Sunday, 29 January 2006

Connected Communities Broadband: review

Connected Communities Broadband was installed in our house (on the island of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides) on Friday 27th January 2006. We both work from home, doing most of our work online. I do self-employed work for education ICT bodies, while Ruth does proofreading. Consequently, having a reliable broadband service is essential to us.

It is now Sunday 29th; after a few days of rigorous testing, here are some notes from our personal experience. Click on the images in this blog entry to see larger versions.

There are also some pictures of the installation on the Isle of Berneray community website.

Hardware installation

This was quite straightforward. A team of 4 or 5 people do it, taking just over an hour on our property.


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Installation involves having a four-sided dish on a short metal pole attached to the side of your house. In an ironic touch, the dish is similar to the “passing place” road signs, only slightly smaller (and much smaller than a Sky TV dish). The installers first check, using the dish hooked up to their own equipment, that a strong enough signal can be received from the place where the dish goes.

The dish is bracketed to the side of your house. The installers then run a cable from it to a point near to your computer inside (this usually involves them drilling through your house somewhere). They were very good in running it where we wanted (in our case through a ventilation grill, through our basement, and up through the floor into my office). The installers attached the cable to the walls at regular intervals.

In my office, the cable feeds into a box (5 inches by 2) they attached in the corner. This was plugged into the mains, so it needs to be near a mains socket. A third wire out of the box is a five metre Ethernet cable that plugs into your computer, or router.


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If you stand underneath the dish and there is power flowing through it, then you will see various lights. On the right are ten bars; these are the signal strength. When you have a signal they are green; most of the time we have between 2 and 4 green bars. When you don’t have a signal, they are replaced by a single red bar.

The other lights seem to indicate whether power is on or not, whether there is an ethernet connection or not, and whether there is transmission (this is more of an educated guess rather than fact). We have got a mirror on the windowsill, so we can see all of the lights from inside the kitchen.

The installation team were excellent. Friendly and efficient, and had got the hang of it by the time they had come to ours (we were in the second day of installations here). They were careful with doing anything with the house, kept offering to clean up any mess they had made (there was hardly any), explained the paperwork and what they were going to do, tested the service and gave a quick demo on their own laptop when it was all installed. Good people.

 I hope they stay on the job of installing dishes to households, as their attitude and professionalism will help to instill confidence in the service. (Having said all that, a good storm 10 will be the true test of how well the system has been fitted externally!).

Berneray coverage

Coverage on Berneray turns out to be patchy at this point of time. The installers were here for 2 days, and attempted installation at 9 properties. It was successful in only 4. Of the 5 unsuccessful ones:

  • 2 require poles in order for the dish to be in a better line of sight and obtain a signal

  • 2 in Borve could only point to Cleitreabhal a Deas (see below)

  • 1 in Backhill could only point to Rodel (see below)


If your house is one of the minority that has a clear line of sight to the Loch Portain transmitter, then installation should be problem-free.

Otherwise, option two is the Rodel transmitter. This is part of the Connected Communities spine i.e. it forms a relay between other transmitters going down the Outer Hebrides. However, it is not yet a node i.e. you cannot point a dish off it and access the Internet. There are legal issues concerning this that the Connected Communities service is currently trying to overcome.

The Cleitreabhal a Deas node looks like it is currently too far away in order to provide a signal. This is a problem as much of Borve, as well as the houses near Loch Bhrusda (one of which is occupied by the most technically savvy of Berneray residents) are in a line of sight of this transmitter. In addition, it could provide a service to other nearby places/people that want broadband, such as the sole resident of Boreray island

It has been mooted that the power on this transmitter is increased to see if that will increase the signal. In addition, there are still plans to put a relay transmitter on Berneray in order to increase coverage. The closure of the school and uncertainty as to the future ownership of the area have apparently caused a setback there.

Software installation

The only real problem we have had is with setting up our PC and Mac to use the Connected Communities broadband. There is a different disc for the Mac and the PC. The Mac disc has a set of instructions on the back. The instructions on the back of the PC installation disc are so brief as to be useless. They also start at “step 5” and refer to “step 4”.

We both spent an hour or so each figuring out how to install a connection, and we had to learn a bit about networking and stuff. One problem was that we were putting in the wrong password (it wasn’t clear which one to use).

The website didn’t have any useful / relevant  information. In my case, the software seemed to install Connected Communities as a dial-up connection(!) that of course didn’t work. I’ve also had trouble uninstalling this.

