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Flaky Parliamentary Video Debates Highlight Poor Broadband

Friday, April 24th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 3,714

Across the UK various devolved and central parliaments have been returning to work this week in a very different way, with many connecting to hybrid public debates via live video conferencing from their own homes for the first time. But a few hiccups have helped to highlight how some areas still suffer from poor connectivity.

At present a little over 96% of the United Kingdom should have access to order a fixed “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) service, which on the surface seems like more than enough to achieve a reasonable video conferencing connection. But there are some notable caveats to this when working from home, as some ministers from across Wales, Scotland, England and N.Ireland are now discovering first hand.

Perhaps understandably the unavoidably rushed attempts at a virtual parliament have been a bit of a learning curve for some and there were plenty of stumbles, not least in respect to proper microphone control (e.g. children screaming [insert pun], the odd bit of unintentionally leaked swearing and so forth). Such things are of course fairly normal in the home environment and can be quite amusing when spilled over into a national parliament.

However those weren’t the only problems. For example, during yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ), the former Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell (Scottish Conservative), became the first MP unable to ask a question because of a faulty internet connection that left him “unable to connect,” as the Speaker later explained.

Similarly Julie Elliott (Labour MP), who in a twist of no uncertain irony was attempting to criticise the government’s roll-out of superfast broadband, found herself in a difficult predicament when her video stream appeared to hang mid-question: “You mentioned superfast broadbaaa.. aaann.. ddd..,” said Elliott, before adding that it was the “bane of my life” once her connection had returned to some semblance of normality.


In fairness we can’t analyse the exact cause of each issue above, of which there are also presently very few, and so there may be other factors at work (e.g. consumer choice of package / ISP, remote server issues, weak home WiFi, local congestion on the network etc.), but it does help to highlight that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Since MPs come from all over the country then some will inevitably be living in areas of poor connectivity.

At this point the Government would probably highlight the current level of superfast coverage, as well as their 10Mbps USO as a “safety net“, but there are some problems with those. Firstly, the “superfast” commitments of the past only ever covered download speed and never included a solid target for uploads (a fact we’ve raised before), which are of course essential for live video conferencing.

On the other hand most “superfast” class fixed line connections should be able to deliver at least c.5-10Mbps or more upstream, which is enough for a video conference but in today’s home – under lockdown with the whole family – it’s still fairly easy to saturate that to the point of either extreme quality loss or heavy disruption (one extra streamer on twitch or a big upload to Facebook, for example).

Meanwhile the USO does set a minimum required upload speed, but it’s only 1Mbps and that’s very poor. The fact that the USO has now been watered down so that most of it will only be delivered via highly variable 4G mobile signals, rather than fixed line solutions, certainly hasn’t filled us with confidence (here).

Nevertheless it’s good to see connectivity issues being so clearly evident via some very real practical examples in our parliaments’ (whether in Westminster, Holyrood etc.). Such issues will only help to highlight the remaining problem areas and encourage further work, which can only be a good thing. The downside is that resolving those problems will inevitably take time and that’s true of any solution.

The Government has made a good start by committing £5bn to bring “gigabit-capable” broadband to those in the final 20% of hardest to reach premises (i.e. mostly rural areas but also some disadvantaged urban locations), which is part of their aim to make 1Gbps services available to all homes by the end of 2025.

The reality though is that 2025 is still a fair few years away and the time-line they’ve set still seems overly optimistic. We fully expect the build to be on-going after 2025 and probably for several more years, albeit at a reduced pace with most of the country having been done by then (we hope). Sadly the COVID-19 crisis certainly won’t be helping to achieve that 2025 goal, but that’s an unavoidably reality.

Speaking of COVID-19, the cross-party DCMS inquiry into the Government’s broadband and 5G strategy (here) has just been widened to include: “the impact of Covid-19 on the roll-out of full-fibre and 5G infrastructure in both the short and medium-to-long term, including any differences in different parts of the UK.” The deadline has also been extended to Friday June 19th 2020 (with a possibility for further extension).

Leave a Comment
24 Responses
  1. User says:

    USO BT – unfair that the BT 10Mbs 4G USO offering is priced at circa £45!! – that’s so far off the market price – exploiting the most needy?

