Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, not bring up the rear

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1281 Words)

snailI was invited to write this blog post by @cutoffgg, a group raising awareness of how poor the broadband options available in Guernsey are, and I readily agreed. Everyone I talk to in Guernsey, whether they be a businesses or home user, has something to complain about when it comes to the Internet service they receive here for the price they pay, yet the our providers continuously give us the impression that should be grateful for the ‘competitive’ service we receive. I’d like to illustrate how disingenuous that is based on my experience over the last few years, and why that’s a problem.

I’m a software developer, a technophile, and a local. I like making tools, engines, applications and other bits of software kit which scratch my various itches, which most recently have been real-time graphics and developer tools. In previous years, being unwilling as I am to join the rank and file of our local finance industry would likely mean I’d have to leave for more suitable climes, but the Internet changed all that and allowed me to remain here to indulge my sentimentality and keep my wife happy.

So, I’ve worked from home for the last 7 years, and have spent that time freelancing for companies around the world and also building my own software products for the global market, one of which end up being acquired (the obligatory ‘look Mum, I’m on TechCrunch’ link). During these 7 years, 99.9% of my customers and co-workers have been outside Guernsey. I’ve sold software in 40 countries and worked in teams which regularly cross 3 or more time zones - we use an array of tools (video chat, persistent text chat, rich wikis, forums) and working approaches (self-motivation and trust is key) which make this manageable - although meeting in person is still necessary and desirable sometimes of course. Still, distributed working and instant access to a global audience regardless of my location on a small dot in the ocean is just ‘normal’ for me by now, and I can’t imagine working any other way.

The Internet is absolutely vital to opening opportunities, and it’s an incomparable access port to the world which is especially vital for small, isolated places like Guernsey; and yet our connections here are over-priced and under-specified, lagging behind most other places in the developed world. When it comes to competing on the world stage, we should be aiming to have some of the best connectivity available in order to balance out the disadvantages we have due to our isolation and lack of land area. And yet,  in all the distributed teams I’ve worked on in the last 7 years, my connection has always been slower and more expensive than anyone else’s on the team.

This is always most pronounced when it comes to upload speeds. Internet providers seem to assume we’re mostly just consumers of information, and that we hardly ever upload. Newsflash guys, the Cloud happened, YouTube happened, online backups happened, and if you’re a digital exporter like me, upload speed is extremely important. I have years under my belt of being that guy who pushes the red button to launch new releases to that global audience, and we all sit there drumming our fingers while the progress bar creeps languidly upwards.

OK, so that’s the background, let’s talk specifics. I currently pay £50pm for a ‘Pro’ ADSL connection from Sure. I pay this crazy price for a ‘Pro’ version for the promise of a lower contention ratio and for a marginally increased upload speed, which tops out at a staggering 1Mbps (which is still about 50% faster than the non-Pro). The downstream rate is advertised as 20Mbps, but actually delivers 7-9Mbps in practice. My house is 20 minutes walk from the centre of our main town, so I’m not exactly deep in the wilderness, but the nearest fibre cabinet to me is just under 2km away, which is why I get such a poor connection. Our monopoly infrastructure supplier apparently has no plans to change that in the next 18 months, meaning the whole area south of our main centre is poorly supplied. While the supplier makes an alternative VDSL option available, which looks better on paper, but in practice unless you’re basically sitting on top of a DSLAM performance is no better (and sometimes worse, judging by some reports I’ve heard).

I also kinda thought I’d get an improved customer experience with the ‘Pro’ package too, but actually I still get 2-3 unexplained disconnections a day. Thanks guys, really helps when you’re on a video call with your co-workers, or you’re in the middle of a release going out to a hundred thousand people.

I did a quick poll to compare the practical experience friends in my industry are getting in other countries with their personal connections. Below are the results from people who answered in the time window; these are not numbers plucked randomly from marketing materials, nor are they ‘limited’ plans, the usual response I get from telcos here:

Location Monthly Price Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Comments
Me £49.99 20 (really 9) 1 My Pro ADSL. I could reduce the price to £25 if I went non-Pro & get the same speed in practice. Advertised rates for VDSL seem unachievable for most.
Singapore £25.85 150 70 And yes, this is his real achieved speed and not just the advertised rates!
Vienna, Austria £21.51 50 5 Occasionally (5% of the time) rates drop well below advertised, otherwise OK
Toronto, Canada £78.56 150 10 Canadian telco duopoly makes it expensive, but speeds are far above what we can get
Wroclaw, Poland £19 20 1.5 The closest to ours so far, but still cheaper
Jutland, Denmark £19.50 30 30 I want to live in Denmark
Maryland, USA £54.24
Kinda expensive for the USA but still better than ours, especially upload, and scales up fast
San Francisco, USA £39.22 50 10
Carrickfergus, N. Ireland £26 80 (really 45) 10 'the tin-pot local Northern Ireland' - his words not mine :)

Even if you discount my connection down to £25pm by dropping the ‘Pro’ option (which in practice I’m not convinced is benefitting me at all), Guernsey is right at the bottom of the pack. Singapore and Denmark have just awesome deals, and most other countries are in the middle somewhere. Only Canada has the same sort of over-pricing that we see in Guernsey, for similar reasons (not enough competition in infrastructure) and even then the speeds they have access to are far in excess of ours, and they have far more serious distances to cover. While many of these results are from cities, not all are and you only have to look at the expanding fibre coverage in the developed world to see why we’re getting left behind.

Seriously, we must aim to do better than this. We’re an isolated community with limited physical space and connectivity is a key to both staying in the games we’re already in, and providing escape hatches to finding new ones. The regulator CICRA is currently conducting investigations into business broadband provision, which is great, but I hope they also consider home and ‘prosumer’ connections at some point, because those are the ones used by freelancers and small independent creators, who are a growing part of the economy. Great communication links offer opportunities for lightweight diversification without creating more population issues, and gives easier access to remote expertise on demand. The old assumption that the only way create a new business is to squeeze a load of bodies into one place is long dead. Wake up and smell the coffee, people. Jersey has 😉