The tuna in my head

07:30 Friday 15.9.2017

The third vomit was messy. I missed the bowl and dribbly puke ended up on the floor.

But at least the honey I’d put into the porridge meant the vile bitter taste had been ameliorated somewhat.

I lay back down on the wooden floor of the hallway, contemplating my situation with some bemusement and puzzlement.

I didn’t feel in any imminent danger, but certainly didn’t feel like standing up. The headache, my constant morning companion for the last few weeks, was insistent. But I was fully cognisant.

Discussed options with 111. My new reality was that my world comprised a small patch of wooden flooring from which I really didn’t feel like moving. I’m not even sure I could have, even if I’d wanted to.

I dialled 999.

———

The paramedics were professional. Precise. Polite. Efficient. Vital signs all checked out; they used a nearby standard lamp to rig up an IV paracetamol feed to bring near instant relief for the headache, and decided I needed hospital. A hasty kiss with my partner and I made it into the ambulance.

———

The Doctor shut the door. That was enough of a sign, a small clue, another adjustment to a new reality. I knew the news would be bad, but it wasn’t conclusive. They needed more tests to be certain of diagnosis, so I needed to be in a different hospital, where the specialists were. 

There was no point in asking the ultimate question “How long have I got?”, as they simply didn’t have enough information.

Blue-lighted in an ambulance across three counties to arrive at the John Radcliffe at midnight. The expected scenes of high impact action from ER didn’t happen. Instead.. calm. Quiet. Surreal after that pellmell dash.

———

I look at my roommates and think I’m lucky. There are three others in the ward. Tracheostomies and colostomy bags. Infinitely tender care from the staff, carefully shaving their stubble, but barely a reaction from them to their carers’ ministrations.

The next day my much relieved but still anxious girlfriend visits, which was lovely. I haven’t told Mum and Dad yet as there’s too much unknown, not enough certainty, too much doubt. What could I say? They’d only worry.

The unexpected pause over the weekend brought me to a low on Sunday night, simply because I knew the medics didn’t know what was what. The waiting, the not knowing, the doubt all leads to fear for the future. 

I needed a plan.

———

Monday morning hustle and bustle, the hospital has come alive. More scans and tests rapidly ensue. The tuna in my head has been matched to one on a kidney. This is good news. Primary on the kidney, secondary in the head. I can live with that. It could have been far worse. Seems like organ cancers like to migrate to the head. Head cancers don’t migrate to the body’s organs.

An interesting choice of words “Based on the evidence, this is what we believe”. No guarantees.

———

I have an outline plan, enough to make the call, enough to clearly explain my new reality. This has happened, this is what’s going to happen. It’s all under control. Until this is all sorted, this will be my world.

Mum and Dad took it well. After that it was easy to tell everyone else. 

There are a lot of tick boxes, lots of luck. The headaches in my head were caused by a build up of pressure as brain fluid wasn’t draining, due to the tuna partially blocking a drainage ventricle. Steroids rapidly brought that under control, the medical staff relaxed. 

I relaxed.

I was moved to a luxurious single occupancy room, with ensuite facilities.

I relaxed some more.

Three times a day I get my vital signs checked - everything’s fine. I’m fit. I’m healthy, “a teenager’s blood pressure”, flattery will get you everywhere my dear. I just have a couple of inconvenient lumps. The question they need to answer is, what’s the detailed plan of action going to be? There are lots of choices, lots of options, all with consequences. But we do now have time on our side, there’s no grave imminent danger, no need for a “smash & grab raid”, as one nurse described it.

In the meantime, would I like a cup of tea? And a biscuit?

———

The meals are fine. They are plentiful and nutritious. And free. But they are uniformly bland in flavour and texture, which of course suits many of my fellow patients. My usual and preferred diet is fresh salad, fish, veg, fruit.. I decide to eat mostly in the Prêt à Manger café downstairs. Something to look forward to in the monotony of waiting (and because I’m a food snob…) 

Meat and two veg - not really my cup of tea

Meat and two veg - not really my cup of tea

Besides, although I have the now mandatory DVT socks, I need to be mobile, active, and take a promenade up and down the main stairs, about eight flights from top to bottom, half a dozen times while listening to the BBCR4 Today show, then porridge with banana and honey for breakfast, with a decent flat white and a slice of normality, away from the incessant bleeps and chimes of vital signs. 

My gym...

My gym...

———

Here at the John Radcliffe, 3’s cellular network sucks, and I’m barely able to maintain a connection for a conversation. It’s so bad, even texts sometimes don’t go. More often than not I have to walk down a couple of corridors to a private interview room on the edge of the building where the network is a bit stronger to make a call, I simply can’t do this from the comfort and convenience of my own bed. I’m happy I can walk, many others here can’t.

There’s a sketchy unsecured WIFI hospital hotspot. And BT charge a tenner a day. That would have cost me about £180, and it’s not even that good (I measured it - see below). Fortunately I can log in for free. Had I had to pay for that, then my blood pressure results would have been off the charts. There are plenty of people here for whom £10 a day is simply far too expensive, out of reach. 

BT’s exorbitantly-priced “premium” hospital WiFi service isn’t even that good

BT’s exorbitantly-priced “premium” hospital WiFi service isn’t even that good

In a stressful hospital stay, communication is key. Family, loved ones, friends, colleagues - all need and want to know what’s going on. They need reassurance. Patient’s need to feel remembered, valued, not forgotten. 

In my case there was the luxury of time to consider all the options. But, fantastic that the NHS is, things take time and this time needs to be filled somehow and not getting online is a bummer.

And then there’s the effect of the steroids which are massively interfering with my sleep patterns. Three hours sleep and BOOM! I’m awake.

