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Mac Planet: Ultra fast broadband

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Changing to a network running on fibre-optic cables offers considerable speed increases. Photo / Thinkstock
Changing to a network running on fibre-optic cables offers considerable speed increases. Photo / Thinkstock

I recently had the chance to test the type of ultra fast (ie fibre-optic) broadband Vodafone could be offering to its customers where it's available - in other words, in places where Chorus has put it into streets, like it's currently doing around parts of Grey Lynn, somewhat inexplicably.

I say 'inexplicably' as I thought the UFB was supposed to be for industry and schools. Anyway, as you probably realise, we currently use copper-wire (ie, telephone line) based broadband. Changing to a network running on fibre-optic cables offers considerable speed increases.

I had an Orcon account for a while that was quite fast (in my personal experience) at nearly 8MB/s, since Orcon broadband cabinets had been put into Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, but over a couple of years, presumably as more people came onboard, that speed dropped to 5-6MB/s, and I could feel that difference in things like online gaming and the speed of software downloads.

So I recently switched to a Vodafone BB plan that offered slightly better speed for a slightly lower price, and I was quite happy with that plan and speeds of 6-7MB/s.

But then I visited London, and stayed with friends in Gospel Oak. Broadband there seemed really quick, and I was told it was theoretically 30MB/s but they 'only' got 25 ... around five times faster than what I was used to. And they were connected to their router via wi-fi, not even wired into it.

The Vodafone UFB plan I checked out here has a theoretical ceiling of 100MB/s ... so of course, I was keen to try it.

A connection requires a visit from a couple of technicians who physically connect the fibre-optic cable in the street to your house, then mount a router somewhere. This is a Chorus Optical Network Terminal. They like to mount that near your TV, as Vodafone has a deal with Sky, but in this case there was no Sky so the terminal was put on the wall in an office.

Vodafone also supplied a Cisco wireless router that plugs into the fibre-optic one.

In the test case, the wireless component was faulty and this was replaced the following day. Plugged in and set up without recourse to the Chorus technicians, it immediately clocked some dramatic speed increases. At the risk of boring you with numbers, my home broadband setup clocked 7.10mb/s download and 1.13mb/s upload, with a ping of 33ms, tested with the online service Speed Test. (If you see the ad on that site for 'speeding up your Mac', by the way, with MacKeeper, my advice is: don't bother - leave your Mac on all night every month or so and it does all the same things automatically. Every OS X Mac does.)

If you run Speed Test yourself, the following figures will make more sense. With an ethernet cable plugged into the wireless (and wired, obviously) Cisco router from a MacBook Pro, I immediately clocked 86.46mb/s download and 39.5 upload. Ping was 3ms...

Unplugging the router and connecting to it wirelessly lessened the speed, as expected, but it was a radical drop. I normally expect a 10-20 per cent drop, but got 50 per cent: 43.69mb/s download and 40.31 upload. I checked and rechecked, and messed with the settings of the Cisco, but I couldn't get better (perhaps a Chorus technician could, I don't know). However, as an experiment, I plugged an Apple AirPort Extreme into the Cisco router with an ethernet cable and reconnected to the Extreme's wireless network instead.

The improvement was dramatic: 86.74mb/s down, 37.37 up and ping of 7ms. So I just turned the Cisco's wireless off and left the system running on the Apple AirPort Extreme.

What's interesting, really, is that this ultra fast broadband is compatible with Apple's wireless systems, and it's literally 'plug in and go', or at least it was in this case. Vodafone should take note, for installs into Apple households.

In more realistic terms, perhaps, I downloaded a rental movie in iTunes. Colombiana arrives as a 1.6GB file. I started my stopwatch and then got distracted, including renting and downloading the films After the Apocalypse (839.4MB) and Total Recall (4.09GB). When I remembered to check back to see how the download was proceeding, I just caught the end of the download at 12 minutes and 28 seconds ... except that was the third movie finishing download. Now, hardwired in to the old copper broadband, one movie regularly took around 40 minutes, and could take an hour or more depending on network load/time of day, and was longer under wireless alone.

Podcasts aren't all that big, but you could watch the thermometer as they downloaded - with UFB it's a couple of seconds per 'cast.

In general terms, web pages load in a second instead of 6-10. For Mac users, fast broadband becomes important because the latest Macs are getting rid of optical drives and it's the only way to get software onto them now - even big number packages like Logic and Final Cut Pro X are only available in the Mac App Store, and with iCloud, fast connection services become become ever more important. Connections to Call of Duty Black Ops multiplayer stay fast and rock solid even when playing on San José, USA servers - I certainly couldn't do that before.

However, as an early adopter of the 'net, I've consistently noticed declines in speeds as more users came on, and I imagine (but I don't really know) the same applies to fibre-optic.

Also, I don't know what Vodafone will be charging for these services when they become available. There are hours of work involved in getting the connection to your house or office, and some setups may be harder to integrate than the one I looked at, which was pretty easy.

The plan was 200GBs per month and I don't know what that would cost either, since this was a trial account. My own Broadband is around $156 a month for 120GBs and includes free calls in NZ and to Australia. So who knows? I guess we'll find out.

Is the speed impressive? Hell yes. Indispensable? Over to you. If you're a cable TV user, I imagine yes (I'm a big fan of Fatso, myself). If I had an Apple TV to try it with, that would also be a good test, but I don't, sorry.

But if there's anything else you'd like me to try with it, let me know.

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