Broadband Trek: The Wrath of Drake

Or: My Smart Home Turned Dumb Very, Very Quickly

Computer artist’s impression

Over the last week, my village suffered a power cut during the middle of the night. I know this because whenever it happens the lights come on when the power is restored. Usually not a problem, I just need to wait until everything boots back up and I can remotely turn off the lights from bed using my iPhone. This I did, and went back to sleep.

I woke up again when the lights came back on about 20 minutes after the first incident. But this time I couldn’t turn them off with Apple’s Home app. Going downstairs, the lights of the Virgin Media Hub 4 were on, but a static white. Logging into my Netgear Nighthawk router, it wasn’t t able to get an internet connection from the Virgin Hub. Checking Virgin’s web site on my phone (which initially wouldn’t tether to the Mac) there wasn’t any reported issues at the time (nor were there later on in the morning) apart from some work being carried out on the 8th August.

Thankfully I could turn off the lights without internet access (but if I were to use Siri, it requires internet access to turn off devices which is absolutely bloody ridiculous) and just went to bed. I called Virgin later on and after a period of 9 thousand centuries, I was put through to somebody who tried all the remote tests and couldn’t access the Hub at all. So, they booked an engineer. I said it’s likely only to be the hub – it probably didn’t like being interrupted like that (for example, given the time of the outage, it may have been performing a firmware update which must never be interrupted). I asked if they could just send out a replacement Hub and I’ll return the old one. Nope, it’s got to be an engineer and I can’t get one for two weeks.

At this point I also check my contract and was surprised that in 10 days time the minimum contract term expires and I can cancel otherwise face an extra £15/month. While Virgin have generally been very good, this was one situation where I feel they could have done much better and failed. And that’s cost them.

But it’s also cost me too, because I’m still without broadband here and I’m just thankful that I have EE’s top tier package for the iPhone that allows a very generous tethering allowance. But it got me thinking – what I really need is a backup line. Something that doesn’t require physically cables but I can easily switch my entire home network to it should I need to.

As my contract on an o2 phone is coming to an end soon, I’ve bought one of these doodads: a Netgear Nighthawk M6 5G Mobile Wi-Fi router along with an unlimited O2 data package. What this means is that not only can I take it wherever I go (as it can be battery powered), but also keep it at home and hook up the switch with all my devices to it as a backup router. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ll give my opinions as to how well it works and how cost effective it is when I do.

Meanwhile the search of a replacement broadband provider begun, and it is the biggest pain in the arse I have endured in many, many years. Firstly, many of the providers that had G.FAST products don’t have them in this area anymore. In English: packages with over 300Mbs or over are not available anymore. Whether this is because the local exchange is at capacity, or whether the ISP has dropped it, I don’t know. I looked at going back to Zen, but the best they can do is 80Mbs. A shame, because I could do with a static IP. Bearing in mind I’ve been used to gigabit speeds for downloading and 100Mbs speeds for uploading.

I also looked at Andrews & Arnold Ltd., a highly respected ISP within the tech community that could provide me with everything I wanted. Except – bloody hell – it’s expensive. The current quote is:

£100 + VAT for the installation
£60 + VAT for the modem (which is, presumably, the Huawei (thought they were banned) MT992)
£65 + VAT per month for a metered package (2Tb/month)
£20 + VAT for a hardware firewall (the Wi-Fi router I have would sit behind that)

Expensive. I spoke with a couple of sales folk and they said that their experience with the G.FAST speeds (e.g. 300Mbs and up) wasn’t as mature as their slower and more mature offerings. Plus the ordering system is broken too (and still is at the time of writing – when you ring them they ask you to email them).

So I’m not happy about any of that.

There was an alternative provider called Cerebus Networks Ltd. which could offer what I wanted, in a similar vein to A&A, but their prices are even more expensive when it came to the set-up fees. And this is without buying a router from them. It’s not stipulated how the connection is presented, either. Do I need to buy an MT992 modem from them? In any event, they’re out of the running.

The stupid thing is that I don’t need a new telephone line. The BT line I have here was last used with G.FAST many years ago and probably only needs a bit of TLC from an engineer to get it working and activated again. It has the necessary filters and has separate telephone and RJ11 jacks. Even so, nearly £200 for an engineer call out to activate a line is fecking silly money.

Looking at the regular consumer ISPs, I was also bitterly disappointed. Especially with Sky which is now offering a Wi-Fi 6 router but is advertising it incorrectly. It’s only available for VSDL2 and FTTP customers, it doesn’t feature G.FAST or ASDL support. But that’s not mentioned on their site, and I spent two days with Sky trying to figure out why it couldn’t be added to an 145Mbs Ultrafast order.

And this is what REALLY pisses me off – the complete lack of technical information on ISP sites. The situation comes close to the following conversation from my favourite of books (with apologies to Douglas Adams for changing “notice” to “specs”):

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the specs, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

What I’ve effectively got to do now is to use the ISP’s router for main internet connectivity and DHCP (the ability to assign internal IPs to devices) and my existing Wi-Fi 6 Nighthawk router as a glorified access point. That’s fine. I chose EE in the end because I already have so much with them as it is, so there are some benefits to using them (more data allowances, discounts, etc.) but the downside is, like BT, they increase the price every March in line with inflation which – at the moment – is an absolute bastard. And I’m committing to 2 years.

I looked at Plus Net, but they don’t have the speeds. TalkTalk has a reputation plus their router doesn’t have good DHCP configuration options, apparently. BT is more expensive than EE despite being practically the same product, so EE it is. Vodafone, BTW, simply fell over and did this – hardly encouraging as a potential customer:

And that’s not without technical glitches during the EE ordering process: