Be / O2 Internet issues… again!

So on getting up this morning I found that I had no Internet (that is, web, mail or other IP) connectivity to any site outside of the UK, and even then the UK-based sites were patchy at best.  I thought at first that someone’s nearby WiFi box had switched channels again, but even over a cable things were still just as bad.  I kept an eye on the Be forums and discovered that this was a nationwide problem, with LINKS being blamed again by many.  As yet there’s no online confirmation of anything being fixed, but the connection reliability has been improving throughout the morning.

This the third such major outage I’ve experienced with Be/O2 over the last year, and it’s getting quite tiring.  Makes me wonder whether it’s time to change ISP again?

Bethere forum down?

Just got home from a social visit and thought to check on the status of Be’s ongoing struggles with Internet packet loss, and on logging into their forum I was presented with this screen:

Empty Be Forum
Where'd all the posts go?

Huh?  What’s going on here?

UK Internet Packet Loss issues

Pic courtesy http://www.guy-sports.com

For the last couple of days I’ve been noticing that  web pages on mine or my wife’s Macs sometimes do not load completely.  I’m using Chrome and my wife uses Safari, which I think rules any browser-related issue.  I’ve noticed the same issue at work, so I ran some Ping tests and I’m finding something like 2-4% packet loss between our London office location and the BBC News website.  Usually I’d expect this to be 0%.  No wonder some things aren’t loading properly.

The issue occurs regardless of whether we’re using WiFi or cable to connect to the router.  Given that O2 and Be share some backhaul for ADSL2 services I’m not surprised that I’m seeing the same issue at home (O2 24Mb) and at work (Be “Pro” 24Mb).  What did surprise me was trying our BT Business Broadband 8Mb ADSL connection and finding the same issue, with similar frequency.

A thread appeared on the Be customer forums yesterday, but I cannot link to it here as it needs login credentials.  What I can link to is a related post on the Be unofficial usergroup, explaining that “Strange Things” are ongoing – affecting traffic to random websites at random intervals.

I’m wondering if this is a common experience, and whether anyone out there knows what the problem is?

Lessons for web development…

Been having some issues with ParcelForce and some other companies of late due to their bad website content.  These fails tend to be because information is incomplete, only available via Flash/ActiveX, or just laid out badly.

All of which got me wondering about how to advise companies of the correct usage of web standards so that their systems are available to all without unnecessary hassle.  Some quick Google searching took me to this site explaining good HTML practice in plain and simple terms, and I stayed long enough to read what the author had to say.

Yes, I really am that terminally sad that I care about this stuff, even if I abuse it myself rather too often!

UPDATE:

Hee… and in a fit of splendid irony, I just tried passing the home page of this blog through the W3C Standards validator. And lo, 90 errors, with several warnings.  Probably more now that I’ve just abused the href tags in that last sentence!

Good to see WordPress doing their bit too! ;o)

BBC to launch “HD” sound on Radio 3 iPlayer

It seems that the BBC is due to launch “HD” audio streaming for its online radio broadcasting, starting with their Radio 3 service in December 2010. They’ll also be running a trial of the technology for this year’s Radio 2 Electric Proms on 28th to 30th October 2010.

Currently we’re used to listening to many BBC national and local stations on iPlayer, most (perhaps all) of which use 128Kbps AAC encoding in stereo. These streams have not been running in their current form for all that long, and brought significant improvements over the previous up-to-56Kbps RealPlayer streams both in terms of quality and accessibility, making hi-fi playback of online radio streams pleasurable for the first time, and certainly a big improvement over the audio quality DAB currently offers.

Initially the new “HD” stream will only be avalailable for Radio 3, and will use 320Kbps AAC-LC stereo encoding. Experts with more knowledge than I can explain what the difference means from a technical perspective, and therefore why it is seen as such an improvement. I’ve not yet listened to any of the trials that were arranged for this years Proms, but in my work I find myself playing with many different audio and video compression systems for online distribution and I have to say that there is a significant difference between 128Kbps and 320Kbps AAC audio. The former is “good enough” for many, but the latter is so close to either “lossless” or “PCM” in various forms that many won’t be able to tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed sources.

This is a huge step in the right direction – digital audio broadcasting in the UK has long suffered demonstrable quality issues that are easily audible even on small DAB receivers and laptops, so anything that kills these audio data compression artefacts is a very good thing. Despite the lower-quality MPEG encoding currently used by DAB, I’d love to see them lose some of the fringe stations and put the extra bandwidth to better use on the national stations.

