Thursday, June 24, 2010

Faster pussycat

Virgin are now trialing speeds via DOCSIS 3 of over 100Mb/s (and touting 400Mb/s as feasible). I'm torn.

On the one hand, these kinds of speeds are exactly what the modern internet is waiting for. By modern internet, I mean a couple of simulaneous high-definition media streams (for comparison, BD bit rates are around 40Mb/s). One isn't enough? I hear you ask - but in my house there's two of us, and occasionally we'd like to watch different content at the same time. Alongside this, a couple of torrents or background tasks soaking up another 20-50Mb/s seems perfectly reasonable to me - not all the time, just some of the time. A sustainable peak 100Mb/s looks like nice headroom for bursty usage that occasionally gets close to that - after all, you'd not expect to drive a car that struggled to hit 70 mph, would you? Honestly, I manage just fine on my "lucky to hit 5Mb/s" connection, just like I manage ok on my pushbike even though my car can top a ton with ease. A 100Mb/s net feed would be like heaven.

On the other hand, the fact it's Virgin fills me with dread. Their AUP and traffic management policy both suck, along with their happiness to give your details to all and sundry while running deep packet inspection on your traffic. Shudder. Let's take their current "XL" 20Mb/s service as an example. If you take their traffic cap in the evenings - 3.5GB before they drop the throttle to restrict your network performance by 75% -  you can max out your connection for the grand total of 24 minutes before they choke your internet for 5 hours. 3.5GB is a lot of data, you say? Sure - but if you're getting an HD feed at BD bit rates, that's 12 minutes of your movie and then you're gasping for bandwidth.

One would hope that on faster lines, their traffic caps would rise (and indeed on their peak XXL product, there's no traffic caps - hooray! but every other plan has one - boo!). However, at this point the numbers just start looking ridiculous. What *is* a reasonable cap when your bandwidth is 100Mb/s? is it 5GB in one block? 10GB? 50GB? Just what the hell are you going to be doing with all that data anyway?

The obvious answer to this question is - binning local storage, and treating the net as a media library. Which is the ultimate end game here, let's be honest. Physical media and local media storage just don't make sense when you can have what you want, when you want, where you want - and who wouldn't want that? Local temporal cache - sure. Plastic disks or tape cassettes? No thanks, I've got boxes of the damn things in my loft.

The real paradigm shifter isn't consumer behaviour though. It's producer behaviour. Always-on video feed from home to wherever you are. Sharing your local CPU resource with the cloud (and potentially monetising that CPU dead time). Acting as a legitimate seed point in a distributed file system. Participating. This is what your machine (or local network) will be doing once everyone has always on connections that approach fractions of a gigabit every second. This is the cool shiznit, and it's not far off.

Of course, the chances of me getting it any time soon are non-existent - from recent experience, I have enough negative telecoms karma to cause any order I place to vanish into another dimension. At least I'll get to watch other folks use the internet like we've always dreamed it would be.


  1. Bad telecoms karma must run in the family, but that's another story for another day :(

    I think you're being hopelessly optimistic here about the capability of any ISP (let alone Virgin) to fill those pipes. On a switched LAN you just might be able to get close to theoretical throughput, but on a WAN you can pretty much forget it. Unless the media you're trying to stream is in the same cabinet as the termination point for your pipe (which might feasibly be the case given the excess of CPU and storage in a typical telco IP network) then congestion will happen. It's pretty normal to need 10x more notional bandwidth for a point to point link, so if you want BD streams then you get one of those out of a 400Mb/s connection.

    Of course if we lived in a country where 'fast' 'broadband' wasn't still defined as a slothful 2Mb/s then things might be different. Hong Kong, Japan and S Korea all have Gigabit consumer services that generally cost less than a typical UK ADSL connection.

  2. With the current infrastructure, you're dead right. I wonder if as speeds increase (and most importantly, upstream speeds increase) folks don't begin to cotton on to the advantages of becoming part of a transparent cache for local media serving. If everyone on your street is watching the same show, then why send from server to everyone? why not send from server to one and bounce it from there around the street?

    Does internet usage in HK, South Korea etc (at least in the urban areas) follow the same patterns of usage as we follow?