After a while (I run Windows XP), I figured out that I needed (in Network Connections) to activate the Local Area Connection option (in LAN or High-Speed Internet), and to manually create a Broadband connection. This worked.

All four of us on Berneray have had some kind of problem with getting the software side of it set-up, and/or dial-up options intruding.

Connection

Connection is pretty much instantaneous, taking less than 1 second. Also, I don’t have to listen to the modem doing its electronic beeping medley for a while, which is something I will not miss.

I am currently starting the connection manually, as I haven’t worked out yet how to make it happen automatically when I start up the computer.

Data transfer speeds

We have the 25 pounds per month package, which provides a speed of 1Mb/s both up and down. In other words, downloading a large file should be just as quick as uploading a large file. We have a limit of 10Gb of data per month.

Various trials we have done since installation indicate that we are getting fast speeds. The speed has consistently been at, or a bit over, 10 seconds per 1Mb of download and upload. For example, this meant that this morning (for the first time on Berneray) one person was able to email another a pair of uncompressed digital camera pictures totalling 4Mb in size. As the recipient, the email with attachments took less than 40 seconds to download.

Web pages are quicker, and in many cases as good as instantaneous (especially when using ONSPEED – see below). File downloads, which are the bane of working, are now feasible and don’t need to be carefully considered first (tying up the phone line; what if I want to do something else online etc).

We tried it this morning with a huge file. From the Education Arcade video archive, I chose the 9:15 to 11:00 session video (partially as the footage mentions what I do for a living!). This is 209 Mb in size; remember also that when you download files, the amount of data that is downloaded is often larger as various system data is also transferred; the true data download size for this file is nearer 230 Mb.

Over Connected Communities broadband, the file took 32 minutes and 50 seconds to download.

I wouldn’t dare, or bother, to try the full file download on dial-up. A 1Mb file on dial-up has just taken 2 minutes and 14 seconds to download; assuming the same speed, the 209Mb file would have taken 7 hours and 47 minutes. In other words, based on this one observation, the broadband download is 15 times faster than the dial-up download. Yipee!!

There is one caveat, in that there are few people connected to the service at the moment; in addition, doing testing on a weekend will, I suspect, lead to quicker speeds as schools and health centres are not online. How the speed degrades as more people join up to the service will be something we will be keeping a close eye on.

An added bonus is discovering that ONSPEED works in conjunction with this broadband service. ONSPEED is a bit of software that costs 25 pounds a year. It compresses some (but not all) files (especially graphics) that are being downloaded to, or uploaded from, your computer over the Internet, by routing your Internet data through its system. The data is decompressed on your computer and displayed in your web browser as normal. Click on the picture to the left to read the data statistics from one brief Connected Communities broadband online session.

The speed increase depends largely on what type of data and file types you are downloading or uploading; the claim on the ONSPEED website of 5 times faster is perhaps pushing it, but it does make a significant difference. I would say that in most sessions it increases the speed by between 50% and 100%. As well as increasing the speed of download, using ONSPEED helps reduce the amount of data download/upload that you do. This could be useful if you think you will get close to your monthly data allocation.

Reliability and robustness

It is here where there is a significant problem for the two of us. Every few hours, we lose the signal for between 10 and 20 minutes. Turning the system off and on at the mains has no effect; the signal/connection comes back on of its own accord. This is a problem that has to be sorted out before we can confidently use the service for contracted work of our own. It may be a tuning problem. At least one other Berneray resident with broadband has also had brief periods of signal loss.

Alternately, it may be a signal strength problem. We have noticed that our signal fluctuates between 4 green bars and only 1 green bar (out of 10), and that the other aerials on Berneray show only 2 or 3 green bars. We aren’t technical and therefore don’t know, but it is possible that boosting the power on the Loch Portain transmitter will eradicate this problem?

In addition, we have had no wind or rain for quite some time now (yes, we are in the Outer Hebrides!). How the service will cope with strong winds and lashing rain is a big question that many people have asked, and will be a major factor in the long term success or failure of this kind of broadband. It is notable that during the hurricane of January 2005, we never lost our phone line connection (despite our mains electricity and water being lost). Our online work at the time was therefore unaffected by the weather. It is hoped that the Connected Communities service can be equally robust.

Summary

The bottom line is that, with a few caveats, the technology works. You can sit in a house in the Outer Hebrides and access stuff over the Internet at fast, broadband speeds. You can send and receive large email attachments in seconds, watch online TV, download video and do all manner of things that you wouldn’t on dial-up. The equipment is unobtrusive, and professionally installed.

