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

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
£88.82
32
150
8
65
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 ;)

  • fr

    Great post, you would think it should be relatively easy to provide decent broadband in such a small and densely populated island. We certainly don’t face the challenges of some parts of the UK where it is uneconomical to install many miles of fibre to serve very small remote villages. Sadly Sure seem to be completely unwilling to make any serious investment in improving broadband. Their website claims they are ‘continually installing more street-side cabinets in order to shorten all line lengths’, but I haven’t seen any planning applications for MSANs at all this year, and there is no public information on where they plan to upgrade and what the timetable is for this work. The lack of competition and lack of action from the regulator and government means they can get away with this.

    Jersey is certainly doing better, although there are still the same problems with competition, so far only JT can offer the fibre service. On the 50Mb package which appears to be best value, they make the same mistake of offering a terrible upload speed of just 1Mb, although the higher cost services do have much better speeds. Their fibre installation is still a few years away from being completed, if Sure started putting serious investment into shortening lines for VDSL we could have complete coverage for a service which might not have the same impressive max speed, but would be plenty fast enough for home and small business (eg 80 down/20 up easily possible) in the same time frame or sooner.

  • Peter Newman

    Australia is in similar position. I’m paying about the same amount as you are, for about the same end speed (or at least I was until the latest issue that dropped my d/l to 3Mbps and my ISP can’t identify the cause). We simply have nothing better then ADSL2+ available here, generally.

    Our government started rolling out Fibre To The Premises over the last few years, but the Opposition has fought it every step of the way. They want to replace it with more cabinets and VDSL (and mobile data for the areas they can’t be bothered with). Same benefit to the companies (trunk bandwidth increased), less benefit to the consumers (end users are still on 30 year old copper lines). You can guess my opinion of that.

    Upload is massively unrated by consumers. The site http://howfastisthenbn.com.au/ does a good job of comparing them – and the metrics they use are something users will understand, no matter where in the world they are.

  • Jason S.

    Jersey may have fibre, but they have a terrible business model which is totally disconnected from the real needs of current users. It’s expensive, does not perform to spec and the service levels they sell are next to useless. Don’t even get me started that businesses in town are not getting a sniff of it for at least another 18 months at best. Not sure what coffee they smelt but I can guess what it smelt like!

  • stevestreeting

    Yeah, this is nuts. However, at least they’re putting fibre in the ground, which is the hard, long-winded part. Once you have that it’s a far easier step to sort out the services. When you only have copper in the ground no amount of service change will fix that.

  • Damien Guard

    I certainly don’t miss Guernsey’s Internet options. They were cutting edge with System-X but totally missed the DSL boat initially – their alternative was ISDN on a local rate number initially and they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

    For comparison, here is my San Jose, CA Speed Test, advertised as 50MBit, cost $60 a month with basic cable TV included:

    http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/2853286821

    [)amien

  • Bob

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post.

    One of the largest annoyances with what is provided is the constant advertisement by the local providers of their ‘fantastic’ service to the public, which is accepted by the general public as they have no point of reference or technical knowhow on the subject, unfortunately this also extends into the OUR and various other controlling areas of the island.

    Ive been involved with installing all of the available services in this island for the past 15 years. Having run tests with nearly each installation done of the ADSL installs, 85% were not within the expected speed range. Yes that is 85%, you did not read that incorrectly. And by expected speeds, I allowed a 25% margin for speed reduction due to distance etc, so 20Mb expected was 15Mb delivered.

    There is a massive disparity between even the UK offerings and what we are sold in Guernsey, and that covers both cost and service level.
    I wish and hope for the day that Guernsey can actually offer internationally comparable connectivity services at a decent cost to the average person. I wont hold my breath……..

  • mikestoddart

    Speeds may be listed that high here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we get them. I have cable and I typically get a maximum of 7-9 during peaks periods. That’s a far cry from the advertised speeds. Don’t forget your figure is for Toronto and if you live in even a slightly rural location you’re looking at figures that are more like (on a good day and if the wind is blowing in the right direction) cap=6Gb download=2 upload=0.2 and price=godknowswhat. At least based on my friend’s place who lives on the edge of Ottawa’s city limits.

  • Pete Johnson

    So in the interests of sparking a debate – why? Lets just say the States put fibre into everyone’s home and you had 150Mb download speeds. What would the benefit to Guernsey really be? Of course everyone would be happy – granted. You could download your sky movie in seconds. Hoorah. But where is the real benefit?

