The Saga of Broadband Internet

Almost a year ago, I blogged about the poor state of internet in the Dutch countryside, and about our area in particular. Even though the Netherlands as a whole is high up in the league table of countries enjoying fast broadband internet, 196,000 households and 132,000 businesses in the Netherlands do not have fast broadband internet (defined by the EU as being 30 Megabits per second or faster). Far from it, many households and businesses around here are lucky if they get 3 Mbps.

A year ago, it looked as though things might improve – the Province of Gelderland, in cooperation with ten Local Authorities (including ours), announced an initiative to lay fibre optic cables in countryside areas.

Alas, it looks as though the project has run into difficulties – some thrown up by the EU, and some thrown up by KPN – the largest telecom provider here in the Netherlands.

The plan was for the initiative to set up a company to lay the cables, and then lease them out to network operators for running of the network and provision of internet services to customers. The EU took a dim view of this idea, claiming it was not the role of government to get involved in the free market.

Then KPN announced that it would be investing less in the laying of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), and focusing more on upgrading the old ADSL-based copper cable network by investing in VDSL technologies, and also investing in 4G mobile networks.

Broadband internet has been discussed a number of times in the Dutch parliament this year, and the Minister of Economic Affairs (Minister Henk Kamp) has made it clear that he does not see a country-wide rollout of fibre-optic cables as the answer, but is more interested in having a smorgasbord of technologies (strangely enough, eerily similar to those proposed by the KPN).

Unfortunately, I think that all this will lead to a further gulf in the digital divide between those who can enjoy fast internet at an affordable price, and those who must remain in the slow lane, or pay through the nose for fast internet. The difference between living in the town or the countryside, in other words.

Let’s take my situation as a typical example of someone living in the countryside. The original plan from the Province and the Local Authority was to provide me with FTTH for a one-time cost of €500 and a small additional monthly charge on top of my internet subscription to cover the total cost of laying the cable.  The cost of laying FTTH in the countryside is high, because new cables have to be laid to each home, farm, or business. According to Stratix, this would be in the region of €6,000 per connection (with some outliers in the Netherlands reaching several hundreds of thousands of euros). By contrast, in a town, the cost is around €600 per connection.

However, if the FTTH plan does not go ahead in some fashion, what are the alternatives?

KPN has said that they intend to upgrade 100,000 households currently on ADSL to VDSL technologies. This entails laying fibre from the telephone central exchanges to the wiring cabinets placed in a neighbourhood. The new fibre would replace the current copper cables that connect the cabinets to the exchanges. However, the connections between the wiring cabinets and the individual homes or premises would still be the original copper cables. KPN claims that this upgrade would deliver internet speeds of up to 100 Mbps. What they don’t say is that these speeds are only achievable over short distances. If you live (like I do) more than 2 kilometres from a wiring cabinet, then you won’t see much improvement over ADSL speeds. So, while I currently enjoy 4 Mbps over ADSL, I might get 8 Mbps over a VDSL connection. The only way that this could be improved would be for KPN to invest in many more wiring cabinets placed closer to houses out in the countryside. There’s also the point that these VDSL technologies consume more energy than ADSL (and more than fibre). Their ecological footprint is not good. Not for nothing does Stratix label these technologies as “last gasp”.

KPN has also just announced that it will offer fast internet via 4G to the 100,000 households that it views as being “deep in the countryside”. It claims that this is “the solution for places with less than 6 Mbps internet speed via ADSL”. Well, that’s certainly me, but then KPN qualifies it by saying:

In order to protect the quality of our 4G network, this [solution] is only available for addresses where:

  • Internet speed is less than 6 Mbps via ADSL and there is no planned upgrade in speed in the coming 6 months
  • The addresses are outside of town or village centres
  • There is sufficient capacity in the 4G network

Our house certainly qualifies for the first two conditions, but it seems that there is a question mark against the capacity of KPN’s 4G network – when I entered our address into KPN’s availability check, it claimed that “Alas, this [solution] is not available for your address”.

[Update: and now, a few days later, the availability check claims that the solution is available for our address.]

Even if it were to be though it is available, I am far from convinced that it is the solution for me. One big difference between the subscriptions for ADSL/fibre and 4G is that ADSL/fibre subscriptions are based on charging for speed, whilst 4G subscriptions are based on data volume. So currently, I pay €50 per month for our internet and telephone access, with no data caps and unlimited telephone calls within the Netherlands, whereas with KPN’s 4G solution I would be paying €50 per month for internet only (no telephone), with a data cap of 50 GB per month. I would need to pay an additional €38 per month for our telephone. And 50 GB per month is nothing – last month we used 105 GB – and that is without any downloading/streaming of films from sites such as Netflix. Admittedly, I download preview builds of Windows 10 and other software under test, but I would argue that I am not too different in my usage pattern than someone working from home making use of Cloud services and video-conferencing. Equally for families using Netflix or similar services – 50 GB per month is not very much at all.