02:00 Tiiiiiick…. toooooock

03:00 Tiiiiiick…. toooooock

04:00 Tiiiiiick…. toooooock

05:00 Tiiiiiick…. toooooock

Time drags, crawls, grinds to a halt.… Opportunities for boredom and introspection abound. This isn’t healthy. It’s not conducive to good outcomes. Need to keep occupied. Need to be online.

The service from the National Health Service, from the folk that provide copious quantities of tea to the Head head surgeon, is exemplary.

Do whatever’s necessary to achieve the best patient outcome. Patient First. Balance sheet second.

It’s a shame the same can’t be said of the telecoms industry, who should adopt a user or patient-centric approach to determine needs and deliver on that, rather than provide the bare minimum functionality their technology choices can provide, and deliver a sub-standard service at a price many can’t afford. I wonder who the product manager is for this service and wonder how they can defend it.

———

Two cancers. Two different locations. Three different teams. Lots of options. Discuss. 

———

Wait. Wait. Wait….

To keep me amused and occupied, I finished a blog entry about WiFi and published it on LinkedIn here.

I’m sorry I’m not a Dr, I’m a patient trying to escape.

I’m sorry I’m not a Dr, I’m a patient trying to escape.

———

I’ve had an idea.

So - you’re in hospital and want to keep in touch with friends, family and loved ones. Worry is the enemy. Worry is caused by not knowing. Carefree communication is key.

Download an app.

On my wrists, I have two scannable NHS wristbands with all the relevant ID on - MRN number, bar and QR codes  etc.

I use the app to scan the wristband bar codes so the app recognises I’m a patient. Maybe it cross references to an NHS database to double check validity of patient status. I could maybe supplement this with manual input of NI number.

It’s geofenced to the hospital.

The effect is to remove any tariff limitations from your regular monthly cell phone tariff - minutes, data, TXTs. It overrides whatever you have with unlimited everything, AND gets you on to a decent 802.11ac 5Ghz FREE WiFi connection. 

Carefree communication all the while you need it, so your family and friends can keep in touch. There’s nothing worse than saying to your Mum “The operation’s going to be on…” and the signal drops out. It is in fact, fucking unacceptable.

When you leave the hospital geofence, your original tariff resumes.

This does of course pre-suppose the hospital is flooded with suitable telecoms infrastructure.

Make it happen.

———

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting

———

Friday 29.9.1017: 04:15.

Choices are: Irradiate or operate?

Radiotherapy is less disruptive, but causes swelling and the little shit inside my head has taken up all the spare room anyway. There’s no space left for it to expand into. So it needs to be made smaller and the only way to do that is to go in with a manual intervention and perform a full or partial excision.

It’s right in the middle of my head, on top of my brain stem, 4cm in from the back of my skull, which is now covered with Matrix-style plastic discs. 

Back of the head selfie... Remember the truth: there is no cancer.

Back of the head selfie... Remember the truth: there is no cancer.

I’m in the queue, nil by mouth since midnight, waiting to go for surgery. Feels very lonely.

———

Wheeled into the anaesthetics room, the team introduces themselves, tubes all plugged in, coloured scans are on screens, I start to feel… odd. 

And blink.

———

You know those fisheye camera shots, where the person in the foreground has a much larger head than everyone else? That’s the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes a fraction of a second later, with what seemed like the entire team peering in at me, the amazing Mr Plaha in the background waved and smiled.

I have it on good authority that my first question was “Where’s my iPhone?”

My first sensation was “Ow! My balls are on fire!” Did they operate on the correct lumps?

“Here have this, it’s a little treat”.. a largish plastic syringe was emptied into my mouth - flavoured alcohol? Like one of those cheap disgusting super-sweet alco-pops designed to get kids hooked on booze; it turned out to be morphine.

Seemingly it was an eight hour marathon, due to excessive blood. Now I quite like the idea of having lots of blood inside me, the problem is having lots of blood sloshing around a brain. So although a chunk of this tumour’s been taken out, to keep me safe Mr Plaha had to leave more in than he would have ideally liked.

Eight hours on your front causes chaffing, and although they make every effort to alleviate the symptoms, it can’t all be prevented. So burning bollocks, for a short while, is a small price to pay for a successful and skilfully performed operation. 

TMI?

There’s more to come. I didn’t read about this stuff in the Macmillan PDF.

———

Transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). “Coming around” takes a long time and many people experience vomiting. I was pretty hungry having not eaten anything since dinner the previous evening, so ate a Bland & Bland Shepherd’s pie. From about midnight to about 5am, I puked up once an hour, eventually gagging on a thoroughly empty stomach, despite being given maximum doses of anti-nausea drugs. And of course this emptied any pain killing tablets also, so we switched to intravenous paracetamol.

Further shots of morphine seemed to aggravate the puking, and didn’t dull the headache, which surprised me as I had the impression it was a pain panacea. But then it turns out there are different types of pain… 

———

Two of the dearest people in my world came over for visiting, but I wasn’t really communicative for most of Saturday, being totally wiped out. Boring for them but I was hugely grateful they’d made the effort to sit by and take care. I could at least listen to them burbling away in the background.

Started to perk up towards the end of the day, managed to eat a couple of small cartons of ice cream, the instant sugar hit being part of my biological reboot.

Later that evening I was back in a four person room on the Neurology ward.

———

Sunday they started to clean me up, removing unnecessary cannulas. Some years ago I did the MCA Ships’ Captains’ Medical Certificate, and part of this involved learning how to insert catheters, using prosthetics. I was out for the count when mine went in, but I was certainly awake when it came out and it feels - odd, a very strange sensation indeed. Not painful, but uncomfortable and peeing afterwards is a sensitive affair and guys, you’ll probably want to sit down for the first 20 or so pees as you’re not really sure what’s going on down there.

