July 5, 2020

Coronavirus: Coping with lockdown on poor broadband

Households across the country are finding their broadband connections pushed to the limit as families in lockdown try to work, educate and entertain themselves online.

During a recent video-conference, MP Julie Elliott made a plea to the culture secretary for a faster rollout of fibre broadband for her Sunderland constituents. As she was doing so, her own broadband connection failed, something the chairman of the DCMS committee described as “ironic”.

In theory, 95% of premises should be able to access superfast broadband but take-up of services remains low. This might be because people find their current speed sufficient for their needs, do not want to pay or simply haven’t got round to upgrading.

For those wanting to upgrade now, there could be a wait. BT told the BBC is was prioritising new broadband connections for the “vulnerable and those most in need”.

According to Ofcom, 189,000 properties are on speeds of 10Mbps (megabits per second) download and 1Mbps upload or less – for both fixed and wireless.

Adelana Carty, broadband expert at Uswitch.com, thinks it is too low for lockdown. “Some video-calling services say they only require broadband speeds of 1.2Mbps, but at this level the picture quality is likely to be extremely patchy and the audio may cut in and out – especially if there are many people on the call.

“Streaming TV services like Netflix say you need a 3Mbps connection for standard quality, and 5Mbps for HD, but you’re likely to find that the picture is constantly buffering at these speeds.

“Connection issues also arise when multiple devices use the internet simultaneously, so if required, it may be worth setting up a rota, especially when it comes to streaming or gaming online.

Such a rota may be the only option for Sam Kirkpatrick, who lives in rural Northern Ireland, and who says the idea of sharing the internet with his wife and two teenagers is “simply out of the question”.

“On a good day, my broadband runs at about 2Mbps (not a typo – I genuinely mean two). I’ve seen various fibre rollout plans over the years and my postcode has been included but we’ve not been upgraded yet.

“We have paid for an additional 4G service for a couple of years now, which is much faster when it works but much less reliable and more prone to contention/packet dropping than the fixed line. The quality of it has definitely degraded noticeably since lockdown started.”

Without it the family would “be in trouble”, he said, but it does mean expensive monthly bills.

Mr Kirkpatrick is a software engineering manager, and is now working from home full-time.

“Much of my role is video calls and it struggles a bit at that stage. Often, I’ll have to disable video and rely on audio only to save bandwidth. Or even forget about the calls and try to use messaging instead, which just isn’t the same. Downloading large payloads, which I have to do often, is a challenge.”

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