Those caveats. The loss of service issue with us is a problem that will impact on work. Coverage out here is still patchy, with only a minority of houses in Berneray able to currently have installation. We haven’t seen if or how weather affects the service yet; and also, we haven’t seen how quickly they can fix things when they go wrong. There needs to be much better software installation and related information, else the support/help service will get swamped. These issues will unravel one way or the other in the near future.

Having broadband also frees up your phone line. A few of us who have it here on Berneray have suddenly noticed the novel phenomenon of being online and having the phone ringing at the same time. Actually it’s proving personally very irritating, especially marketing phone calls which we never had before as they could never get through. We may contemplate getting rid of our phone line in the future.

Anyway, at this moment while I type this I am sitting in my "office" (a 10 second "commute" from my kitchen, bedroom, video game room etc) on Berneray, with a panoramic view of the Sound of Harris on one side (seals jumping out and in of the water, a heron fishing where my garden meets the sea, distant mountains on Harris and Skye). On the other side of me, my laptop is video streaming the evening news from New Zealand (it’s been hot there today) and Hawaii (soaring property taxes in Oahu angering residents), without buffering or download delay. The life / work / play balance doesn’t get much better than this…

Tuesday, 17 January 2006

Happy Ariadne Day!

LaGrange library

The second digital information service anniversary of the week. After Sunday's 5th anniversary of Wikipedia, today sees the 10th anniversary of the slightly less well-known Ariadne.

This is a kind of electronic journal for the library and information sciences. I had the fun of being the creator of the web version at UKOLN, and the editor for the first 10 issues before I left to work at the hippy colony otherwise known as the ILRT.

The first three issues look particularly awful, but the change of style after that was a big improvement. Wish I'd retroconverted those early issues to the better style, but whatever. All a long time ago now, though it was possibly the most enjoyable thing I've done in salaried employment; everything webbie was new and exciting.

It was also a brilliant method of building up a contact base, and it's been interesting, this last evening, to see what happened to the authors of articles in the first few editions.

Sunday, 15 January 2006

Happy Wikipedia Day!

The first of this weeks digital information service anniversaries.

Today is January 15th, which means it is Wikipedia Day. And this years' anniversary marks the day five years ago when Wikipedia went public:

The English Wikipedia alone now has more than 918,000 articles, with over 340,000,000 words. The combined Wikipedias for all languages have an estimated total of over 3,100,000 articles in some two hundred languages. Eighty-four of the non-English Wikipedias have over 1,000 articles, thirty-six have over 10,000 and seven have over 100,000.


For a few days now, Wikipedia has been listed on Alexa as the 20th most popular website in the world.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which anyone can add to or edit. The aim is to collect all human knowledge in one, easy to locate and update, system. It's the online service I use the most as both a reader and contributer. One of the pages I've had a hand in developing is on Berneray itself.

For the people who get a bit hot under the collar at the Wikipedia model of "Anyone can edit anything", don't bore me with your objections - go and read this instead.

Saturday, 14 January 2006

Rain, sun, rain, sun; repeat...

The last two days has seen constantly changing weather sweeping over us. Rain shower is followed by sun followed by heavy rain, then bright sun. And so forth.

Yesterday afternoon was a case in point. Mid-afternoon, the rain suddenly became worse, and for 30 minutes or so we encountered white-out conditions. The wind picked up, sea and sky merged into one, and the spindrift swirled off the tops of waves, over the harbour walls. It made for entertaining viewing from our kitchen (which is basically a sea viewing gallery), and the excuse for another cup of tea.

Then it all blew over; bright skies and no wind. A stroll to our local shop was rewarded with a spectacular sunset, the south-western sky a myriad of red, purples and oranges. Wish I'd had my camera with me.

And that's part of the fun of living here. Don't like the weather? Put the kettle on, have another cup of tea, and it'll probably change by the time you've drained your mug.

Thursday, 12 January 2006

Living with bad weather

The Herald has an article about the first anniversary of the hurricane of 2005, discussing some of the issues with causeways.

I've been lucky enough to visit the West Indies a number of times for cricket-related reasons. Though unlucky enough to be there for not one, but two, hurricanes. People are used to them; they toddle down to the local storm shelter, drink rum and play dominos, and generally have a good time. When it goes quiet for the second time (the first time being when the eye passes over), people get out, fix up their houses, and carry on as before.

Okay, it's a completely different socio-economic situation to Scotland, and to the Outer Hebrides. But we don't live in hurricane or tornado alley, or any of the other large swathes of the world prone to typhoons or other regular extreme weather. Many millions of people do; they have adapted to it, and don't evacuate.

