Back when dialup, ADSL and cable TV connections were contemporary, people discovered you can get better internet by running a simple network cable from the local internet cafe to your home. Neighbourhood suppliers sprouted like mushrooms, offering internet connections with the bonus of a much higher speeds between the subscribers. And people wanted games and access to shared content on the network. Big operators could only offer a competitive product by building a fiber to the home network. And they did, and building a fiber network once costs less in the long term than upgrading phone and cable equipment over and over and over again every few years. This is how you get fast and cheap internet.
My internet experience part 1: why it is fast and cheap in Romania
Here is some history about how things evolved, to give you an idea of how they got to be where they are now. In Romania things evolved pretty interesting and varied: here is my internet connection history.
Network cable connection era
I remember the day I it got installed in 2001 vividly. It was done by running a simple network cable which ran at 10Mbps from the neighbourhood internet cafe to my computer, coming through the window frame:
The system where the local internet cafe is a provider in the neighbourhood like this like the picture below. The network cables at that time were running at the speed of 10Mbps and could span up to 200 meters in length, while a hub could expand that for another 1-2 hops of 200 m.
My connection cost the equivalent of 30 USD, had no speed specifications, no time limit and no data cap. While that was a lot for Romanian salaries, with teenager me being a sponge for anything to do with electronics and computers, I am sure this paid off. The download speed was only a few kbps, but grew over time. However, because of the network cable, the connection was in fact a whole 10Mbps between me and everyone else connected to the same provider. That means that, while someone would take about 100 hours to download the equivalent of a CD from the internet, once they had it anyone on the network could get it in only 10 minutes. Oh, an all network games available in an internet cafe could now be played from your home.
Providers like this existed all over the country, most starting from internet cafes. During the initial years, their source for internet was a satellite connection, after which they started interconnecting. The neighbourhood providers were sending a bold message: when getting something from the internet we are just as fast, but you also get a tremendous speed in your neighbourhood and you don’t have to buy a modem.
We moved in 2006 and the only internet available there was through TV cable. Around this time, this was the most universally available in the country, with second being the small internet providers using the network cable method. We got the fastest package, at around 25 USD and 20Mbps download and 3Mbps upload. There was a data cap, but practically unlimited. This was the era when digital cameras were all the rage and we spent a lot of time exchanging pictures over FTP across the country.
On paper the connection was good, except that the cable modem was unreliable. The connection dropped often and had large speed reductions. Around 2013 this connection was updated to a fiber to the home connection, more on that later.
Fiber to the building
In 2006 I left my hometown for Bucharest to study and got a fiber to the building internet connection from a big provider, because it was available there. At this point, neighbourhood providers were still widely present. Fiber to the building means a provider brings a fiber connection to the building or neighbourhood, and then splits it to a plethora of network cables to nearby apartments and houses. This is essentially a copy of the system of internet cafes but on a city wide scale, without a cafe in the middle. This lowers the costs phenomenally, as there is a single fiber cable, a single fiber to network cable adapter, and a few switches which split the connection, all to serve hundreds of people. There are no expensive cable or modems, just cheap network cables. As a subscriber there is a network cable coming in your home straight to your computer.
In Bucharest I got the medium tier subscription for 8 euro, which provided 25Mbps download and 25Mbps upload, unlimited data. The connection proved very stable, the speed was as advertised. Over time speed increased and I got a router to share the connection with more than one computer.
At this time the fiber lines were spreading all over cities in the country at a rapid pace. They were mostly installed outside, on light poles, trees and building facades. People were busier using internet than complaining about the esthetics:
Fiber to the home – current state
By 2021 the speed had already reached 500 Mpbs upload and download for the lowest package, with the price dropping to 5 Euro. We switched to a fiber to home connection, as the provider was closing off the remaining fiber to the building system.
It is typical nowadays to have a few fiber providers right up to your door, waiting to connect you. On top of this, there are even other virtual operators. Gone are the small neighbourhood providers, which could not scale up due to the maximum length allowed by the network cable. Today, internet, tv and phone landline all come to your home through a single fiber connection.