I’d had a bed bath and was sat in a chair reading a book when my girlfriend arrived, which cheered her up no end.

Later managed to walk unaided to the loo, 5 yards away.

New reality, new expectations, little victories. Take what you can.

———

Another Monday MRI scan. Was able to get to the Prêt à Manger café for a coffee, using the lifts. 

New reality, new expectations, little victories…

Everything’s settling down. Still taking paracetamol tablets and steroids, and seemingly the entire hospital supply of laxative. Constipation is almost inevitable, with the drugs and general inactivity, so get used to some discomfort.

The scans checks out OK and rumours start I’ll be let out later in the day, but in the end we play the cautious card, so here I remain in the tender care of Hotel JR for a while longer. Which is fine with me.

———

Wed 4.10.17 16:30

“Home, home again, I like to be here when I can. When I come home cold and tired,  it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire” 

Incredibly, less than a week after pretty intensive brain surgery, I’m back home, and very relieved to be here too. While I have received extraordinary levels of care and attention, and hospitals are great places for treatment, it seems to me that they are less good for recovery and rest. They are necessarily industrialised places, and care comes first, so those long steroid-induced insomniacal nights are punctuated by bleeps and whirrs of monitoring devices, central corridor lighting bleeds into the bedrooms, and occasionally a really serious-sounding alarm has to be responded to so there’s a general rushing whoosh as a nursing team rapidly reacts… there’s little opportunity to get uninterrupted rest.

And of course hospitals are full of ill people and the chance of infection is high.

It is though with some sense of trepidation that I prepare to leave. Although I haven’t been here that long, it’s still been nearly three weeks and it feels safe inside. I have begun to feel institutionalised. Outside feels unsafe, insecure. As I wander around the hospital in my regulation green pyjamas and especially with my post-op dressing on the back of my head, I identify as a patient. I’m one of us, someone special. That identity starts to disappear as I change back into civvies for the first time in nearly a month. 

On the left: My Punk dressing, stapled neatly into place. C’est brutal, mais ça marche... On the right: A week later the dressing came off. Mt medical team is delighted with the quality and rapidity of the healing process. I need to keep an eye out for any weeping of clear fluid, as this could be a sign of infection, which could result in nasty complications…

On the left: My Punk dressing, stapled neatly into place. C’est brutal, mais ça marche... On the right: A week later the dressing came off. Mt medical team is delighted with the quality and rapidity of the healing process. I need to keep an eye out for any weeping of clear fluid, as this could be a sign of infection, which could result in nasty complications…

 My brother arrives, collects up my bags and I bid a fond and thankful farewell to as many of the  fabulous staff as I can.

———

We patients chat - swap stories. We’re all here to recover, we each have our own stories to tell. Tragic. Inspirational. Reassuring. I think we are seeking reassurance. But a couple came in and it sounded like he was going to have pretty much the same treatment as I’d had. While I couldn’t say “This will happen to you too”, I could say “This has been my experience, and it’s been OK”… I’m talking, living, breathing proof that the system can work. She seemed relieved.

Hope it helped - but I never saw them again.

———

On visiting hours. 

Visiting hours are not really there for visitors. They are really there to provide an exclusion zone so that the medical staff can focus on the daily round of treatment of their patients. 

There is precious little privacy in a ward, it is inevitable that as a patient you will hear if not see very intimate details about your fellow ward members. It’s quite one thing to share these details with the nurses and doctors looking after you, it’s another to share intentionally or otherwise with other patients.

But to my mind there is a common bond, an unspoken understanding that what happens in a ward, what is shared in a ward, stays in the ward.

If your loved ones, friends, family, rock up early or linger late, they intrude into this intimate, caring world. Sharing intimate health issues with completely random strangers is quite a different experience from sharing with trusted medical staff, or with other ward members. It’s frankly none of their business, and they have no business being there.

In any case, the medical staff are intensely busy during the morning - the night staff have to complete all the medical checks on all their patients, they have to hand over to the day care team, who then also have to complete their checks and prepare their charges for the day ahead. 

I was lucky, I could pretty much look after myself, shower, toilet unassisted. Others though needed help shaving, needed mechanical hoists to get them out of bed and into wheelchairs, needed catheter reservoirs emptying and changing and so on. 

In my view it’s inappropriate for friends and relations to gatecrash all this, becoming an intrusive nuisance, for no real benefit to anyone except their selfish selves. 

So help your hard-pressed medical team to better look after you, respect your patient peers, and insist on prompt visiting time keeping from your folk. 

Thank you.

———

Friday 13.10.2017

Two weeks ago today, I had an eight hour operation on my brain.

Today I had two and a half hours of meetings at my new client’s premises in central London, spending time with the team and starting get under the hood of what they are about.

Go figure.

———

On steroids. 

These tiny wee pills have helped save my life, so thanks very much. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the side effects I’ve experienced are: lack of tiredness - getting 3 hours sleep in 24 and not being tired isn’t much fun. Weight gain as I seem to be constantly hungry - even recognising I’m feeding the steroids and not the body doesn’t seem to help much. Digestion  constipation. Lack of libido - ‘nuff sed. Taste - my mouth seems to be permanently lined with a weird-tasting layer which interferes with flavour. Nothing other than tea seems to even temporarily cut through this, and I don’t even like tea. Constantly thirsty, despite all the tea.

Ugh.

———

I have:

  • Two cancers - one primary, the other secondary
  • Two locations - head and kidney
  • Three teams - head surgery, head radiotherapy, kidney extraction
  • Two specialist nursing teams - head and kidney
  • Two hospitals - John Radcliffe (head surgery) and the Churchill (head radiotherapy and kidney extraction)

A single point of contact would be most useful as I tend to get conflicting messages about meetings and treatments from time to time. 

