Zen Fibre Broadband

· geek · technology ·

Some background

Since we moved into our current house about 7 years ago, we’ve used Zen Internet as our ISP1. They were recommended to us by my brother, who had been with them for a number of years before we signed up and found them really reliable, with great customer service. I’ve never regretted that decision. I don’t think that I ever remember noticing an outage in those 7 years. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have an outage of course, because it may have happened when we were not at home, but given that Mr. Bsag works from home most of the time and that we are connected to the internet one way or the other much of the time, I think that’s quite impressive.

There was, however, one problem: Zen uses British Telecom’s cabling to provide their services, and since were are a little way from the nearest exchange, the highest speed we could achieve over BT’s copper cabling was around 3 MBps. I checked with the speed checkers of the other ISPs and got the same estimate, so that seemed to be hard limit for us with standard broadband over copper cabling.

The alternative for faster speeds is to go with a fibre or cable broadband service. Our street happens to already be hooked up for cable with Virgin Media, and we regularly get junk mail from Virgin through the door offering all kinds of special reductions if we were to take up their service. I didn’t want to go with Virgin for a number of reasons. I have heard numerous complaints about reliability and very poor customer service, particularly from people located in Birmingham. Also, their prices superficially look low, but to get the lowest price for broadband, you have to take all sorts of other services like TV, which we didn’t want. The Tivo is nice, but we already have a Freeview hard drive recorder that we are very happy with, and absolutely no need for additional channels.

Hello fibre!

Since I knew that Zen used BT’s cabling, what I wanted was for BT to provision our street with fibre, so that I could get a fibre service from Zen. I waited quite a long time, but I was eventually alerted to the fact that it was about to arrive by a marketing call from BT. These kinds of calls usually annoy me no end, because they are always trying to sell you stuff you don’t want. First they asked whether I wanted to switch to BT Broadband. I said that was very happy with my provider, and anyway, I wouldn’t get a faster service because it was using the same cabling anyway. Well, they said, we are installing fibre in your area soon, so would you be interested to signing up for BT Infinity, so that you could get much faster speeds? At this point, I probably made the poor sales person’s heart sink, because I brightened up and said, “Oh, that’s great news! That means I can get fibre from my current provider, Zen. Kthanksbye!” and hung up.

Anyway, the time rolled around and I jumped on the offer I received from Zen to upgrade (incidentally, they are civilised and emailed me with the offer, rather than calling and interrupting my dinner). It turned out that our house is extremely close to the street cabinet providing the fibre link up, so we can potentially get the fastest speeds available (76 MBps). In fact the guy who checked my line speed was amazed and said he’d never seen it so high, and we must be right on top of the cabinet. Given that the price differential wasn’t great, and that network speeds are only going to get more important as more of our life moves online, I went for their Unlimited Fibre 2 package with 76 MBps down and 19 MBps up, with non-traffic-managed unlimited usage.

The calm of Zen support

As ever, the customer support people at Zen were extremely helpful in getting things set up. The service has been so reliable that I have rarely had to contact them about anything, but on the rare occasions that I’ve needed help, they have been a delight. The people you speak to actually know what they are talking about, and offer useful advice even if you are not using their recommended equipment. For example, they recommend that you buy one of their routers for the service (BT provides the Openreach fibre modem to actually make the connection, but you need a router to distribute ethernet/wifi within the house). However, I already had a good quality Billion router that I bought a few years ago specifically with the idea in mind that I might upgrade to non-copper broadband eventually, so got a model that had a WAN port and could act as a plain router or an ADSL2 modem plus router as desired. Not only had the guy heard of Billion routers (most people haven’t, including the BT engineers who came to install the service), but after checking with me that it had a WAN port and could do PPPoE (yes and yes), he was happy to let me use that and didn’t try to persuade me to buy a router from them.

The installation appointment was made, and Zen just called me a few days before to check that the time/date was still convenient and that I had everything I needed. The modifications to the existing BT faceplate and installation of the Openreach fibre modem is done by BT themselves. The two engineers who arrived to do the installation did a great job (everything worked fine, and they were quite quick), but we did have a funny moment.

I normally place my router on a low cupboard that sits in the corner of the living room, in front of the telephone faceplates. The Zen guy said that I would need to clear the area of furniture so that the engineers had easy access to it. I did that, moving the cupboard and a nearby table and chair to give them room to work, and balancing the router on the top of one of my speakers. When they started work, they were trying to work around the power cable of the router, which was awkwardly across the area, so I told them it was fine to just unplug the power cable from the back so it wouldn’t be in their way. They did that and carried on, going back and forth from the street cabinet to check that everything was hooked up correctly. Eventually, they got to the point of switching the Openreach modem on and connecting it to my router. I saw them do this and look puzzled by the lack of blinkenlights on my router. “It’s not coming on. Why are the lights not coming on?” I was sitting quietly working on my laptop while this was going on and immediately thought to myself that they hadn’t plugged the power to the router back in, but that they were engineers and would realise this in a second. I was wrong about them noticing. Eventually I couldn’t take it and said, “I don’t think you’ve plugged the power back in to the router yet. That’s why the lights aren’t on.” It’s the kind of thing that anyone can easily overlook if they are hurrying, but I did think it would be the first thing they checked, being engineers and all.

So much speed

Anyway, we got past that. I couldn’t immediately connect over wifi to the internet, but I was pretty sure that I needed to alter the router settings in the control panel interface, so said they were fine to go and I would sort it out. It did take a couple of goes for me to get it set up2, but I got there in the end and had a nice solid connection. They say it takes a while for the connection speed to settle down and adjust to your line and usage, but I think our connection has more or less stabilised now. Using various speed tests online (over wifi not a direct ethernet connection because I’m lazy, so the actual speed to our router is probably higher than the tests suggest), we’ve been getting between 50 MBps at busy times to just over 70 MBs download, and around 17 MBps upload fairly consistently. Having had around 2.5-3 MBps down/300 KBps up for 7 years, this is nothing short of a revelation. Downloading albums happens almost before you have a chance to check the progress, and streaming (Rdio, iPlayer etc.) is rock solid and smooth, with no glitches. Even more useful is the enormous boost to the upload speeds. Since I rely on Dropbox, I do at least as much uploading as downloading, and that now happens almost instantaneously, even with large files. Uploading photos to SmugMug is now so quick that I don’t have time to make a cup of tea before it completes.

You pay your money and take your choice

In short, I’m really impressed with the speed and quality of the service. Zen Internet are admittedly not the cheapest provider around. However, like all things, I think it’s worth paying a bit extra (if you can afford it) for a reliable service with good support, and to get the service you want without having to buy pointless extras you don’t want. As with a gas and electricity supply, reliability is really important, as there are few things more annoying than being without a utility (at this point, I think broadband qualifies as a utility), and helpless to do anything about it. It’s annoying enough when a key appliance (like a fridge) fails, but at least you can grit your teeth and get the old one fixed or go out and buy a new one, and get on with your life. With gas, electricity, phone and broadband, you have to rely on the provider to sort out the problem, which is really frustrating, so it’s worth going with a more reliable provider in the first place. If you are thinking about switching ISP, I would really recommend looking into Zen Internet. They regularly do well in surveys of broadband users, and independent surveys like ‘Which’, so it’s not just my opinion.

  1. Disclosure: I have no association with the company, other than being a happy and loyal customer for a number of years. ↩︎

  2. Billion routers hang on like grim death to their previous settings, it seems, which is nice when the router loses power, but not so good when you want to change fundamentally the method of connection. ↩︎