My broadband experience in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the US By Esme Vos

My broadband experience in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the US
By Esme Vos
Aug 21 2013

This is an article about my experience with broadband service during my travels in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States and what I consider to be the important factors (often ignored by commentators) that determine the speed and price of broadband in different countries.

In recent weeks, I have read several articles claiming that broadband service is better in the US than in Europe; others claim it’s the other way around. Some insist that the fastest and cheapest broadband is in Asian cities such as Singapore. The situation in the real world is more complicated than what these articles would have you believe. Even within a country, the speed and price of broadband service differ dramatically.

(1) In my experience, both in Europe and the US, the dividing line between lousy and amazing broadband is urban (dense) versus suburban/rural.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, my broadband experience has been vastly different from that of my friends who reside just outside San Francisco. From 2008-2011 I was living in an apartment building a few blocks from downtown San Francisco. This building was served (and continues to be served) by an ISP called Webpass. It provided me with the best wired broadband service I have every had. It was faster than what I currently have in Paris, which is fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service (promising 100 Mbps downstream and upstream, but delivering barely 35 Mbps downstream). Webpass San Francisco consistently provided me with speeds of 60 to 70 Mbps downstream and 70 to 80 Mbps upstream for $45 per month (they are now charging $50 per month). You cannot get broadband speeds like this just south of San Francisco in the suburbs for $50 per month. Unfortunately Webpass serves buildings in the urban core; they don’t do suburbs. In a community called Redwood Shores (where Oracle’s headquarters are located and which is halfway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley), the best deal for broadband is Comcast, a cable company, where you can get 25 Mbps downstream/5 Mbps upstream (actual speed) for about $35. The most expensive Comcast package — 105 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream (advertised speeds) — costs over $115. You would think that the areas south of San Francisco where a lot of startups and tech people live, would have broadband service as good and cheap as that in San Francisco, but that’s not the case.

As I’ve observed, population density is an extremely important factor when one is in the business of delivering wired broadband. It’s the difference between being cash-flow positive or going bankrupt. That is why rural areas don’t have many high-speed broadband options and suffer from poor broadband connections, both in Europe and the United States, unless these are subsidised by the local or national government. Of course density alone is not a determining factor but it’s critical. Therefore, to say that broadband service in Europe is better than in the US (or vice-versa) is inaccurate. It depends on where you live.

(2) Another factor that determines the quality of the broadband connection (especially FTTH) seems trivial but is of critical importance: the nature of actual connection from the street into the building and into the apartment.

In Paris, I have a FTTH connection from Orange (France Telecom) that should theoretically give me 100 Mbps symmetrical speed. Shortly after FTTH service was turned on in our building, I was getting only 20-30 Mbps downstream so I called a technician from Orange to come to the apartment to check my connection. Apart from the stress of having to communicate with the technician in French, I was heartbroken to find out that the previous technician who had installed the FTTH box in the apartment (while I was away), had placed it in the kitchen close to the service door that leads to the rear of the building. This is far from the living room and as a result, the FTTH box has to be connected to a wireless repeater and it is from this wireless repeater that I am getting my broadband connection. Had the FTTH box been placed in the living room, my broadband speed would have been much better, according to the technician. Indeed, he moved the wireless repeater next to the door of the kitchen closer to the living room and behold, I started getting 30 to 40 Mbps downstream. But if I close the door, the speed drops down again. The apartment building was built between 1910 and 1930 in theHaussmannien style which means thick walls, kitchens separate from dining and living areas and lots of volume (high ceilings). The thickness of the walls means good sound insulation, but poor wireless transmission. After the technician departed, I inspected the connection from the kitchen to the stairwell and into the street. It looked very 19th century. Details, details. Alas, they all matter when it comes to the quality of your broadband experience.




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