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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Fibre: tastes okay but sounds crappy

19 May 2017

So now I have UFB fiber-based broadband.

The switch from ADSL to fiber represents an order of magnitude more download speed and a 20-times increase in upload speeds (great for a video creator like myself).

Latency has only halved (from 40mS to 20mS) though.

So why am I rather underwhelmed?

Well time for a little history...

When I started this online stuff, I had a 300bps modem with acoustic coupler. To connect to a remote system you had to dial the number by hand (on a rotary dial phone) and listen for the answer tone. Once that tone was heard, the handset had to be thrust into the rubber cups and then you were "connected".

300bps (actually 300 "baud", which is slightly different) was slow. Very slow.

Naturally I was chuffed to bits when I eventually upgraded to an auto-dialing 1200/1200 direct connect modem.

This modem was only four times faster but it felt a whole lot more. Instead of characters slowly creeping across the screen, they screamed and the local BBS felt like it was on steroids!

The auto-dialing was also damned cool, because by this time, BBSes had become rather popular so it was increasingly uncommon to get a connection on the first dialing attempt. Autodial meant you could just leave your system re-dialing until the line was free and it was your turn.

Next up was a doubling of speed to 2400/2400. This was only a two-fold increase in throughput and it didn't show too much on text screens but if you were downloading a file with XModem or ZModem, that extra speed would halve the time it took.

Now I never actually made the step to 9600/9600 -- opting instead to wait a little and jump straight to 14.4Kbps.

Now things were *smoking* and since "the Internet" was a thing, that extra speed was pretty important. Even in the days of Netscape 1.0 with its very limited page formatting options lack of advanced graphics, page-load times using anything less than 14.4K were stupidly long.

Then of course came 33K and 56K modems which again lifted the speed of communications but, as with the 1200 to 2400 jump, the increase wasn't nearly so noticeable -- partly brought about because it was hard to actually get a sustained 56Kbps connection over NZ's pretty crappy copper. Most of the time my 56K modem would fall back to around 28.8, if I was lucky.

Next up was "Jetstream" -- a form of DSL technology that delivered another "two-times" increase to 128Kbps but the big bonus of this system was that it didn't tie up your phone line. Not only could you download big files more quickly and surf the web faster -- but you could talk on the phone at the same time. Happy days!

Eventually full-speed ADSL arrived and as I've moved around town, I've gotten download speeds that varied from 2Mbps through to 14Mbps, depending on the state of the copper and distance from the exchange or cabinet.

The big killer (for me) with ADSL has been the awfully slow uploads. Some of the places where I lived had a maximum upload speed as low as 300Kpbs and the best I ever got was around 900Kbps. Given that many of the HD video files I upload are between 1GB and 2GB, the using ADSL was like going back to the days of dial-up. These uploads took forever -- sometimes four or five hours!

But now I'm on fibre and here's what I've found...

The speed benchmarks indicate that I'm getting about 92Mbps max and about 60Mbps average for downloads. That's okay... almost eight times what I was getting via my ADSL connection yesterday.

Uploads are *much* faster (yay!), averaging out at around 20-25Mbps which is way, way faster than before (thank goodness). I notice however that upload speed is *very* bursty, with quite large periods of no data transfer at all. It's almost as if there's a honking great buffer that swallows my bits at high speed but then says "hang on", while it spews them out to the rest of the interwebs at a much slower pace -- although the average rate is still acceptable.

However, for general internet use, I'd rate the difference between ADSL and fibre as feeling like the difference between 1200bps and 2400bps -- ie: there's not really much in it.

The latency between hitting "Return" or clicking on a link and actually having the screen update is about the same (latency has only reduced by 20mS) and I expect that now, some of the delay is down to the CPU time involved in rendering pages -- which makes differences in the rate at which data arrives less of a factor in the overall performance of a system.

There is one awful downside to fibre though -- the God-awful quality of the voice service.

Using exactly the same phone I had before, there's a really annoying buzz on the line and the audio has way more distortion than was the case with the POTS connection.

What the hell?

How come I can stream beautiful music with full dynamic range and a frequency response that far exceeds my ear's ability to respond to all the notes -- but the voice service sounds like it's built using pieces of string and empty bean-tins?

Now I had noticed that whenever friends had converted to fiber that the quality of their voice service had deteriorated as well so I have to wonder if this is something intrinsic to the way VOIP is being implemented on the UFB. Are they just using super-cheap-arsed gear that produces what are really unacceptable levels of noise and distortion -- or is there some other issue?

Honestly, I would expect the VOIP service associated with a 100Mbps digital link to be sharp and clear, without distortion or noise.

Utterly and totally unimpressed!

But there you go. The nice lady told me that by switching to fibre I'll get a $100 credit on my account and a $10/month discount for the next 12 months as well as a guarantee of a lower total price (before discount) when compared to my POTS/ADSL service.

The install itself took quite a long time and they only just made their "fibre in a day" promise. The guy splicing the fibre and setting up the box inside the house didn't actually finish until after 5pm.

So now we'll see how well it performs in terms of up-time but if the voice service doesn't improve I'll be ditching it for naked broadband and asking for the price to be reduced.

Third world voice service delivered by 21st century digital technology? Not good enough.

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