In this retrospective article, Michael Dargue reminds us of what it was like when there was only dial-up in the UK. As the internet grew and applications became more sophisticated and rich, so have expectations of what we can retrieve online and how quickly. See how internet access picked up speed and capacity over the last 25 years.

The Dial-Up Years

It may be hard to believe, but 25 years ago there was no broadband. To access the web in the 90s, you either needed a dial-up modem or a dedicated leased line. Leased lines were unaffordable for home use. So dial-up it was.

I’ll be honest… dial-up access wasn’t great. The speed really sucked and it tied up your home phone line so you couldn’t make or receive calls while connected. Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad nowadays, but back then few people had mobiles and residential lines were a lot more popular than they are now. Also – in the UK at least – the call charges were a killer. It took the UK several years to move away from per-minute pricing for dial-up access.

Of all the problems with dial-up, the speed was the worst. Measured in 10s of kbps it was a literally a thousand times slower than current broadband services. Users had to wait patiently for web pages to reveal themselves and if you wanted to download a file it could take several minutes to arrive. The speeds were so bad that it was common practice back then for websites to add helpful notes indicating how long each file would take to download.

It’s sad to say, but I can recall when I upgraded to a US Robotics 56k modem. Even worse, I still remember the noise the modem made when connecting (click here if you want to reminisce)[i]. But these were the days when you really had to wait for each web page to load. And a shiny new modem that would cut your wait time in half was not to be sniffed at.

However, my gains in speed were only temporary. Throughout the 90s, websites were continuously becoming more sophisticated and richer in content. Sadly, this also meant longer times to load pages and browse the web. For an Internet user back then, it was as if the pace of the web was always one step ahead of you. The number of wasted seconds spent downloading unwanted banner ads was truly painful.

Enter Broadband

This all changed in the year 2000. At the time, I was working for an ISP and was lucky to be one of the first in the UK to get a home broadband connection. Straight away, it was clear there could be no going back. The experience was in a completely different league to dial-up. No longer limited to 10s of kbps, I now had 2Mbps! It was like getting off a bicycle and stepping into a Ferrari. I could now zoom about the web at speed.

The engineering breakthrough in DSL broadband was to carry the data in the unused frequencies, alongside the “narrowband” audio voice call. With the right filters in place, both services could then operate in parallel. Cable broadband employed a similar technique on its hybrid fiber-coax network, carving out spectrum to carry data alongside TV.

The change was so great that websites like Heavy.com launched specifically to serve broadband users with rich content. These early sites presaged the spectacular rise of video entertainment on the Internet. Today, video makes up the vast majority of the net’s traffic, driven by YouTube, Netflix and countless others.

Aside from the speed kick – and perhaps even more revolutionary – was the fact that broadband access was “always on”. With dial-up, users always had an eye on the clock. With broadband, that was no longer a concern. You could leave your PC connected to the Internet 24x7 if you wanted to. No one was counting the minutes any more.

Not only did this mean people spent more time online, it also increased the range of potential applications. With an always on connection, it became possible to run your own webserver at home if you wanted to. It also provided a platform for peer-to-peer networking, allowing P2P apps like Skype and Spotify to flourish, alongside Napster and many other file sharing programs.

Speed Wars

Ever since broadband first became available, there has been a fixation on speed. Over the next 10 years, my 2Mbps connection went to “up to 8Mbps” and then to “up to 24Mbps” – impressive advances in both technology and marketing! Fortunately, I lived not too far from the local BT exchange and got about 16Mbps or so.

Others were not so lucky. As DSL performance depends on the length and quality of the connection to the exchange, consumers found they were in a postcode lottery when it came to broadband speed. Homes that were too far away, or connected by aluminium rather than copper, didn’t make the grade.

For those fortunate to have a choice of network operators, speed became a key weapon in the battle for market share between cable operators (MSOs) and telcos. Successive generations of cable broadband and DSL technologies have edged speeds ever upwards as providers have sought to keep pace with one another.

However, by the late 00s, the telcos had squeezed out pretty much the last drop of performance from the copper lines from the exchange. Going faster was going to require a new approach, a next generation access network.

The Next Generation

To overcome the distance limitations of DSL, telcos had two options available The first, was to significantly shorten the length of the copper lines, by moving the DSL equipment from the exchange buildings to street cabinets much closer to the customers (“Fiber to the Cabinet”, FTTC). The second was to abandon copper altogether and move to fiber (“Fiber to the Home”, FTTH).

Cable operators didn’t face the same distance challenges as their telco cousins. Having digitized their cable networks, they’ve been able to increase speeds largely through spectrum reallocation and new modulation schemes. Cablecos also have the option of “node splitting” – sharing the available capacity between fewer end customers – as demand grows.

Using these techniques has propelled cable broadband beyond 100Mbps and even 1Gbps is now possible – residential speeds that no one would have dreamt of 25 years ago. For telcos, current FTTC technology tops out at about 80 – 100Mbps, so keeping up with cable now requires a new round of network investment.

A Fiber Future

Like many in the UK, I’ve made the switch from regular DSL to “fiber broadband” (FTTC). My broadband is now “up to 52Mbps” and, to be honest, it meets our current needs. The question is for how much longer.

Ever since the early days of the web, consumers have constantly wanted better network performance. The emergence of online applications such as video calling, watching catch-up TV and real-time online gaming have all increased the need for speed. Who knows what we’ll be using our broadband connection for next. Will it be watching ultra-high definition TV on Netflix, or immersive VR gaming?

It’s clear that bandwidth needs will grow, but predicting exactly when the existing networks will run out of puff is harder.

Ultimately full fiber is going to be needed, but the big question is when. Given the time and cost of building out large scale FTTH networks, when should operators start the migration and how fast should they go? Should they sweat the copper network further (e.g. using G.fast to go to ~300Mbps) or move directly to a full fiber network?

Given the importance of the Internet to our connected lives, the answer to these questions matter not just to consumers at a personal level, but to society and the economy at large. <>

To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector


Notes:

[i] “Remember 56k modems?” https://youtu.be/p8XKhCfsTts - Uploaded by Masoolsa, YouTube, September 2009.