So it is annoying when somone is interviewed who says that unless things are done quickly, the Outer Hebrides will "go the same way as St Kilda" and be depopulated. Utter hysterical twaddle, but it makes a nice dramatic "soundbite" for the tea-time news. We live on the stormiest part of the UK, but it isn't anything like the West Indies; there's no logical reason why people should leave the islands because of the weather. Put sensible systems in place to minimise weather damage long-term, and be done with it.

Amateur journalism and the Outer Hebrides

North Tonight, a regional news programme on ITV, did a report from Benbecula today. This concentrated on the damage caused by the hurricane of this day last year, and the repairs (perceived, actual and lack of) to the infrastructure.

The report was dire. Most of the time was spent by the reporter spinning off a stream of cliches that could be applied to any place that had suffered a natural disaster. The rest of the time was spent in superficial interviews and discussion, which didn't touch on most of the options available e.g. tunnels, ferries, strategic barriers, tidal/wave strings that also reduce erosion. Instead, it was a tiresome "government is bad for not supporting" "government is good for supporting" black hats / white hats knockabout, with a lack of factual information.

Sometimes, it grates that there is little about the Outer Hebrides mentioned in the media. But it's probably better to have no mention, than shallow, dumbed-down, simplified-to-the-point-of-misleading reporting such as this. There are courses and academic training centres for journalists now; you wouldn't think it, watching local news reports such as these.

As a side point; there are many days of great weather here. Have a look at the gallery in the Berneray Community website for examples. But every news report I have seen for the last five years from the Outer Hebrides has footage of miserable weather.

Wednesday, 11 January 2006

Something nasty lurks nearby

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the hurricane that slammed into the Outer Hebrides. Despite being stronger than hurricane Katrina and causing loss of life in the Uists, there was little mention of it in the UK media (unlike the usual hysterics when a snowflake falls on a Kent road).

By an unpleasant coincidence, something nasty is passing to the north and west of us at the moment. Conditions outside have been variable today; I managed to walk a mile up the road against the wind mid-afternoon, but was exhausted at the end of it. Getting back would have been literally effortless if I had kept and used my old skateboard. As this is the third one of our hurricane season, I am labelling it "Chrisetta".

The pressure at the centre of the storm is 947 millibars. That's seriously low, and I hope very much that there are no fishing or other small boats out in that.

The met office have released the following storm warning:


THE SHIPPING FORECAST ISSUED BY THE MET OFFICE, ON BEHALF OF
THE MARITIME AND COASTGUARD AGENCY, AT 1725 ON TUESDAY
10 JANUARY 2006.

HEBRIDES BAILEY FAIR ISLE FAEROES
SOUTH VEERING SOUTHWEST SEVERE GALE 9 TO VIOLENT STORM 11,
INCREASING HURRICANE FORCE 12 FOR A TIME, THEN VEERING WEST
7 TO SEVERE GALE 9. SQUALLY SHOWERS. MODERATE OR POOR.



Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Gaelic names

It's a small world. Ruth's mother's cousin was married to the second cousin of Fred (i.e. they shared a great grandparent), the person who built An Caladh (the house we live in). This means that Ruth is sort-of connected to most of the residents of Berneray. Though not by blood - or perhaps she is, as she has apparently relatives in the Ballalan area of Lewis, her great-grandparents were crofters from Armadale in Skye and there is a family house, also with long ancestry on the Inner Hebridean island of Easdale.

It's amusing to see TV programmes such as "Who do you think you are?", where nice, simple vertical family trees are depicted, like tall trees with very few branches. Visual representations of family trees of Hebridean people, of which I've seen a few, tend to be an extremely complex network (opening up interesting applications in the field of graph theory), unfathomable to most non-Hebrideans. I've heard complaints from locals that much commercial genealogy software tends to be inadequate for capturing, viewing and analysing their ancestral information.

This lineage and ancestry is extremely important in the Outer Hebrides - to the extent that, to a Hebridean, your family history literally forms part of your Gaelic name. Some of the components, and structures, of names are obviously influenced by the several centuries of enlightened Norse occupation of these islands.

For example, back to Fred. In the english language, his name is Fred MacLeod. In Gaelic, his name is: mac Dhomhnaill Thormoid Dhomhnaill Mhoir.

Mac means "son of". Beag means "small", and Mhoir means "big". So Fred's name translates as: Fred, son of Donald, son of Norman, son of big Donald. Therefore, encapsulated in his name is the generational history of Fred going back to a great-grandparent, and including an adjective to differentiate the great-grandparent from other Donalds of the time.

