Meeting: A Look at Broadband Internet
Chris Hughes gave us a run-down of the options available to anyone looking for a broadband internet connection, starting with a look at the technologies available. He then went on to examine the kinds of deal that are available – covering issues such as fixed-fee and PAYG packages, fair usage policies and contention ratios. Having dealt with the deals, Chris moved on to the hardware necessary to make the connection: modems, routers, network cards and the compatibility issues for RISC OS users. Finally, he took a quick look at the software required to access the ‘net from RISC OS.
Report by Steve Fryatt
April’s meeting featured our very own Chris Hughes, talking about broadband Internet connections. Due to a number of committee members being on holiday, the club’s equipment was unavailable on the evening and Chris had to do the presentation with none of the usual audio or visual aids to help; despite (or perhaps because of) this, the evening proved to be an interesting and informative introduction to the potentially confusing world of broadband.
To start with, Chris quickly listed the different types of connection that are available. Many listeners would at least have heard of ADSL, which connects through a standard BT telephone line, and cable, which comes via a Telewest or NTL connection. Both come in a number of varieties and speeds, depending on availability and location. New developments in ADSL are bringing connections of up to 8Mbps, and the option of ‘local loop unbundling’ allows users in some areas to deal direct with their ISP and take BT out of the equation.
In addition to these more familiar options, businesses have the option of SDSL; being ‘symmetric’ this offers similar data transfer speeds for both upload and download (ADSL is ‘asymmetric’, and upload speeds are usually a lot lower than the headline-grabbing download rates available), but comes at a price. For those in remote geographical areas, who are not served by either ADSL or cable, satellite connections are also possible; the price of these makes them unrealistic unless they are the only option available.
The huge variety of pricing structures available makes it necessary to shop around when deciding on who to get broadband from. ISPs generally offer ‘fixed monthly fee’ packages, where users pay a set amount each month, or ‘pay as you go’, which start at a lower monthly cost and require further payments for the bandwidth used. As ever, it seems you get what you pay for: it is a good idea to read the small print of individual packages carefully, as the cheaper ones often lack facilities like usenet access or even email boxes and web space. Pay careful attention to ‘fair usage policies’ or bandwidth limits, as these can severely limit the amount of data that can be downloaded.
Another area of small-print to watch out for is the ‘contention ratio’ on offer. While a package may offer a download rate of 8Mbps, that bandwidth is shared amongst a number of users. If you are the only person online at a given time, you will get the full 8Meg rate; if all those sharing the link are downloading files, the bandwidth you will see at your end is significantly less. Contention ratios of 50:1 are common for home packages; cheaper deals may offer less than this, so watch out.
The competition in the broadband market means that ISPs are all vying for your business. Switching between deals on standard ADSL is fairly straightforward, as long as your contract does not have a minimum term specified, but things can be a lot more tricky if you have gone to an ‘unbundled’ service.
At this point, the meeting diverted slightly to help those members who had recently discovered that Wanadoo have terminated their newsgroup access. This is a good example of some ISP’s packages missing certain features, and leaving users to find alternative sources. In fact, there are a number of ‘open’ usenet servers, available to anyone for a one-off or annual fee. Various people suggested services such as GigaNews (www.giganews.com), TerraNews (www.terranews.com) and News.Individual.NET (news.individual.net).
Having dealt with the deals available, Chris moved on to the hardware necessary. Cable companies will generally supply a suitable ‘modem’ for their system, which will usually be sufficient. For ASDL, however, ISPs generally offer just an ‘USB ADSL modem’ (often known as a ‘frog’ due to its appearance) which will not work with RISC OS systems. For RISC OS, the best option is to get an ADSL router with built-in firewall, and connect this to the network port on the machine. Most routers provide up to four connections, making it easy to share the Internet over a home network.
Once connected to the Internet, it can be a good idea to check that your firewall’s security is correctly configured. Both Chris, and a number of people in the audience, suggested using ShieldsUP!, which can be found at www.grc.com. This free service will remotely test your filewall and report on any insecurities it finds.
ADSL makes it necessary to use ‘microfilters’ to remove the data signals from the normal voice connection. These days, BT (and ISPs) just supply plug-in units that must be installed on every telephone. While this works, the filters look untidy and the cost can start to add up. A neater solution, if a BT NTE5 master socket is available, is to replace the face-plate with one containing an integral microfilter; although BT no longer supply these when installing ADSL, Chris suggested a company called Clarity who can supply the necessary accessories by mail order.
Finally, we moved on to the software necessary to make use of ADSL on RISC OS. In general, anyone who has used a dial-up connection should have all the tools they need: all the same email and news transports, web browsers and the like will still work, but they no longer require a dialler to establish a connection. If a helping hand is required, R-Comp’s NetFetch can simplify the set-up process.
The meeting finished with a question and answer session, before breaking up to allow members to ask individual questions or discuss their own experiences. As someone who is in the process of transferring to broadband, I certainly found the evening useful; hopefully it encouraged anyone else thinking of making the change to take the plunge.
For further information, www.adslguide.org.uk is a useful resource. Clarity, at www.clarity.it, and Solwise, at www.solwise.co.uk, are good sources of ADSL-related telecoms hardware and information. For more RISC OS-aware advice, both R-Comp and STD do networking bundles containing network cards, routers and software for use on RISC OS and Windows systems.