The KPN 4G service does not support interactive TV services either, so unlike fast internet via fibre or VDSL/ADSL, you can’t have a so-called “triple-play” subscription (a combined internet+telephone+TV service). Most of us out here in the wilds get our TV service via satellite dish, so we’d have to continue with our subscriptions to the satellite services company (CanalDigitaal).

I summarise the costs of the various scenarios in the table below. For the “Fibre” scenario, I’ve assumed that fibre-optic cable has been laid to our house, that I’ve paid the one-off charge of €500, and that the cable company would make a monthly supplemental charge of €22.50 to recoup the cost of laying the cable over a 20 year period. The triple-play subscription is what I would pay to my current internet service provider for a download speed of 20 Mbps.

Monthly charge Current KPN 4G Fibre
Internet €50
Telephone €38
TV €17.95 €17.95
Internet+Telephone €50
Internet+Telephone+TV €55
Fibre connection charge €22.50 (est.)
Total: €67.95 €105.95 €77.50

To sum up then, the 4G alternative to FTTH is not attractive to me, either on practical or economic grounds. Sorry, Minister Kamp and KPN, you will have to do better than this.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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8 Responses to The Saga of Broadband Internet

  1. Hi Geoff, a similar situation here in South Spain in the country. We are only about 10km from Sevilla, but ADSL speeds seldom top 1.5Mb/s and our urbanizacion is ~3km from our local exchange. We need to be able to have unpixelated Skype calls to our children and grandchildren otherwise to them we look even older than we are ! Worse still since we cannot get SKY or FreeSat on the satellite anymore (modern re-focused beams) then we are reliant on IPTV to see some mother country TV. So for a while it was either a) use the internet, b) Skype, c) VoIP, d) TV. It was awfully complicated and made technology look really bad. However, with a 4G mast only 2km away my Android phone is convinced it can download at 40Mb/s (and does). So after a lot of searching and hassle I now have an uncapped, unlimited 24/7 4G connection using a ZTE modem. We typically get 30-40Mb/s down and 15-25Mb/s down. €50 / month on an annual contract. I’m not sure what happens when lots of locals start using 4G and saturate the mast, but for the moment we are in the 21st Century it seems. (p.s.) just spent an unhappy day adding hotfixed and updates to WHS2011 so it can handle UEFI bios and my new lab NUC running windows 10 pro.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hi David, good to hear that you are able to get a 4G plan that is uncapped. Such things don’t exist here in the Netherlands (at least as yet). I’m afraid that your speeds will indeed drop once other people start sharing the mast in earnest – such is the nature of the technology.

      I hope that your WHS2011 is now chugging along – so’s mine, and it had the updates applied a while back to accommodate all our W10 machines. Next year, of course, Microsoft will signal end of mainstream support for WHS2011, but I’m hoping to get a few more years out of it yet.

  2. Mark says:

    Hopefully they will get you guys back on track. You are far better than the US though. Here, we are at 73.4% penetration of “broadband” which is defined as “faster than dialup” – nice and ambiguous so they numbers can be high.

    Digging around, in one report ( http://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/exploring_the_digital_nation_-_americas_emerging_online_experience.pdf )uses “faster than dialup” while another defines it as 384k. yes, that is “k”!

    Rural areas are particularly hard hit, with the latest info ( https://www.fcc.gov/reports/2015-broadband-progress-report ) saying “20 percent lack access even to service at 4 Mbps/1 Mbps” and in practice, the cost of service at decent speeds is beyond what a large percentage of the population can afford even if they could get it.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      “faster than dialup”? – yup, that would certainly cover a multitude of sins! It’s true that the situation here in the Netherlands overall is very good. It just rankles a bit when I look to my neighbours in the little town not 3 kilometres distant who have 500 Mbps courtesy of KPN’s cable laying company – the same company that won’t invest anywhere beyond the town’s boundaries.

  3. Matt Healy says:

    Maybe you can work with one of those neighbors 3km from you to connect this way:
    http://ronja.twibright.com/

    We have the opposite problem with Internet from our suburban condominium. In the living room connecting directly to the router by Ethernet we consistently get well over 20 Mbps download according to http://speedof.me/ but here at the opposite end of our apartment http://speedof.me/ just now says 4.88 Mbps download speed due to interference from our neighbors’ WiFi devices: this computer can see SEVEN different WiFi routers right now.

    Sometimes I download large files onto a tablet device next to the router, than carry to this room and copy by USB cable onto this computer.

    I’ve considered running Ethernet inside walls but that seems like a lot of trouble.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hah! We have thought about wireless links using RF, but not using light… Something to be filed in the “interesting” folder, perhaps. Re your interference from your neighbours’ WiFi – have you tried moving to another channel?

      • Matt Healy says:

        We’ve tried various things, but all the channels seem to be filled with RF noise. Fortunately, in every room except this one it’s fine so we just put up with slower speed in here.

  4. Pingback: The Continuing Saga of Broadband Internet | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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