Thus, when two people of Outer Hebridean lineage meet, one may say "To whom do you belong?" (basically, the same as "What is your name?"). The answer, as the Gaelic name, can often provide enough detail for the listener to work out where, in the ancestoral network, the person is connected.

We have two phone books here. The BT one, which is practically useless, as it covers an enormous geographic area; it takes most of the day to travel to the other side of its coverage.

Of more use is the Outer Hebrides phonebook. Names are in English, but addresses are in Gaelic. To make it slightly more complicated, Berneray is omitted from local addresses, so our address is An-Caladh, Backhill, Uibhist A Tuath (this last bit being "North Uist").

(Thanks to Fred for patiently explaining this to me shortly after we moved here).

Monday, 9 January 2006

Spoke too soon…

Woke up to our first January storm early this morning...
Issued by the Met Office at 0500 UTC on Monday 09 January.
Inshore Waters Forecast to 12 miles offshore from 0500 UTC to 0500 UTC.

Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath including the Outer Hebrides.

24 hour forecast:
Wind: south 7 to severe gale 9 veering southwest 5 or 6 by evening, then backing south 4 or 5 overnight.
Weather: rain at times.
Visibility: moderate or good .
Sea State: rough or very rough, occasionally high in exposed northwest waters.
Outlook for the following 24 hours:
Wind: south 4 or 5 veering southwest 7 to severe gale 9 during day, then veering west 6 to gale 8 overnight.
Weather: rain, perhaps heavy, during day, becoming showery overnight.
Visibility: moderate or good, occasionally poor during day.
Sea State: rough or very rough, occasionally high in northwest.

Blogger Arnish Lighthouse is reporting a force 11 blowing through Stornoway. It's not too bad here - our "rule of thumb" is that it's really bad outside when you can't tell where the sea and sky meet, and when the sea spray is over the roof of Christine and Andy's house. But, looking at the rolling waves, it is certainly not the day to be out in a boat.

Recent weather

The weather over much of December and the first week of January has been a great improvement on the same period last year. Many days of clear sky, and relatively little wind and rain have provided much opportunity for walking. The lack of the combination of strong wind and hail has meant that we haven't been stuck in the house so far this winter.


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The picture shows Loch Bhrusda on Boxing Day; not a gust of wind, and the loch (which supplies our water) was the perfect mirror image of the near cloudless sky.

This late afternoon we stepped outside to see the International Space Station arc to the south. As bright as the brightest star, it was surprising to see how quickly it moved across the sky.

Sunday, 8 January 2006

Recovery

It's taken a week of 10-hour sleeps (marvellous), but I think I've recovered from the obscene eating, drinking and dancing(!) spree that was Christmas and New Year on Berneray.

The annual Christmas meal took place on the thursday before New Year in the community hall. This is organised by Berneray Christmas Club. 109 people for the meal (though only about half of the resident population of Berneray were amongst this number), followed by one of Berneray's famous Ceilidhs. The meal was dished up by around 20 of the "women of Berneray" while several "men of Berneray" were involved in wine-waitering, cooking for the 20-odd women, and washing up.

The food was good, though it was a bit disappointing to discover afterwards that it wasn't sourced very locally - which is kinda odd in the current ethos of supporting and sustaining local community services. A pity. Apart from that, and one (lone) person trying to be as rude as possible, there was a total absence of spats, tantrums and "scenes" - unlike most Christmas parties up and down the land, there won't be lots of people groaning "I wish I hadn't done that" the day after.

More about the sustainability issue in future postings on this blog.

The dance was something else. I am baffled at the stamina of residents who can consume a four-course meal, a frightening amount of wine, and then do several hours of fast, complex and intricate dancing. You have to be at a Berneray Ceilidh to appreciate this.

There are a few pictures of the meal and dance on our community website.

Hogmanay brings first-footing, where after the bells residents generally pop round to various houses. As per last year, ended up (with many others) at the MacAskills in Borve - possibly the friendliest and most welcoming people I've met in my life. Much merriment, whisky (a Berneray "single" is equivalent to a mainland "quadruple"), nibbles and sausage rolls. Then off to Farquhars (I've probably spelt that wrong - sorry) with Fred, Cathy-Ann and one of the many Andy's, then back to Wester Rhumhor where Kenny (ferry skipper), Patricia and a collection of locals and visitors were in full swing until 7 in the morning. Tactically a good move finishing there, as oor hoose is opposite and below, so literally rolled into bed.

Next morning: "I'll never drink again". Till next Christmas...