    1. AnotherTim says:

      But is that really the price BT are offering it at? I understood that was the Ofcom price cap, not the actual price that is charged. EE unlimited 4G deals are available at much less than that – £34pm before any discounts or cash-backs that are available for a personal deal, or £27+VAT for a business unlimited data SIM only deal. I have the latter to replace my ADSL2+ line (which actually cost more, so I have a better connection and I’m saving money).
      Other mobile networks also have unlimited deals that cost well under the £45 cap.

    2. Meadmodj says:

      Yes but there remains a suspicion. I am of course not party to the actual advice to individual customers but its not clear whether the eligibility includes advice on alternative networks. By volunteering to be a USO provider BT have an obligation to provide a technical solution within the £3400 but if their recommendation to the customer is 4G and it does not require additional cost of installation (such as a external aerial) then in my opinion the guidance should be to advise customers of other mobile operator coverage/products. I am not confident that is the case and something possibly Ofcom should be ensuring.

      Interestingly EE are offering the BT 4G Router (the black one) but on restricted plans. Other operators appear to be around the same ball park but there are multiple variations on contract length, data and router etc. so as always its personal choice.

  2. Mike says:

    My BDUK funded FTTC provides, on a good day, 27Mbps down but only 2.5Mbps up.

    Theoretically this ticks the “superfast” box, (well, depending on whether 24Mbps or 30Mbps is the target, I think it was still 24Mbps when this area was done), but in reality the upstream is barely adequate for work from home. Woe betide if Google Drive decides to start syncing during a video call.

    The £5bn for proper broadband can’t come soon enough.

    1. JamesP says:

      Similar here. I average 25Mbit down/1Mbit up, but this can very with download ranging between 16Mbit and 29Mbit depending on line conditions.

      While this is acceptable for general day to day use (emails, Netflix, gaming, etc), it proves difficult when working from home when you need to send large files… Made worse when there are 2 of you working from home – sending a large file just slows us both down!

      Hoping after this COVID19 situation, FTTP rollout will be accelerated further especially for slower areas, it needs to be really.

  3. Optical says:

    Scrap the HS2 plans,& put the funding to the fibre the UK instead,it will be more benefical to so many more peeps,businesses,etc.

    1. JAH says:

      I couldn’t agree more.

  4. Matt says:

    Work on upstream is certainly needed now, copper pairs need to be gotten rid of, improving backhaul infrastructure is also needed, peering with UK servers is becoming problematic compared to peering with servers outside the country.

    1. CarlT says:

      Backhaul and transit and peering are different things and both are fine in the UK.

      Your experience from your provider may vary but that is your provider not the UK.

  5. GNewton says:

    It’s funny how people now finally realize that upload speeds are important, too.

    Many posters here on ISPreview have in the past denied the importance of symmetric fibre broadband!

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      In fairness you don’t need speeds to be ultrafast symmetric or full fibre to get decent uploads, it would be wonderful though if everybody could get upload speeds that are in at least double digits.

  6. Virgin Media says:

    It’s VM that need a gentle kick to sort out their over congested high latency network . That is actually not good for anything .

    1. Matt says:

      In the past 10 years I’ve been looking at the Virgin Media network and had issues myself with congestion and I can honestly say they have done a lot of work to improve issues.

      Where one area has been upgraded another area has seen a rise in bandwidth usage, they’ll get there in the end, also pretty sure they weren’t expecting a pandemic to kick off suddenly.

      Also note Virgin’s network is only vulnerable to such congestion issues or at least the outcry from customers when something does go wrong because they supply such high speeds to end users, sure they’d be fine if the fast average there customers could buy was around 70mbps but they supply 100-1100mbps products….

      and with a population that don’t want to pay prices above £30/40 I kinda see where the contention comes in

  7. InTheSlowLane says:

    Tragically the inclusion of 4g in the USO has almost given BT a caveat to do nothing in terms of upgrading all but the most rural properties. We get 3mb down & kbps up through fixed line & 4g barely brings us above the USO target on average but because we can get 30Mb at 3:00am in the morning the daily average comes out above the threshold. No idea how 4g complies with 50:1 contention ratio but I suspect ofcom saw fit to forget their own target in allowing the use of 4g..

