Monday, October 22, 2012

Techie matters - when speed matters not

I've felt a whinge coming on for a little while now.

I've been with the same ISP since I moved into my current house. That's like almost 11 years now. (Yep. Long time!). It started out as Telewest Blueyonder before they got hit by mergers, joining NTL to become part of the Branson Virgin Media empire.

To be fair, the service isn't bad. I started with a 512kbit/s connection way back. That's been steadily upgraded over the years and is now up at a genuine 20Mbits per second of download. And it gives that speed too on downloads. The upload has improved too and is now double that original 512Kbits/s download (original upload 128Kbit/s, it's now 1Mbit/s).

Techie talk aside - that's quicker than my first laptop could send information across wires to the computer next door to it. It's quick enough to download the latest Bat For Lashes album in about a minute (it's 120MB on iTunes).


It's evidently not fast enough to play Youtube videos in high definition. That's deeply MEH, especially as seeing off buffering was one of the themes of recent Virgin Media advertising. What happens is that when you try to play a fairly recent (as in made in the last day or so), you'll be able to see a few minutes of video and then you get Whirly Wheel silence as you are forced to wait for the next chunk of video to load.

I tried to keep up with watching the Felix Baumgartner highskydive. Just one problem - whirly wheel silence just took over totally and it was a total waste of time and effort.

It's not the hardware here. I can play BBC iPlayer just fine. The old hardware was happily handling 3 concurrent streams of BBC iPlayer Olympics in HD. I picked up a new freebie modem/router which will hopefully see that 20MBits/s get upgraded to 30MBits/s soon. That's not sorted the problem.

What apparently is causing the problem is a local proxy server in the Virgin Media network. What happens there is that you're not playing the video back from a Youtube server, it's playing from a Virgin Media server which is intercepting the calls to play the video. And it can't keep up.

Again - deeply, truly - Meh.

It's great to have a massive pipe to get the data through. The problem comes in because of something in the way (which shouldn't be there) taking the data supply back to a trickle. I'd much rather have, say, 5Mbits/s and HD playback than rarely used 20Mbit/s and no HD playback.

Don't get me wrong - this is not a matter of keeping up with something being streamed live, it's that poxy proxy server being unable to chuck the video data out fast enough. I suspect with the Baumgartner jump (streamed from Youtube), it was a matter of not being able to send the video data to many viewers.

Hopefully it's something that will get sorted out soon. But I have my doubts because it appears to be bad hardware and bad decisions in the Virginmedia network itself. Proxy servers are Bad News.

Ok - time to end the whinge ...

I've stuck with Virginmedia this long because the service has given near 100% availability. It's almost unheard of for the connection to go down. Sure, bandwidth throttling is annoying but even when that kicks in the connection is faster than the typical ADSL line.

And it was nice to get a shiny new wifi modem router (most capable piece of kit in my network right now), all for free. But it would be even nicer if I didn't have to click the Youtube videos back to 480p (which works ok) within a minute or five of starting to watch every single video.

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