devices you want to use), a system known as 'Fibre to the Premises' or FTTP. Conventional broadband relies on using telephone wiring from the nearest telephone exchange (the original method) or a combination of optical fibre to a local cabinet in a community with telephone wiring completing the connection, known as 'Fibre to the Cabinet' or FTTC (such as we have in Casterton).

The usual method of measuring broadband performance is the speed that data can be transferred, in units of 'bits per second' (bps). These 'bits' are pretty tiny, so more usually the units quoted are a thousand (kilo), a million (mega) or a thousand million (giga) bits (kbps, mbps and gbps respectively). B4RN performance is nominally 1000 mbps (1gbps) compared with a theoretical top speed of 100 mbps through normal FTTC systems (such as the Openreach one in Casterton used by BT and all other ISPs). In practice top FTTC speeds rarely exceed 80 mbps.

An advantage of FTTP is that performance is not affected significantly by distance. B4RN performance is the same for all customers. With FTTC the use of telephone wiring to complete the connection from the cabinet introduces distance-related performance losses. At 150m from the cabinet the maximum theoretical performance will drop to 80 mbps and at 300 m to 45 mbps. At about 1.6 km FTTC is no better than ordinary broadband (10 mbps max dropping off dramatically for longer distances).

B4RN broadband is also 'symmetrical' which means that the performance moving data to the internet from your router (the 'up' speed) is the same as getting data from the internet (the 'down' speed). With ordinary broadband (including FTTC) the 'up' speed is always very much less than 'down' (e.g where the 'down' speed is 25 mbps the 'up' speed is less than 5 mbps).

If B4RN broadband is so much better, surely everyone will want it?

Not necessarily. People on FTTC situated close to the cabinet will have very good broadband, probably completely adequate for their current needs. As long as they have installed the B4RN optical connection and had a backplate fitted while they can under the preferential terms of the community project (a no-brainer for any property owner) they have effectively future-proofed their options if their needs change (streaming HD video was science-fiction just a few years ago, perhaps next year we'll all be streaming 4K). Even many people at the limit of FTTC effectiveness (or those still using non-fibre broadband with a decent performance) might feel that their present arrangement serves them perfectly well, particularly if they value any bundled services from their current provider.

Conversely, it is hard to see how anyone with very poorly performing broadband wouldn't gain some benefit from switching to B4RN. I shall be delighted to swap my 1 mbps service for B4RN's 1000 when the time comes, even if it costs me a bit more, as I shall be able to do many things (such as video streaming) which are simply impossible now.

Between those extremes you have to weigh up the pros and cons. Even if you have well-performing broadband you could see big advantages in switching, particularly if you are a heavy internet user moving lots of data around or have many people in your household trying to do data-intensive things at the same time causing occasional (or frequent) problems. As we've tried to stress before, B4RN speed as a performance measure is more to do with the capacity to do things than how fast a single transaction takes place.

For most people the asymmetrical nature of ordinary broadband is not a problem. When you're web surfing, streaming video or listening to music online, for example, most of the traffic is 'down'. But for those who need to move large data files from their own devices to others over the internet or want to live-stream high definition video from a webcam or a smartphone, the symmetrical nature of B4RN will prove to be a game-changer.

If I change to B4RN then everything is going to work very much faster

Not necessarily. The B4RN service to your router is world class and capable of working at pretty much the highest speeds you'll presently come across, but the actual speed you experience will be moderated by many factors.

Entirely outside your (or B4RN's) control, the various machines your internet connections pass through to get from you to the remote system you are accessing (e.g. a web page) will all have their own performance characteristics. For example, a connection to the Amazon U.K. website involves going through a chain of about 20 machines, any one of which could represent a 'pinch point'.

Within your own local network (all the connections inside your property to the B4RN router) every connection point, connected device and software inside devices will have implications for performance. Many tablets and smartphones cannot connect at higher than 150 mbps (and some much less). Many smart TVs connect at 100 mbps even when plugged directly into one of the LAN ports on your router (the most efficient connection method).

If your present ordinary broadband service is the limiting factor then you will definitely see immediate improvements when switching to B4RN, otherwise the improvements will be more subtle: things still working when lots of people use the system at once; the ability to move large data files in a fraction of the previous time (assuming you have a modern device connected appropriately); the ability to do things you never could before (such as high quality live video streaming). A good analogy is water pressure. In a house with low water pressure you can use any one tap without problems but try using several at once and each one will hardly flow at all. Forget about speed per se and think of B4RN as giving you more internet 'pressure' than you'll probably ever need.

The vexed question of Wi-Fi

We've talked about plugging a device (such as a laptop) directly into the router for the best, trouble-free performance, but the fact is most people will want to use Wi-Fi to distribute the internet around their homes.

This is an area where some new users of B4RN have experienced frustrations. The B4RN router is technically extremely effective having four gigabit LAN ports and built-in Wi-Fi which can work to the highest modern standards at very high speeds but it is designed as a cost-effective solution to work well in the average sized, compact houses of modern construction typically found in continental Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Unfortunately many houses in Casterton are built of stone, often with walls several feet thick, or are rambling and far from compact. Both of these features are unhelpful when it comes to propagating a radio signal. The Wi-Fi in the B4RN router is a little less powerful than the most recent routers supplied by BT so has slightly less range. Some people who have switched have found that spots in their houses where the BT router just about worked no longer work with the B4RN router.

Coming across this kind of issue when it is unexpected is annoying, which is why we're talking about it now. If you have yet to decide whether to take the B4RN service it's better to be forewarned and recognise that if the Wi-Fi coverage isn't quite as good as you have at present you might need to spend a little money to optimise your system.

The good news is that all Wi-Fi connectivity problems are solvable and often with very little outlay. Using one or two Wi-Fi 'extenders' is typically all that's needed and there is plenty of information available about their use - see previous editions of our newsletter, the 'Resources' section of the B4RN website and the internet generally! Also anyone who feels they need help with this only has to contact B4RN Customer Services for individual guidance. And of course we on the Project Team are also happy to help if we can.

There is no 'one size fits all' solution to Wi-Fi problems, but in those cases where coverage seemed alright before but is now 'patchy' we would recommend considering the approach where a powerful, high-performance wireless access point (extender) is located as centrally as possible in the area of a property where you want Wi-Fi coverage. The access point is then connected to the B4RN router by a Cat6 LAN cable and configured according to the manufacturer's instructions. Finally the internal B4RN router Wi-Fi should be disabled (via the router's administration web page) to avoid connection conflicts.

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