———

27.10.17 Four weeks after brain surgery and six weeks since ambulance paramedics arrived at my house…

The particular form of radiotherapy I’m having is called stereotactic radiotherapy. Part of the process involves making a customised thermoplastic mask and helmet combo, which in my case was made a couple of weeks ago, and into which my head has now been snapped into position. 

Part of its function is to hold my head absolutely still, as the room-sized microwave has sub-millimetre accuracy, and the last thing the team needs is for my head to bobble about a bit, ruining the physicist’s previous two weeks of planning the best angle of attack on the remains of this wretched tuna in my head.

As mentioned, it’s in quite deep, sitting on top of my brain stem, being fed by a blood vessel, and there’s a lot of brain structure to get through, ideally with minimum collateral damage.

If you’ve ever had an MRI scan, then it’s not really comparable, as you’re not inside a tunnel, you’re not inside the machine. Here I’m lying on a similar table or platform, looking through the plastic mesh facia of my mask, and can see a large disc three feet away from me. There’s a red LED glow diffusing through the mask’s plastic lattice. 

The staff, having settled me in as comfortably as possible, are talking numbers, presumably 3D coordinates. For form’s sake, an alarm sounds as they leave the room for their radiation-proofed control centre. They have a Spotify playlist running, some soft rock indie band, which is quite pleasant, really. The machine whirrs and bleeps - the large disc moves in an arc around my head, first to the right, then to the left, the LED glow goes green. The platform I’m lying on rotates also, so they can bake each part of the tuna…

..and within 20 mins it’s all over. The mask is removed and I’m free to get up and leave. 

Disappointingly there’s no microwave oven style “Ping!” when it’s all over.

There’s no sensation of anything happening inside my head - the brain isn’t equipped with pain=sensing nerves in the same way as hand and fingers. I guess evolution never expected the deep insides of our brains to be prodded and probed in this way. 

I get a cup of tea from the café and jump into the cab for the ride home. Only four more blasts, one every other day, and this phase of my treatment will be concluded. Hopefully. 

The man in the white plastic mask

The man in the white plastic mask

———

My cornucopia of chemical compounds... left to right... 

  • Anti-sickness pills to overcome the effects of radiotherapy
  • Stomach protector to overcome the effect of the steroids
  • Steroids to overcome the swelling of the tuna and brain caused by radiotherapy
  • Paracetamol to overcome any discomfort or headaches
  • Laxido (the clue as to what this does is in the name) to overcome the effect on digestion of all the other drugs…
Chemical cornucopia.png

———

10.11.2017 - delay and disappointment

Here we press the pause button.

The kidney team advise that they don’t yet have enough information about what’s going on inside my body to make the decision about the optimum treatment that will incur minimum risk with maximum benefit, the best outcome.

Despite very strongly suggesting previously that removing the kidney, while being a major intervention and trauma to the body, was their preferred approach, their revised view is that there is no evidence that the risk of this intervention at the moment is required or necessary.

So the plan now is to let everything settle down, take a more cautious approach, and in three month’s time assess once again after a load more scans and tests.

So I’m living with an alien inside of me, which from one perspective is in itself a risk - all the drama I’ve been through so far has been caused by this kidney cancer spreading itself to my head, and all the while it’s still there, the risk of this repeating, or something similar happening, is there. On the other hand, the kidney cancer was probably there certainly for many months if not years before part of it broke off and migrated north.

The difference now though is that I know it’s there - sometimes I feel like I can feel it. 

However, the medical teams deal with all this on a regular basis, I am not unusual, not the first and sadly not the last either. Their expertise, skill and professionalism has got me to where I am now, which is pretty damn amazing. No one’s expecting any major incident to happen, I can carry on as normal.

So the new reality I’m adjusting to today is different from the one I was expecting yesterday, and the new reality has plenty of great things in store.

———

I cannot speak highly enough of the NHS. From the moment I pressed the last 9 of 999 only six weeks ago through to now, the care and attention I have received has been exemplary, extraordinary. The original paramedics made the right call to get me in for a scan. The local hospital made the right call to get me into the John Radcliffe, probably the best place in the country if not the world for this kind of thing.

The brain surgery team there, lead by Mister Plaha. made the right call on the treatment, which despite be very high risk, was performed flawlessly, professionally, with astonishing results.

I owe my life to the entire John Radcliffe team.

Thank you.

IMG_7646.jpg

Does Wi-Fi come from satellites?

For those of us in the telecommunications industry this may sound like a startling question. However it is a genuine question from a member of the public that took part in a discussion about broadband and how it was being marketed.

For those of you that might be reading this that also don’t know the answer, no - Wi-Fi doesn’t come from satellites.

Wi-Fi is a wireless technology developed for Local Area Networks, and uses standards defined by the IEEE, in this case a bunch of standards under the exotically titled 802.11 banner. Wi-Fi can travel a few metres, it certainly won’t reach satellites.

And it doesn’t get you to the internet either, which is another common misconception.

To get from a Wi-Fi router or hotspot to the internet, that router or hotspot needs a “backhaul” network to get you to the internet. From home, this would be your broadband connection and everything that goes on beyond there to connect all the way through to the Netflix servers.

Wi-Fi has become a near-ubiquitous and very convenient networking technology, an incredibly successful communications innovation. How many of us get irritated when we can’t get on-line, from a train for example or in some instances even hotels? We even expect it for free and when presented with a payment login wall for a Wi-Fi service, I for one will switch my iPhone’s hotspot feature on and use that for practically free.

The rise of Wi-Fi has led directly to the café culture style of working - park up in your favourite espresso joint, order a donut, and hit those emails on the device of your choice.

