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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The broadband discount

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Why does your 21Mbps wireless broadband modem behave like a dial-up connection? Are the networks lying when they claim you’re being sold a 7.2Mbps device? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explains why you never got what you bought, and what level of performance you should expect.

By the end of this year, three million South Africans will have caught the broadband bug. They will be using it on their phone lines, with something called ADSL, and on wireless modems, usually connecting to a 3G network.

And three million people will wonder why the broadband they bought is not the broadband they get.

You may already be there: you subscribed to an ADSL line, and you could swear you ticked the box that said 4Mbps. That’s 4 Megabits per second, or what Telkom markets as Fast ADSL. Yet, when you monitor your downloads, it’s blindingly obvious that 4 Megabits of data is not downloading in one second.

If you’re not sure, you can go to a web site called Speedtest.net. Click on a button, it downloads a small file onto your computer and uploads it again ‚ nothing that will end up on WikiLeaks, so don’t panic ‚ and it tells you the speed you’re getting at that moment.

Try it again an hour later, and eight hours later. Every time it will give you a different speed. That is the first clue to what is really happening here, and why you aren’t getting the speeds you were sold.

Depending on time of day, weather conditions and, most important, the number of people connecting to the exchange nearest to you, performance can vary dramatically. And ADSL is generally regarded as a very stable connection!

The landscape shifts alarmingly when you move to 3G. Let’s say you buy the latest in high-speed modems, offering you an alphabet soup called HSPA+, and a connection speed of 21Mbps. It’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that’s what you’ll get.

Theoretically, in laboratory conditions, and if you’ve made an animal sacrifice in accordance with ancient rituals, you may be able to demonstrate a 21Mbps connection. In the real world, a light breeze will knock a few Mbps off the top. Then, your distance from the nearest base station will make a huge difference.

Finally and most frustratingly, the number of people connecting to that base station will make the biggest difference of all. If you’re in a high-intensity usagearea, a 21Mbps connection may be no faster than bad old dial-up.

There’s not much you can do about it: you get no guarantee of the speed. But what you can do is manage your own frustration, and you do that best by managing your expectation of what makes a good connection.

Note that these are benchmarks for a good connection, as opposed to a perfect one:

On ADSL, getting 3Mbps or more on a 4Mbps line is superb, while 2Mbps is reasonable. 512Kbps on a 1Mbps ADSL line is not bad. And 256Kpbs on a 512Kbps line will still give you decent download speeds.

When you turn to 3G, bearing in mind this is a wireless, over the air connection, with the weather deliberately messing with your head, the rationsare much poorer.

A 21Mbps modem that delivers anything above 4Mbps will be a better investment than ADSL. For slower modems, more than a quarter the speed you thought you were buying is still, sadly, considered decent.

There will be show-offs who insist they get double or treble these speeds, but they are clearly in league with dark forces, sent to depress you. In broadband, perfection does not exist.

* This column also appears in print, in The Citizen every Saturday. You can follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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