Certainly I’ll be very interested to hear the new HD streaming during the Electric Proms – and will report back here with my findings.

Links here:

BBC Radio Blog entry

BBC Radio 3 Blog entry

BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms (no mention on here yet of HD trials)

Silliness with BT Openzone

BACKGROUND

I’m an O2 iPhone customer, who happens to have free ‘unlimited’ WiFi bundled with my contract.  In theory, this means I can help O2 by letting their affiliated WiFi providers take some of the data strain as I wander around London navigating, browsing, status-updating, twitter-feeding or even knocking out some emails while I’m waiting for something to happen somewhere in meatspace. In my experience so far, BT Openzone has had more wifi hotspots than the other affiliated providers, so while waiting for a train one morning I attempted to log into one of the access points in Charing Cross.  Once logged in, the theory is that the phone remembers the network name and attaches to it whenever it finds it. There are problems however that BT/Apple/O2 really need to fix if they hope to maintain the best user (customer) experience.

PROBLEMS

  1. Logging in for the first time. With both iPhones I’ve had to call O2 to have them re-send my details to BT to have it added to the list of authorised users.  I had to wait an hour or two for this update to take effect. I then had to log into the base station, which required me to switch the WiFi to BT Openzone, then attempt to load a web page in Safari. If I tried to check my email or Facebook app, nothing happened except an error message after some minutes informing me that I had no connection to the Internet.  FYI, despite my technical background, knowledge and experience, I would argue that really the only thing that separates me from ‘normal’ users is my cantankerous determination to make my chosen products and devices behave as (or better than) advertised. I’m all too regularly disappointed by how much of my time and effort most products and services take to be coaxed into even the most basic levels of ‘does what it says on the tin’. This little exercise has been no exception.
  2. Network name confusion. When is a BT Openzone not a BT Openzone? When you’re at an airport, rail station or any other area with a captive audience, where the service is actually charged at a higher rate, regardless of whether one is an existing member or not.  Or even just because the owner of the building says so. It’s not just about me being a cheapskate. These stations exist in other areas too. If memory serves, BT Business users have the option built-in to their 2-Wire routers to use a limited amount of their ADSL bandwidth to create a secondary (chargeable) WiFi network for their staff, customers or visitors. In use this advertises itself as an Openzone site, but is excluded from the unlimited WiFi deal given to O2. Confusion reigns.
  3. Connection failures. Many of the base stations just plain don’t work. Either the logon process is borked or there’s no connection between the base station and the Internet.  We customers don’t often know where the boxes actually are, so we don’t know how to complain (or to whom we should) to get them fixed.  The result of this is that when walking through an unfamiliar part of London, iPhone users who sign up to the service even just once end up not being able to see or interact with anything requiring Internet connectivity until the WiFi features of their phone are turned off. That means no email updates. No navigation by the built-in Google Maps app. Nice.

SOLUTIONS

  • BT could rename the second tier Openzone charged service base stations, separating their Openzone brand from the allegedly ‘premier’ service. That way it’s clear from the network name that the base station is different, and may be charged differently.
  • BT certainly need to up their game with regards to maintaining their base stations.
  • O2 could renegotiate their terms such that all BT Openzone hotspots are covered, including those at Airports and other prime locations.
  • Apple could make their network stack switch more quickly back to the mobile network if the phone is unable to ping to one of their servers because WiFi is not working, not logged in etc.
  • Alternatively, Apple could provide a home-screen app or shortcut, toggling the WiFi capability on or off. Even on the multitasking iPhone 4 hardware and OS, it’s a bit of a chore to get to the settings menu and flip the WiFi switch.

In all cases, those designing, building, maintaining or selling such systems need to be using them, regularly and as designed, so they know the customer experience for themselves. No hacks, no workarounds, no inside knowledge. Exactly as the customer would be instructed. Then we will make progress.

Meanwhile, next time I’m near an Openzone network I’ll be telling my iPhone to ‘forget this network’. It’s a nice idea to be able to switch to WiFi and only use the mobile network when faster connections are not available, but as of right now it’s just not worth the hassle to the end user.

Or perhaps I’m the only one trying to use an iPhone to find my bearings when i’m out and about?