Enjoy-a-Free-Krispy-Kreme-Original-Glazed-Doughnut-With-Your-Free-Coffee-on-National-Coffee-Day.jpg

Fantastic.

And we all have Wi-Fi in our homes too, where there are unintended consequences for the apparent performance of your service. Wi-Fi has many strengths but it also has weaknesses too, and I think you need to be aware of these weaknesses, as you might be blaming your service provider for poor broadband speed (and that’s all to easy to do) when in fact the problem lies closer to home. In your home, in fact.

Ironically, as broadband speeds increase, and super low latency “ultra-fast” 1000Mbps services become more prevalent, the impact of Wi-Fi performance becomes more of an issue. The unpredictable and variable nature of slow-speed highly contended copper broadband, masks Wi-Fi issues. In fact, the two can often combine to create a perfect storm of poor service performance.

Electromagnetic Krispy Kreme donuts

The usual practice of internet service providers when they install your router is to use a short, maybe 2m, cable inside your house so your Wi-Fi equipped router is neatly nestled against a wall.

It’s convenient for them for the install, but perhaps less so for you. The reason for this potential inconvenience is that the shape of the Wi-Fi signal is like a donut - think invisible electromagnetic Krispy Kreme Original Glazed - it’s a toroid. Technically speaking it’s omnidirectional - it’s the same in all directions (or almost all directions) which is exactly the characteristics you need for flooding a room or house equally with Wi-Fi from a single point, so everyone gets the same signal.

Sadly it’s not as simple as that.

As your newly installed Wi-Fi router is likely to be next to an external wall, and the shape of the Wi-Fi signal is to all intents and purposes a sphere, this means much of your Wi-Fi signal disappears out of your house.

And that’s not all, but to explain the next bit, I’m going to have to talk technology. A bit.

a, b, g, n, ac

I mentioned the IEEE earlier - the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (although it’s not the Engineers that are electronic or electrical as far as I know). As I said, this august body sets standards for many things including Wi-Fi so that we can easily connect our laptops and iPads to routers. 

But standards don’t stand still - they are constantly evolving. So in the consumer space over the last 15 or so years we’ve had a veritable variety comprising 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n and the very latest and exciting 802.11ac. 

Wi-Fi is a radio signal and just like regular entertainment radio stations such as BBC’s Radio 4, it uses specific frequencies or frequency bands as part of the standard. The latest hotshot hotspot standard on the market and being heavily promoted, 802.11ac, was released in Dec 2013 and uses 5Ghz frequency, but to keep it “backward compatible” with non-ac devices, it also supports the older 2.4Ghz frequencies from earlier Wi-Fi standards.

Naturally, to take advantage of this, your end device needs to support the same standard. An 802.11g device might well use an ac Wi-Fi router, but it won’t use the 5Ghz frequency.

Why is this important?

2.4Ghz is a busy place - it’s a common frequency frequently used by many other things such as bluetooth devices and baby monitors… so there’s a lot of interference through which your laptop has to punch to get to the router and vice versa. All this interference degrades the signal strength and this will cause a reduction in the streamed data rate of your internet connection.

5Ghz is a less-used frequency and is therefore subject to less interference. It’s also faster, so it supports a faster streamed data rate then 2.4Ghz. Those pesky laws of physics though mean that although 5Ghz frequency is faster, it’s strength deteriorates over a shorter distance, it doesn’t go as far. it also doesn’t have so much “penetration” power as 2.4Ghz, so those handy walls you have in your house might be bad news for 5Ghz Wi-Fi.

On the other hand, 2.4Ghz punches through walls, so for some types of property, your neighbour’s Wi-Fi might be interfering with yours! Whereas the shorter range 5Ghz option may avoid this issue.

Crossing the channel

Within the frequency bands (5Ghz, 2.4Ghz) are various numbers of discrete channels. If two end devices (PCs for example) are using the same channel, this this can cause interference and spoil your Game of Thrones experience. This is why when you phone up your service provider to complain their broadband isn’t working, they often ask you to change Wi-Fi channels, or they might do it for you remotely.

5Ghz has more non-overlapping channels than the 2.4Ghz band, so again there’s less likelihood of interference which results in a better service experience.

Map your Wi-Fi

Wouldn’t it be great if you could actually see what your Wi-Fi network looked like, so you could find out how to optimise the location of your router to get the best possible coverage? Well the great news is you can.

There are a number of different tools you can use to do this. I used a combination of an augmented reality iPad app from Stanley tools to draw a plan of my house. I then exported that into a MacOS application called Netspot to measure and plot the Signal to Noise Ratio of my Wi-Fi radio network.

The more Signal to Noise, the better, the more Noise to Signal, the worse.

Here’s the resultant Wi-Fi map:

WIFI in the home.png

Test point 7 was right above the Wi-Fi router, which was on a desk in the dining room, tethered to the VirginMedia network access box by a 2m cable. The graph shows a lot of green - the signal - and not much pink - the underlying noise. It's a strong Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR).

An Ookla speedtest at this point showed I had 205.96Mbps download speed and 7.72Mbps upload speed. This kind of asymmetry is a common characteristic of copper-based broadband, albeit in VirginMedia’s case where they have their own network, they use copper coax cable instead of copper wires.

Test point 1 was a few metres away in the kitchen. Here you can see much less green signal, and although the pink noise has remained much the same level as it was in the dining room, the ratio between the two is vastly different. The Ookla speed test in the kitchen shows the impact this reduced Signal to Noise Ratio has on service speed.

You can't change the laws of physics so what can you do about this?

One simple thing you can do is to move your router into the centre of your house. I did this by buying a 10m coax cable extension from Maplins, and used that to reposition my router on top of (but not inside) a cupboard so it was higher up and more central. This had an amazing effect on Wi-Fi coverage in my humble abode.

