Monday, January 07, 2013

The Trains, The Trains!

Oh dear, not even two weeks into 2013 and I'm having a second rant already... doesn't bode well...

OK, so today was my first day back at work, admittedly somewhat electively (wanted to get some things done during the day that would normally need out-of-hours outages. And I want to get along to the girls school camps later in the year.) and I knew the trains were going to be fun...

In case you hadn't heard, many of the Auckland stations are currently being upgraded (putting up awnings/roofs that actually might be waterproof... somewhat essential in Auckland) and they're also in the middle of finally electrifying the Auckland rail network (is it just me, or is it about time they linked all the electrified bits of the main trunk line?), so there's construction all over the place and busses replacing trains between Newmarket and Britomart.

So I get to my station early (Greenlane), just in time to watch a train pull out, doh! But another one arrives in about 5 minutes, ahead of what I was expecting (I thought it was supposed to be a Sunday timetable still), so I was stoked at the prospect of getting into work early.

The train pulls up at Newmarket and everyone's off, most looking find the busses into Britomart. Of course, getting out of Britomart requires swiping your AT (travel) card at the barriers, so you've only been charged for the trip to Newmarket, but then, they're inconveniencing us with busses, so that's fair. We sardine onto the bus, with most people left behind for the next bus. There's no ticket inspection, though I did proffer my AT card.

OK, so far so good, I'm easily on time and we're moving.
Then we hit Kyber Pass Road, and stop, and move forward a bus length, then stop. 35 minutes later!, we get to the Grafton Station (on the road past the hospital), where a) the bus driver asks if anyone wants to get off (no-one does) and b) we see two empty busses waiting to take people from the Grafton Station to Britomart. Turns out there's roadworks all over Kyber Pass and basically no-one is using Grafton Station (I guess most of it's customers would be from the Hospital and perhaps Uni), so that was a good choice of route, given that Uni is off for summer and I'd like to think it's relatively quiet at the moment.

Finally we get to Britomart, the bus dropping us off next to where we should catch it back home again, all-in-all a 45 minute trip and I'm late for work. BTW the train would take about 5 minutes...

OK, so then, later in the day, it's home time. I head off to catch the bus/train home, from the same place I'd been dropped off at, in the morning.
There's a huge queue of people and three busses, turns out they're using an normal bus stop and most of the people there are waiting for the normal bus, because a quick query to one of the half-dozen Auckland Transport staff reveals that the front bus is heading to Britomart, so I jump on, flashing my AT card (it was more than enough in the morning, so I figured it was the protocol for going home too) and take a seat (yup, not quite sardines this time).

As we head off to Newmarket (again via Grafton, where again no-one gets on or off) a ticket conductor springs out of no-where and starts working his way up from the back of the bus. Now you can't buy tickets on trains anymore (you have to have an AT card [which most people seem to have], or buy a paper printed ticket on the platform - or the manned booths at some of the bigger stations) and yet, this guy is wandering through the bus trying to get people to buy paper tickets, with cash. Every second person protests and tries to explain that all they have is an AT card (with either stored cash, or a monthly pre-pay), they're getting grumpy and so is he. Turns out, if you're using a cashed AT card, they expect you to go to Britomart, go down two escalators and swipe, but not go through, a gate, then come all the way back out of Britomart and off to the bus, where you say "yes sir, I have swiped my AT card at Britomart), otherwise you get a scowl and two attempts to extract cash before he moves along (monthly users only get asked for cash once).
The trips not too long, about 15 minutes, which is probably about what it should be for this time of year.

Then it's into Britomart, past the dozen or so AT Transport staff, sitting around the square, mostly smoking, swipe through the gates and down to the platform, where two trains await (both covering my stop) with the first to leave in a couple of minutes, the second about 5 minutes later. I get on the former and take a seat. About five minutes later, we haven't left and there's an announcement that the crew hasn't arrived for the train.
So I jump off and climb onto the other train, the doors close a moment later, to an announcement that the other train has been cancelled due to "operational difficulties". I guess the crews in the square didn't make it back from smoke-o in time...

I get off at my stop and swipe off the platform and get home about 25 minutes later than if I'd only had to catch the train, not too bad all things considered.

So where's this going? After all that's a lot of drivel I've put you through so far!
Today was the first day back at work for a lot of people, but next Monday will be way worse as most offices in the CBD will be properly open, if not fully staffed, but the busses will still be replacing trains. So unless Auckland Transport get their act together, there's going to be a lot of annoyed commuters.

And it's not like Auckland Transport have a good rep, with frequent delays and multiple outages of the entire rail network (caused by system failures in Wellington apparently) and we wont even talk about what happened during the Rugby World Cup....

But what can they do?
Set expectations?
Set up swipe posts at the bus stops (or better yet, get them on the busses, you're going to have to do it anyway when the systems finally merge) or give your conductors mobile units, don't expect people to have to revert to a system you've just spent months telling people is gone.
Use your stats to tell you where people are likely to be going, so you don't run your busses via overly long tedious routes.
Don't expect people to pay more for a worse experience.
If you're still expecting a single swipe-on and off for a multiple hop/vehicle journey, then you've got to provide a way to get from one mode of transport to the next. And that's just not happing currently.

Oh well, back to work again tomorrow...

Saturday, January 05, 2013

I want my UFB

OK, so we've just finished our first full month on Telecom's 500gig plan.  Yes, that's 500gig, half a terrabyte, or in technical terms, oodles of data. (I'm aware of whole schools that have less, infact the firm I work for doesn't have a lot more...)