  8. Meadmodj says:

    Hopefully it will enlighten more MPs but in the current situation we need to be practical.

    Of course there are those with slow DSL and no 4G alternative but for many they appear to be forgetting that if its simply for a discrete device/purpose they can use phone tethering/hotspot which may provide a better VC experience.

    If a home broadband is becoming overloaded (two adults working and kids “learning”) then see if a neighbour can assist with a Guest option.

    There are pros and cons to each of the VC products and where they are hosted (or steered to). Many say they support multiple devices however the practicality of setup and experience can differ considerably. A lot of issues are simply users using WIFI only devices but sitting no where near their router/AP. Having helped people recently with Zoom, MS Teams and Jitsi I think I have now seen everything.

    1. Christopher Smith says:

      Good comment about wifi & proximity to router.

      I usually suggest to people that they might want to connect their laptop to their router via ethernet (rather than wifi) if they can do so, as a basic workaround for poor connectivity.

      It’s surprising how many people seem to think, & indeed expect to get, a strong wifi signal to be available in every remote nook & cranny of their home!

  9. Phil says:

    I’ve been saying for a long time the emphasis on download speed as being the target and only metric was silly and upload speeds should be given more prominence and importance, but everyone just argued people don’t upload much they just consume, until now!

    So we have many people working from home now using video conferencing and wanting to upload large files and are wondering why their fast internet connection seems to be struggling. I’ve already been asked by a family member why they can watch 4K NetFlix but their own video sent up when conferencing is a reported back to them as a stuttering and blocky mess.

    Maybe this situation we are in will help address upload speeds and give them more importance.

  10. Spurple says:

    It’s more likely to be slow PCs and crappy webcams.

    Multiplexing several video streams like that is not light. You need a decent modern computer to be able to cope, and at high utilisation rates.

    The average video bit rates are in the region of 300kbps per stream. Not too demanding.

    1. Phil says:

      @Spurple I’ve seen Skype regularly upload data at 600kbps peaking at over 1000kbps and Zoom specifies at least 800kbps for high quality video and for 720p at least 1.5Mps. 300kbps would resemble video conferencing in the time of Windows 95 and Netmeeting!

      Also remember these are live real-time broadcasts and even a brief interruption by anything else taking a slice of that upload then if there isn’t enough will cause a freeze or stutter of the video.

  11. chris conder says:

    hey ho. Let’s hope this kicks the digitalbritain superfarce into touch and we build ourselves a true fibre futureproof network. As we’ve all been saying since the digital britain report in 2009. Now the MPs and civil servants can feel our pain. They used to get their emails from pretty PAs but now they have to do it themselves when the kids are trying to game or stream they will see what the problems are.
    Every cloud has a silver lining… and this is one lesson nobody is gonna forget in a hurry. Oh and Spurple with a £10k handout my guess is most of them have very nice equipment at home.

    1. Dee.jay says:

      They did not get a “£10K handout” – it was expenses limit raise. Whilst I don’t believe they needed anything extra, let’s keep the facts straight.

  12. dumdum says:

    “rushed attempts at a virtual parliament have been a bit of a learning curve for some and there were plenty of stumbles, not least in respect to proper microphone control (e.g. children screaming [insert pun], the odd bit of unintentionally leaked swearing and so forth).”

    So potential Children abuse and abusive language, things they want to ban from the internet but are happy to contribute towards. How nice of them.

    Next week or when he is fully better, tune in to seen Boris goes Bumming… They may as well go for triple hypocrisy and make a porno why they are at it.

    Remember folks do as i say not as i do.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I take your point but – “potential Children abuse” – is a bit strong. Any parents out there will know that screaming children is an entirely normal (near constant) thing and, alas, it lasts for many years :).

    2. dumdum says:

      Nope the LAW im afraid states that “a child that shows any signs of Alarm or Distress in the home” can be deemed as enough of a concern to warrant an investigation to ensure child abuse is not present.

      Perhaps they should read the laws they make. Yes they are that insane. Yes Social Services busy bodies love it, the police and hard work investigating grooming gangs though not so much.

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