EXPLAINER: Why your broadband seems slower

Is your internet connection driving you to despair? Paul Budde explains what's behind the growing number of problems few telcos are willing to talk about.

More often these days, both in our email boxes and during radio interviews, we are being asked questions and hearing complaints about the quality of broadband.

In general the complaints are:

  • the quality (speed) of the broadband service is decreasing;
  • it takes longer to download and to access websites;
  • the level of quality of the connection often varies and is typically poor during peak hours such as early morning and early evening.

After a while the users affected by these issues call helpdesks but, as we all know, that rarely results in a positive experience.

Many factors can be involved, which makes it easy for telcos and ISPs to dodge responsibility. And often they themselves have no idea why it is happening. The hard reality is that this issue will not go away until the NBN is in place – and it will only become worse in the meantime.

Of course there are PC and modem issues, but I will ignore them for the purpose of this article and concentrate instead on the telecoms side, where it is basically a capacity problem.

The copper-based telecoms network was never designed for broadband and it is rapidly approaching its limit. Copper-based technologies such as ADSL and VDSL have been able to lengthen its life, but only so much can be extracted from a piece of copper. And when add-on technologies (eg, ADSL2 ) are brought into play distance becomes an issue also – the further away from the exchange, the more the broadband signal deteriorates.

The problems are worsening as broadband traffic over the telecoms network increases – people are using more and more rich media applications, to such an extent that the network is approaching full capacity; and once the network can no longer handle the amount of traffic it slows down, drops out etc. Users at the end of the network then see their broadband flow dried up to a trickle.

Obviously this happens mainly in prime time – if one uses the network outside those times the speeds are generally better. However as more people do this the problem simply becomes extended over longer periods.

The better the quality of the network the more can be pushed through the pipe. However many parts of the network are decades old and the quality of the copper network varies enormously. This additional problem is exacerbated by the increasing traffic. Often the quality of the network is unknown to ISPs, and obviously there is very little they can do about it.

So the outlook is bleak. There is very little that can be done with the existing network. The sooner the NBN becomes available the sooner people can be transferred to it; and, as this infrastructure is based on fibre (not copper) and has near-unlimited capacity, the problems will then disappear.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.