Now I've been with Telecom/Xtra since the beginning of broadband, when my ASUS ADSL router hooked me direct into work so I could work from home two days a week when Amber was born (that's back in July 2001).
And dispite Telecom/Xtra's less than stellar reputation (it took them a year and a case of beer to get my billing right) and everyone telling me I should switch to ISP X, I've stuck it out.  Not that I haven't been tempted...
Over the years, various plans (more gigs or more speed on unbundled exchanges) have been very tempting, but Telecom/Xtra have consistently come back with something that's been "enough" to stop me switching.

Disclaimer: I don't use Xtra for email and aside from the billing woes of my first year, you can count the number of times I've had to call the Telecom/Xtra helpdesk (for Internet) on one hand and still have some spare fingers...

So there I was on Telecom/Xtra's 160Gig plan, looking longingly at various 200Gig and Unlimited (well, none are truely unlimited, they all have a variety of constraints/restrictions, many of which aren't spelled out so you just know you're walking into a world of hassle) plans, thinking maybe it's finally time to switch, especially given that where we live is not on the 3 year (err... only 2 years of that left now I think) UFB roll-out plan.  Then along comes the new Telecom/Xtra 500Gig plan, for $6/month less than I'm paying for their 160Gig plan (how does that work?). Leap!

So, you're probably all thinking "Do you REALLY need 500Gig? Surely 160Gig is more than enough?", after all, most of you are probably on far smaller plans and they are working just fine for you.  OK, so first up, we have a number of Internet connected devices (TV, iPhone, iPad, two iPod Touches, PS2, MagicTV (FreeView recorder), AppleTV, three laptops, a desktop PC and two servers. That's more than some people, but I know a fair number that have more. The updates alone put a dent in our monthly quota of bandwidth (for the geeks: I used to run a proxy to try and cache things, but it generated almost as many hassles as it solved), plus my girls are into YouTube and Ngaire loves posting photos and videos for her friends.  Oh and I download a fair bit too.

So we've been banging up against our 160Gig limit fairly freqently, popping over it a number of times, dispite having a little guage on my laptop that tells me how much we've used...

But with 500Gigs I no longer have to worry about my quota, I would have to try seriously hard to actually use that up.  And to prove it, my first month came in at 112Gig (note: we were away for a week, which would have decreased it).  So now I not only have oodles of quota (who needs "unlimited" when your quota is more than you can use?) but I don't feel I have to use it up.

But what has all this got to do with UFB?
As I've mentioned, our part of our street is not included in the initial 3 year UFB roll-out (dispite being in an afluent area, two blocks from a primary school and two blocks from an intermediate and the Telecom "box" is right at the end of our driveway) so I'm unlikely to get UFB anytime soon, so I'm looking to make the best of what speeds I can get (18Mbit/s down, 940Kbit/s up according to my router today).  According to my crude math, if I could saturate my connection continuously, it would take about 2.5 days to use up my 500gig plan! Now that seems quite quick.

UFB comes in two speeds:
  • 30Mbit/s down & 10Mbit/s up
  • 100Mbit/s down & 50Mbit/s up.
Orcon offer UFB plans in 30Gig, 60Gig and "unlimited" but their "unlimited" fair use policy is based on the average usage of their customer base - the wording is sufficiently thin that I suspect it's not the "average" of customers on their "unlimited" plan  and it possibly includes non UFB plans!, so your potential is being pulled down by cutomers on 30Gig plans.
So anyway, 30Gigs at 30/10Mbit/s - 2.3 hours.
60Gigs at 100/50Mbit/s - 54 minutes!
Even 500Gigs at 100/50Mbit/s is 7.5 hours.
OK, so sustaining that level of bandwidth is unlikley, but I'm just trying to show how small the quota is when compared with the bandwidth given. After all, what if a "hacker" decided to flood your connection, it wont take them long to push you into extra cost or back to dial-up stone-age speeds.
What's my point?
For UFB to "work" for home usage, a number of things need to exist, content (HD videon [Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc], internet radio [Spotify, etc] and HD streamed games being the most obvious and bandwidth intensive available currently), services (online photo/video editing? HD multi-user video chat [e.g. Skype], being some obvious ones) and consumers to consume it ("build it and they will come"?).

Now the likes of the USA have most these things to some degree or another (though often not available to those outside of the USA) and if you're prepared to pay extra in NZ, you can even get some of the premium video (Sky has all the TV/Movies pretty much tied up, so no sign of Hulu or Netflix here).

But the key catch in NZ is the quotas on our Internet plans. 30Gig = ~ 30 hours of average quality 720p video or about 6 hours of average quality 1080p video. So the Internet is not going to replace your TV/DVD/BluRay in any great hurry (yes, various ISPs have deals where iSky/YouTube/etc don't count against your monthly quota, but what if you get your video from somewhere else?).

So until consumers don't have to worry about going over their quota after watching only a handful of movies each month (or their kids watching a string of TV shows), I don't think the UFB story is sufficiently compelling for most homes.

However, if I can keep my 500Gig plan, I'd leap on the 100/50Mbit/s UFB, though I'd be back to watching my usage closely, but Ngaire will get a much better experience uploading her videos and photos and we should be able to watch multiple videos at the same time as downloads are going on.

Though it will be interesting to see how various NZ services and the Southern Cross Cable (NZ's primarily link to the rest of the world) cope with consumers having significantly more bandwidth.