In 2022, the lowest packages for most providers start at 300-500Mbps, with prices around 4-6 euro and no data caps. Some providers are already starting to deploy 2.5 Gbps for home users and 5 Gbps and 10 Gbps for business is common. Oh, and the cities are no more crowded by ugly fiber cables, it’s all under ground now. And, for many years the internet speed in Romania has been in the top of the world.
My internet experience part 2: why it is slow and expensive in Belgium
I moved to Belgium in 2013 only to be greeted by slow and expensive internet, not sufficiently compensated by great beers. At that time, I went down from a 100 Mbps upload and download connection with unlimited traffic to a 13 Mbps download and 0.4 Mbps upload connection with limited traffic using the phone line, for 50 euro. Typically for ADSL, the actual speed was much lower than the promised one. Translation: internet in Belgium was 8 to 250 times slower depending on what you did, 10 times more expensive aaaaand it had a data cap. Now in 2022 I pay 52 euros for an internet connection that provides 90Mbps down and 30 Mbps up. Data in this large tier package is practically unlimited for me, but the small package are totally insufficient.
In Belgium things evolved pretty simple: mostly, there is a major company which provides internet through the phone lines they own and a major one which uses the tv cables they own. For many years they have repeatedly upgraded their equipment, which increased the speed gradually, while keeping the same cables. Fiber connections are still an exception and not the norm in 2022. Meanwhile, the phone cable operator is putting fiber in because they have reached the limits of the phone line. There are also a few “virtual” operators which offer internet connections using the existing infrastructure offered by the 2 big players, but their offers are not interesting: they tend to be slightly cheaper and slightly slower.
The other provider uses the TV cable and offers a bit higher speed, but where i live there are frequent complaints about interruptions, while my connection has been stable. Other people in other places have exactly the opposite experience: phone line is unreliable, but the TV line is. This just proves that internet over cables that were not meant for internet is unreliable.
Conclusion 1: that’s why is it so good and cheap in Romania
Here is how it all ties together: the world largely used the phone cable or the tv cable connections to squeeze internet through. But in Romania, people realized the plain old network cable can be used for neighbourhood scale internet connections. Starting up as an provider using this method was easy and cheap so it happened everywhere. This connection type came with the advantage of incredibly fast speed between the members of the local network, which was highly prized by many. Simply put, this way of interconnection solves the last mile problem cheaper and better. Regular providers using phone and tv cables tried, but all they could offer was a slower and more expensive service. So they got to installing fiber early and quickly, which means that now most population is connected to fiber.
Now fiber is much higher speed compared to the phone or tv cable, right from the start. Much of the speed increase over time was just the provider turning on the tap more and not by hardware upgrades. It seems this happened not only in Romania, but in other countries as well.
Conclusion 2: but still, why is it so bad and expensive elsewhere?
In places where people did not discover alternative methods for internet delivery you are left with providers using the tv or phone cable. Speeds through these means of delivery have slowly increased over time, but just that, slowly increased. Phone and tv cable internet requires that both the provider and the consumer upgrade the equipment multiple times through multiple generations, adding a bit more speed. Over time, the repeated equipment replacement keeps the price high.
Add some perverse factors like monopolies, price fixing, captive markets and all you are left is with complacent companies providing a low quality product at a high price.
The way out of this is a fiber connection, which requires new cables to be installed. But in the short term vision of providers, it is cheaper to just upgrade all the equipment to the newer generation of phone or tv cable equipment. Fiber will have a large initial cost, so companies are reluctant to do it, unless they are pressured by some sort of competition from another supplier with fiber or a quality standard imposition. <joke> Or maybe they might have aspiring leadership which values fast an cheap internet connections at lower profits </joke>.
In such situations, in the long term, customers are paying the large cost of all the repeated upgrades instead of a lower cost of a single upgrade to fiber. All this, while getting an inferior product.
Disclaimer: A lot of the content is based on my own experience and discussions with various people from small internet providers and large companies and some of it is speculation.