Make sure your router uses both 5Ghz and 2.4Ghz frequencies - upgrade to 802.11ac! A recent trend has been to present these two frequencies to the end user as one Wi-Fi network option on your Wi-Fi network picker on your laptop, and it automatically serves up the better of the two signals to you. 802.11ac also sports such exotic technologies as “beam forming” and “MIMO” (Multi In Multi Out) aerials. MIMO is usually either 3 x MIMO or 4 x MIMO, and promoted in such a way to give the impression that 4 x is better than 3 x. But it does depend on the capabilities of your device, so upgrade your devices too.

For folk with large houses, or old houses with thick walls, one Wi-Fi source may simply not be enough to provide adequate universal coverage. My parents purchased a pair of “Powerline Adaptors” which simply plug into the mains sockets and uses the electrical wiring to transmit the signal to a corresponding Powerline Adaptor in another room, effectively extending the Wi-Fi range. There are limitations to this though, as Powerline Adaptors need to be on the same ring main.

You can add Wireless Access Points (WAPs), which is relatively simple to do, or even build what’s known as a “full mesh” Wi-Fi network, which is at the bleeding edge of Home Area Networking.

Or you could simply connect your devices using good old fashioned Ethernet cables. But these may not go very well with your soft furnishings.

Conclusion

It’s very easy to pin immediate blame on your ISP for buffering and stuttering issues, especially given the wobbly nature of copper-based broadband. But it might be worthwhile ensuring you have the best Wi-Fi set up possible before once again calling your ISP for support. And should you be fortunate enough to be able to take a real fibre optic broadband service, then take it as this will dramatically improve your whole internet experience.

Harry Potter and the Broadbandius Confundus curse

Maybe it’s because it’s the 20th anniversary of the publishing of the first Harry Potter book, but whatever the reason there seems to be a lot of magic in the air at the moment. Both the Tories and Labour have their own magic money trees and Ed Vaizey seems to have been hit with a Broadbandius Confundus curse whereby he believes the simple act of choosing “superfast broadband” will magically deliver superfast speeds.

As Hermione Granger will tell you without dashing off to the library to look it up, the effects of the Broadbandius Confundus curse is to forget all about the laws of physics we mere muggles have to contend with, and that 10Mbps download speed and 2Mbps upload speed is sufficient to squeeze our daily digital lives through.

Hogwarts students who study the effects of curses and spells on the non-wizarding world should study the effects of this common curse by watching this video:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0572dy1

Fortunately, there is a counter-spell which makes you almost impervious to the effects of the Broadbandius Confundus curse. It comprises reading and understanding twenty simple points, so simple that even Crabb and Goyle are reputed to have fully understood them:

  1. “Superfast broadband” is a made-up term by BT’s marketing team. It doesn’t really exist.
  2. What it comprises is a bunch of technologies, running signaling systems (variants of the DSL family) over copper wire
  3. Copper wire is a good conductor of electrical signals, but it also has intrinsic resistivity to these electrical signals
  4. These signals are alternating current, so the type of resistivity involved is called impedance
  5. It is impedance that causes most of the loss of signal strength with distance - the longer the copper wire, the weaker the signal gets and the slower your broadband. The number of people signing up for the service is nothing to do with it
  6. So Ed Vaizey is correct in that anyone can sign-up to the service, however this does not mean they’ll get “superfast’ speeds. In fact there is nothing super or fast about superfast broadband
  7. Indeed if, like my Dad, you’re at the end of a long piece of copper wire, you will not get “superfast broadband” - the most he gets is about 6Mbps download and 2Mbps upload. Yet he’s CHOSEN, as Ed puts it, to sign up for superfast broadband - it’s those pesky laws of muggle physics getting in the way
  8. Dad lives in Surrey. 15 miles way from Diagon Alley, central London, in case you’re wondering
  9. Where they don’t have their own network, VirginMedia resells BT’s services - as do a lot of broadband suppliers - so often it’s the same stuff, with a different brand...
  10. Virgin’s own network uses a different signaling system (DOCSIS) over a different type of copper wire - in this case it’s “COAX cable”, the type of cable you use to connect an aerial to a TV. Unlike with BT, no one else gets to sell this service, they don’t have what the industry calls a “wholesale” option
  11. The mix of DOCSIS and copper coax cable is slightly better at handling high electrical frequencies, so it provides faster broadband than BT’s set up, and Virgin have been doing some smart things in their network to further boost their broadband speeds (port bonding). But even Virgin are tying themselves up in knots as on their posters they talk about fibre optic broadband and show a picture of a copper coax cable
  12. Neither of these systems (BT’s copper wire + xDSL and Virgin’s copper coax cable + DOCSIS) is FIBRE OPTIC broadband because they both use copper wires to connect to our houses
  13. This make a huge difference as laser light through fibres obey different laws of muggle physics from electrical signals over copper wire - even a few feet of copper makes a massive difference
  14. Laser light through fibre is to all intents and purposes impervious to distance - at least as far as the distance to connect houses to a telecoms network is concerned - it is after all used for trans-ocean undersea cables
  15. Because of this, a real fibre optic network (or pure fibre or full fibre) is a much fairer network - and this is the really important thing – as if by magic everyone receives pretty much the same speed irrespective of where they live - up a mountain or in the middle of London
  16. A side effect, and a very welcome side effect, is that the right kind of fibre optic network can deliver 1000Mbps symmetrical (upload and download) or MORE (10Gbps for example). If it were a broomstick, it would be a Nimbus 2001, as compared to Ed’s Cleansweep 1.
  17. Why is this important - because it’s a higher quality service - try downloading a Mac or Windows system upgrade (4GB or more) on a feeble 10Mbps service and see how you get on, or when working from home taking part in a multi-party Skype call on a 1Mbps uplink
  18. It’s for these reasons that copper-based broadband services should not be promoted as “fibre optic”, as it’s a) incorrect and b) misleading
  19. But not all fibre optic networks are the same. In the UK, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, B4RN are among the very few that can deliver 1000Mbps (1Gbps) symmetrical services today. Where BT do provide real fibre optic services, which is as rare as a unicorn, they provide up to 300Mbps down and 30Mbps up
  20. We have to have a Brexit angle on this - the FTTH (Fibre To The Home) Council of Europe publish stats of each member state’s fibre optic broadband penetration - remember this is where the optical fibres terminate at the house and there’s no copper used - guess which country isn’t even on the charts? Now that we’re leaving the EU, and our soon-to-be-former-partners are zooming away with REAL fibre optic broadband, we’ll be left in the uncompetitive copper slow lane… unless you live within reach of the service providers I mentioned earlier