    People don’t move to Singapore because they have super fast download speeds, and they wouldn’t move to Guernsey either. Also, and no offence Steve but what is the advantage to Guernsey having 200 freelancers working from home on super-fast Broadband. You are not employing anybody and you’re probably going to spend your hard earned cash on Amazon.

    So I don’t get this Digital Guernsey means giving everybody at home super-fast Broadband. Give me Tier 3 data centres, cheap 100Mb connections to them, people that know how to run them and access to 65M people in the UK that have super-fast download speeds.

    I totally get the freelancers and the small independent creators and I agree they are a growing part of the economy. But if the future of Guernsey is 65000 people all sitting at home talking to people in London or the rest of the world over high resolution Facetime then I’m not sure I see the benefit.

  • stevestreeting

    As I talked about in the post, it’s really not about download speeds; upload speeds are far more important. Exporters of content need to get that content to the wider world efficiently, particularly if they’re working under contract for companies based in places in the world where expectations are higher than they are here.

    It’s not about giving everyone a 150Mbps connection at home – although I could argue that ubiquitous high-quality connectivity breeds more home-grown solutions – it’s about the huge leap from ‘consumer’ to ‘producer’ level connectivity for the people that can use it – whether that’s an individual at home or a small office of 3-10 people. It’s not just about freelancers, it’s about those individuals or small teams who can bootstrap from a small base and produce things they can export to the world, and whether the environment is conducive for them to do that – and these small organisations are an engine for growth. You assume these kinds of setups don’t employ anyone, that’s actually not true – I’m not sure if you came to the Creative Guernsey event last year but there’s an awful lot of small studios in Guernsey working in various media, many of them with off-island clients and independent projects they’re working on. Even those people who prefer very lean businesses are at the least being self-employed, and often end up hiring subcontractors or full timers if the growth happens. Our project actually employs someone here too in fact, and is hiring again right now. It’s always small teams, and we’re always very agile & use people from all over the world, but I object to the inference that this is somehow without value. It’s an extreme outlier of course, but Instagram needed only 13 employees to generate a $1b valuation.

    I argue that home-grown talent creating new exports is a source of growth, one that’s rooted in the island and therefore less likely to do a runner to another jurisdiction at the drop of a hat, and therefore a worthwhile string to our bow. Centralised, heavyweight projects like big data centres are all very well (and I suggest we do those too) but they’re the kinds of big-up-front investment businesses that there will only ever be a very small number of, controlled by the usual suspects. I argue that as well as that, you want a more diversified ecosystem of digital businesses that don’t suffer from the ‘all eggs in one basket’ problem – namely risk, lack of variety which loses us talented young people etc.

    We’re a small island, we don’t have a lot of people, and therefore being able to build small businesses which are low footprint and yet address customer’s needs around the world as if we were based anywhere else is a benefit. People here are doing it already – we bump up against infrastructure issues sometimes – manageable and just annoying right at the moment, but we’re worried that the general inertia in the island will lead to this getting worse over time, hence the debate. The ideal would be to have great connectivity absolutely everywhere so that anyone can benefit from it – how many spare-room projects might blossom in that setup? – but if that’s unrealistic then how about at least a handful of office blocks with great connections at affordable prices, aimed at the likes of Spike and Blix? The problem we have right now is the cliff face any burgeoning digital business hits going from small to medium audience.

  • Pete Johnson

    Appreciated Steve and didn’t mean to imply there was no value in the small employer. We’re only 8 in Guernsey and support £150M annual revenues out of the UK.

    I guess I’m questioning is this really Guernsey’s vision of their Digital future. If it is then great, lets get behind it and cultivate it. If the intention is to create an alternative domicile for Amazon then that is something completely different.

    Guernsey is a great place for entrepreneurs and I agree they need the technical ability to run their business and compete on an international stage, whether they are 1 man or 8.

    By the way, we get 4Mb upload speeds but it cost me a fortune. Look forward to meeting you tonight/tomorrow

  • stevestreeting

    I think the vision depends on who you ask :) I agree that just aiming to attract the big companies is a hiding to nothing; it’ll take a ton of sweeteners to do so and they’ll have no loyalty to the island at the end of it; much better to empower the people who are here already to take things up a notch in their areas of strength. Sure they might not have big cash to wave around to begin with, but support them when they’re small and you’ve got the potential for some great ‘sticky’ businesses long term. Catch you this evening then!

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