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Thursday 12 June 2003

Choosing a DSL provider [lurks]

After having binned Blueyonder in blog 419 I have been left with the task of evaluating ADSL offerings and ordering a new service. I'm a bit of an ADSL veteran, having had business and domestic DSL installed at my home and having used another provider for work as well. Today things are a little more complex due to the inclusion of LLU and so-called 'datastream' products into the standard BT DSL mix.
One of the things I'm keen on is not to be shackled to a 12-month contract. I mean, why should you be? With 'wires-only' DSL, there are no big up front costs to need spreading out. You're paying 50 quid plus VAT, on average, to connect and that ought to be enough clearly. Ultimately I like the threat of being able to walk if the service falls to shit. If I'm locked into a year and it goes to shit, you're stuffed - as I was with a 2Mb business DSL from Easynet in the past.
Next up, contention ratio. I'm really not keen on 50:1 domestic stuff. Sure it doesn't hurt your downloads a lot of the time but on DSL in particular, you see nasty effects because of this. Big ping spikes and that sort of thing, mostly as a result of the way that DSL is load balanced in the BT central pipes.
I also consider that with 256k upstream, 1Mb is about the sweet spot with 2Mb being nice but not worth substantially more money.
Other considerations are obviously the reputation of the ISP. Whether there's many people to vouch for them. Static IP (obviously) and any other nice bits such as cost of the install, being able to delegate reverse DNS, maybe some web space and that sort of thing.
Having used the superb to look up providers, I found really the only new contender is Bulldog. The rest I was familiar with. In the end it came down to a four horse race, Nildram, Eclipse, Plusnet and Bulldog.
Firstly the oddball Bulldog. Like Nildram, Bulldog operates the new BT Datastream product which means they can design their own DSL packages on speed and contention ratio. Bulldog are also an LLU operator but this is of zero consequence unless you live slap bang in the middle of London. They offer quite reasonable packages which are cost-effective 1Mb and 2Mb deals with 40:1 contention ratio. I had also heard reasonable things about Bulldog in the reputation stakes but I still considered them 'new' and it was a bit lame how they haven't even gotten around to sorting out web space for customers and charging extra for a static IP seemed infantile. In the end, the fact that they wanted a 12-month contract and weren't quite as well known as the other candidates lead to Bulldog being discounted.
Next up, Plusnet. Plusnet have a good web site, unusual for ISPs these days. They also have a good range of packages with superb pricing. They also highlighted to me the fact that BT's standard business DSL (20:1 contention ratio) has dropped dramatically in wholesale price. So their 'Home worker' package looked attractive. However when I dug deeper on providers which had a better reputation (a work colleague in the past fought with Plusnet's customer support for some time) and also offered BT's Biz DSL at not vastly higher prices. Discounted due to reputation and the 'get what you pay for' factor.
Eclipse. I had used Eclipse before on domestic DSL. Small outfit but very customer focused (as they invariably are, to begin with). I asked them if they allowed reverse DNS delegation, they looked into it and created that feature on the account and being suitably impressed I signed up. Performance had it's hitches, unfortunately, again due to BT mostly. It was also quite difficult to convince them that I had cancelled and they should stop sending me invoices. Yet for all that, I liked the company and the staff. The pricing of their Biz DSL package is attractive. They were a hot contender for the crown.
And then there's Nildram. A lot of folks were jumping up and down going on about how I should go with Nildram. I'm well aware of their excellent reputation - I used them on ISDN for the longest time. However their datastream product didn't look ideal to me. It was fairly expensive, the standard 50:1 contention ratio and a bandwidth cap as well. Thanks to becoming aware of the new cost of Biz DSL, I poked around the dustier parts of Nildram's site and found that they do biz DSL for slightly less than Eclipse! So for about the same price as the 2Mb datastream job, you could get a 20:1 contended 1Mb service with no bandwidth cap. Same 1 month contract. Being slightly cheaper than Eclipse and having the best reputation and all the features I require... Nildram pulled in front.
Nildram is the winner, the order was placed. Of course, their quoted lead-time is more than Eclipse and they don't offer anything in the way of status concerning the order which is a little annoying but that's a short term concern.
The following is the table I drew up to aid comparison with the ISPs.
  • 40:1 contention - 'Alltime' (Datastream)
  • Only offer 12 month contract
  • £49.99 install
  • 1Mb: £35.24 p/m
  • 2Mb: £52.86 p/m
  • Add 2 quid odd for static ip!

Note: Nice datastream product with a good contention to price ratio. Still quite new though and very little extras.
  • 20:1 contention 'Home worker' (BT biz):
  • 1 month contract:
  • 1Mb: £70.50 install, £44.99pm
  • 2Mb: £70.50 install, £59.99pm
  • 12 month contract:
  • 1Mb: £0 install, £50.38pm
  • 2Mb: £0 install, £65.38pm

Note: Reputation a little shaky. Pricing very competitive.
  • 20:1 contention 'Connect 1000 and 2000' (BT biz):
  • One month contract
  • 1Mb: £58.75 install, £61.10pm
  • 2Mb: £58.75 install, £96.35pm

Notes: I like the company, speed rated well on DSL guide. Supports all of the features required but are a little light on extras.
  • 50:1 contention 'dslXtra' (Datastream):
  • 1 month contract for all
  • 1Mb: £58.75 install, £39.99pm
  • 2Mb: £58.75 install, £58.00pm
  • 20:1 contention 'Office' (BT Biz):
  • 1Mb: £58.75 install, £57.58pm
  • 2Mb: £58.75 install, £78.72

Note: Best reputation (clannies!). Host a gaming ISP so they know what a 'ping' is. Good extras, 24/7 support 100MB web space and unlimited e-mail.


  1. Thanks for that lurks, I'll probably be following suit in a couple of months time if the pre registrations at my exchange continue at their current rate.

  2. Hmm... Have you really found contention ratios make a difference in the past, then? I've come to regard them as a bit of a red herring, after being on 50:1 DSL for five months and experiencing nothing less than fantastic pings and full bandwidth throughput for the entire time. Now, I realise that I could be getting lucky here, and be on a mostly unutilised exchange or something - but I am getting increasinly suspicious of contention, and wondering if it's not mostly just a stat rolled out to make businesses think they're getting more for paying more.

  3. The exchange is everything. My exchange is very busy indeed for DSL. I investigated performances issues in some detail when I was having problems back then and it came down to contention.You may never have problems, which is nice. However I'd like to reduce one factor which has bitten me in the past.It's also not just a 'stat' rolled out. It's a hard limit at each exchange based on how the ATM network runs. Setting their own speeds and contention rates is the entire reason for BT's datastream product.Businesses also generally have a higher utilisation of their available bandwidth. A whole bunch of machines accessing the net is, as a rule, more hungry than domestic users which is why lower contention is a requirement for that sort of usage.The biggest problem with contention is not even the hard limit. It's how badly the BT standard equipment holds up with it's load balancing apparatus when it starts to approach saturation.It's also a big issue on the central pipes. There's also some nasty limitations on the new datastream system, such as a single ATM only being able to connect to 74 exchanges. So I was additionally wary of going near the 'dslXtra' product as well.

  4. Foghet bulldog. I connected a this month and after few day I want leave the network I had pipex I did not have any problem, now I am gettin a lot of problem.I pay for 4 meg and I get half speed disconnected all the time. Buldog is a dial-up sevice no a broadband.

  5. Could someone translate that into English for me?