So there you have it. The counter-spell to Broadbandius Confundus curse which disillusions those affected so that they see copper broadband for what it is:

A damp squib.

The Broadband Manifestos

With the impending general election, I thought it might be instructive to see what the various parties were offering with respect to broadband in the UK, which might influence your vote one way or another. Or not, as the case may be. 

Labour

We will deliver universal superfast broadband availability by 2022. Labour will improve mobile internet coverage and expand provision of free public wi-fi in city centres and on public transport. We will improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage. On day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ 300Mbps across the within the next decade. 

My Views On Labour's Broadband Proposals

In my opinion this is vague and woolly. It's not inspiring. There's nothing super nor fast about "superfast broadband", which is a made up marketing term anyway, and what does "availability" mean? Uninterrupted 5G coverage - what does "uninterrupted" mean? 

The promise to instruct yet another report to be written on how to roll out fibre to the home (when we already know how to do this), with such a low target of 300Mbps (is this symmetrical or asymmetric? What's the upload speed, Jeremy?) misses the mark and, based on what the rest of the EU is doing (read my post here), isn't competitive enough.

The 300Mbps makes me think this is an allusion to BT's GPON-based optical infrastructure, so this is simply a "more of the same" proposal.

Marks out of 10: 2, as they really haven't tried very hard

Conservatives

We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed. By the end of this year, 19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband and our Universal Service Obligation will ensure that by 2020 every home and every business in Britain has access to high speed broadband. We will work to provide gigaspeed connectivity to as many businesses and homes as possible. We will introduce a full-fibre connection voucher for companies across the country by 2018 and by 2022 we will have major fibre spines in over a hundred towns and cities, with ten million premises connected to full-fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade. 

We have similar ambitions for mobile phone coverage. By 2022 we will extend mobile coverage further to 95 per cent geographic coverage of the UK. By the same date, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal, alongside guaranteed WiFi internet service on all such trains. We will continue to release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access and begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to your smart phone. We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027.

My Views On The Conservative Party's Broadband Proposals

"We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed" is an encouraging start... but then it runs out of puff as quickly as a superfast broadband connection does. 

The pledge "19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband" is pretty meaningless as "access" isn't defined and no service performance parameters are mentioned. As "superfast broadband" is electrical signalling over copper wire, this isn't surprising.

The USO is for an underwhelming 10Mbps download speed only - this is not "high speed". This is barely adequate now, let alone by 2020. It might be irksome to the pro-Brexit faction of the Tories, but the EU is lightyears ahead already.

A voucher to be introduced for full-fibre connection for businesses means they are promising a voucher, and not the connection - is this weasely words? Again, nothing about speed of connection or what will actually be delivered. And this doesn't apply to the consumers referred to in the opening sentence - remember this: "We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed"?

Towns and cities already have fibre optic "spines", so I don't think this is anything new or startling.

5G "providing "gigaspeeds" to your smartphone". According to the recently published technical specification by the ITU, 5G will deliver in dense urban areas, TARGET experienced data rates of:

  • downlink data rate of 100Mbps and 
  • uplink at 50Mbps 

“Experienced” means real world data flows in terms of bits delivered over Layer 3. These are "megabit" speeds, not "gigabit" speeds, or "gigaspeeds" as the Tories refer to it.

Unless they are referring to the somewhat theoretical, under ideal conditions etc, "peak data rates*", the minimum requirements for which are:

  • Downlink peak data rate of 20Gbps
  • Uplink peak data rate of 10Gbps

If they are referring to this, then there's a distinct whiff of "smoke and mirrors" here. But then it's a manifesto, after all... 

Unlike manifestos, technical specs are full of details and the ITU document I'm referring to can be found here but before you rush off to read it, here's an extract: "Peak data rate is the maximum achievable data rate under ideal conditions (in bit/s), which is the received data bits assuming error-free conditions assignable to a single mobile station, when all assignable radio resources for the corresponding link direction are utilized (i.e., excluding radio resources that are used for physical layer synchronization, reference signals or pilots, guard bands and guard times)."

Marks out of 10: 4 as they made a bit of an effort, but it's basically the status quo

Liberal  Democrats

Invest to ensure that broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 have a speed of 2Gbps or more, with fibre to the premises (FTTP) as standard and unlimited usage by 2020 across the whole of the UK. SMEs should be prioritised in the roll-out of hyperfast broadband. 

Ensure that every property in the UK is provided, by 2022, with a superfast broadband connection with a download speed of 30Mbps, an upload speed of 6Mbps, and an unlimited usage cap. 

Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the rural UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects. 

My Views On The LibDem's Broadband Proposals

This floats my boat as it's the real deal - they actually seem to get it. The marketing term "Hyperfast" is often over-hyped, but is usually regarded as 1000Mbps (1Gbps) symmetrical. If this proposal sounds familiar, it's because it's the same as the House of Lords' proposed amendments to the recent Digital Economy Bill which I wrote about here.

The insistence on 2Gbps speeds forces through the infrastructure switch from electrical signalling over copper wires to optical signalling through glass fibres all the way through to our houses a.k.a fibre optic broadband or "full-fibre" or fibre to the home (FTTH). The 30Mbps/6Mbps USO is smart too, because that's really hard to deliver in rural areas using electrical signalling which would need to also be upgraded.

They are the only party that's referenced the special case of rural broadband "working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects". This reference to "existing community-led projects" must be the remarkable B4RN project which you can read about here, but other funding options exist for rural broadband such as Gigaclear here.

Rural areas are only "special" because those pesky laws of physics of electrical signalling over copper wires simply don't allow for decent service provision where the population is geographically dispersed i.e. where the lengths of copper wires are longest, the effect of impedance is greatest and the end user experience the worstest.

However the LibDems don't mention cellular or mobile broadband using 4G or 5G, they don't mention the poor coverage we all experience on trains and how this really needs to improve.

Marks out of 10: 7 as they've used their imagination, would have been a higher score if they'd mentioned mobile.

The Green Party

I rummaged around on their website but couldn't find a 2017 manifesto, probably my bad. They do however have 10 pledges, but they don't mention broadband. This is disappointing as a 2Gbps fibre optic broadband network (which uses less energy than a copper+electrical network) such as proposed by the LibDems would make working from home a practical proposition for a lot of people, and would help with rural regeneration. Plenty of bandwidth for hi-def multi-party video conferencing and services we can barely imagine today, all of which would obviate the need to travel by (electric) car.

Marks out of 10: 0

Conclusion

If the only thing that matters to you is broadband internet access, then the LibDems are the party of choice. Of course you might say they're unelectable so they can say anything they like, but at least they've come up with an imaginative proposal. 

Broadly speaking, there really isn't much difference between Tory and Labour on broadband, as they both seem to be saying "plus ça change", so you'll have to make your voting decision between these two on something different

House of Commons ushers in a new Dark Age

Digital Economy Bill 

Laser light through optical fibres provides high speed broadband that's largely unaffected by distance. This is why this technology is used for the ocean-straddling networks that joins us all together.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, UKplc got short changed. At the moment of leaving the EU, when we need every competitive advantage over our soon-to-be-former colleagues in the world's largest trading block, the House voted down amendments proposed by the Lords which would have meant we'd have had "full fibre" broadband delivering target speeds of AT LEAST Two Gigabits per second (2000Mbps) by 2020.

This of course would necessitate Fibre to the Home (FTTH), replacing the old and unfit for purpose copper network that was deployed by the GPO under the last Universal Service Obligation (USO) for low bandwidth analogue telephone services.

The House of Lords proposed this time around that there should be a USO of 30Mbps download with 6Mbps upload. This may sound pretty feeble compared to 2000Mbps, but given the incontrovertible laws of physics, to deliver it on copper wires would require significant investment, especially as the minimum COMMITTED information rate would be 10Mbps.

Ying tong ping pong iddle I po*

After a 90 minute discussion, the changes that the Lords proposed were killed off in the interests of saving time as no one appeared to have the heart for a game of Parliamentary ping pong on this important national infrastructure issue.

So what have we ended up with?

Quite possibly the worst result possible.

An utterly unambitious and pretty useless minimum 10Mbps download, nothing about upload, and no Universal Service Obligation.

In other words, nothing changes. We're now stuck for the foreseeable future with electrical signalling for our broadband.

The European Enlightenment

Meanwhile, the rest of the EU is zooming ahead with the lighting up of what we call "full-fibre" broadband (to distinguish it from the copper-based "fibre broadband" so prevalent here).

Full-fibre broadband is where the optical fibres terminate at your house, which is why the rest of the world calls it FTTH, Fibre to the Home. It's this technology that delivers 1000Mbps+ speeds and, over the short distances involved in delivering to your home, there's practically no drop in speed caused by signal loss. Which means:

  • You get pretty much the speed as promised
  • Everyone in the country gets the same speeds irrespective of where they live

The FTTH Council of Europe regularly updates and publishes data on how member states are doing. Here's the latest update from earlier this year:

As you can see, despite the valiant efforts of Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and B4RN, with less than 1% fibre optic broadband penetration we're not even on the chart.

And the 2017 Digital Economy Bill does nothing to change this.

Maybe the Commons should rename this bill to "Digital Bill - Economy class"?

What we could have had - the Lords' prayer

COMMONS REASONS, AMENDMENTS IN LIEU AND AMENDMENT TO AMENDMENT 

“(2B) The universal service order must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 must have— 

  1. (a) speeds of 2 gigabits or more; 
  2. (b) fibre to the premises (FTTP) as a minimum standard; 
  3. (c) appropriate measures to ensure that internet speed levels are not affected by high contention ratios; 
  4. (d) appropriate measures to ensure service providers run low latency networks. 
  5. (2BA) The universal service order must specify as soon as reasonably practicable that, by 2020, the following will be available in every household in the United Kingdom— 
  6. (a) download speeds of 30 megabits per second; 
  7. (b) upload speeds of 6 megabits per second; 
  8. (c) fast response times; 
  9. (d) committed information rates of 10 megabits per second; 
  10. (e) an unlimited usage cap. 
  11. (2BB) In meeting the obligations set out in subsection (1), internet service providers have a duty to ensure that their networks offer at least the minimum standards specified in subsection (2BA) to every household in areas of low population density, before deploying their networks in urban areas.