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The fatal mistake of the Ministry of Communication

At approximately 14th of January 2023, the minister of communications announced a new subscription model for Internet connectivity. Simply put, every household gets 10GB of data monthly for absolutely free. Graduating to 15000 IQD per month nets you a connection with a 100GB data cap. This all sounds good on paper, but here’s where the massive mistake is:

Unlimited Speed

You read that right. Unlimited speeds. Truly unlimited, as the minister said her self. The only limit will be your hardware. Now this still sounds great, but you have to understand how networks work and how devices process packets at a very basic level.

In essence, every device that’s capable of networking is only capable of so much throughput before it starts struggling, dropping traffic and outright dying in some cases. The worst place you see this is in the Radio Frequency spectrum with the base stations and the CPEs. Unfortunately, since Iraq is still stuck in 2008 this means we’re still using 802.11n over 5GHz. Yeah, that’s the same technology used to power the 2.4GHz signal on your home’s router. On a very good day with absolutely 0 noise and with perfect conditions, you’ll be getting 100Mbps throughput. But this still sounds great you might say, and I’ll tell you to hold on because after I’m done explaining, things are going to take a nose dive.

Your home router, that humble little device that you usually hide away with how ugly it is. It might be capable of 5GHz 802.11ac, which is the next evolution after 802.11n. It’s great but still iffy, capable of up to 400Mbps throughput which is great for a single household. But just because your router has a great radio it doesn’t mean it has an amazing processor. Sometimes, you get routers with amazing processors but horrendous radios. And amazing radios but subpar processors. Unfortunately, not all devices can use the 5GHz 802.11ac space, and for some reason people insist on using 2.4GHz because it offers “better range” despite offering worse speeds on 100% signal than 5GHz 802.11ac on 20% signal. No, that’s not an exaggeration either.

Here’s where things get very ugly. You’re not the only one using the network. I know, what a shocker. You can probably deduct in your head how this will impact your speeds, or rather, how fast that 100GB of yours will run out. You see, it’s a lose/lose situation. Users who have a perfect path to the ISP will absolutely decimate the tower they’re connected to. I happen to have a perfect 1 gigabit symmetrical connection directly to the ISP, I can absolutely bring that tower town with a constant gigabit stream. My household uses data from 1500GB to 2000GB monthly with a 70000 IQD subscription, to keep that steady I’ll have to either pay 300k IQD or severely limit everyone in my network such that our monthly traffic won’t exceed 500GB. Which is incredibly stupid to say the least. And it also makes the minister’s point of “Cheaper plans” effectively moot.

So you’re connected using a puny nanostation M5 that’s begging for the sweet release of death, huh? Well congratulations! It’s even worse for you. For the towers I worked and operated in, the average basestation carries about 10 CPEs. Take that 100Mbps and you’ll quickly find out that it averages to 10Mbps per user, but unfortunately for you the basestations aren’t smart enough to split that evenly between users. Oh and the 100Mbps is also split between download and upload. So if you want it to be symmetrical that would be 50Mbps upload and 50Mbps download. Add in the absolute sea of noise the Iraqi sky is and you’ll end up with 20Mbps or so for the entire basestation. 2Mbps for each user and one of them might hog all the throughput. Fun, right?

Well, since this is Unlimited speed. This also applies to fibre and copper ethernet users. As a user can also hog the link there. But it’ll be a bit more bearable, at least.

The panic of tower/mast owners

Unfortunately I’m too ashamed to talk about how crap Iraq’s Internet infrastructure really is so I’ll spare you the trouble. But to put it bluntly, towers are usually split into 3 main categories

  • Main Repeaters

    Owned and maintained by the ISP themselves, this is where the rest of the connectivity breaks out. Usually supplied with a 10 gigabit connection

  • Sub Repeaters

    Owned and maintained by natural people, this repeater takes from the main repeater and relays traffic to the actual towers. Usually supplied with a 1 gigabit connection to the main repeater

  • The actual tower

    This is where the end user would get his connectivity. Usually connected via a wireless bridge or fibre. Also usually 1 gigabit with the exception of wireless bridges.

As you might have noticed, since our infrastructure is so horrible (It doesn’t even exist), It’s pretty much a community effort. So this begs the question, how does your data reach the ISP?

[ You ] <-> [ Your Router ] <-> [ Your CPE (Nanostation or whatever) ] <-> [ Tower's sector ] <-> [ Tower's "router" ] <-> [ Sub Repeater ] <-> [ Main Repeater ] <-> [ Internet ]

Remember the bullet points stating actual towers and sub repeaters usually get either a gigabit connection or a wireless bridge that craps itself half the time? Well, since this is unlimited speed and there’s no bandwidth control… 1 or 2 users that are connected well can not only bring the tower down, but also the sub repeater. A dozen well connected users can bring down the main repeater. Did I mention since this is unlimited, it effectively means I can launch my own DoS attacks for just 15000 IQD? Very handy.

Obviously, and rightfully so, tower owners are panicking right now. This decision will cripple the infrastructure even more. And if you haven’t figured it out already, you’ll get the max speed of the least powerful link in the chain. As in, for example, if the sub repeater is at capacity then no matter if you have the best router, best connectivity and the tower has the absolute best hardware possible.. You’ll still get insanely bad speeds.

So.. To recap!

  • This is a disaster and an absolutely bad idea.
  • This is more expensive than the previous subscription model. The speeds will be worse for the average user as well.
  • Your router is gonna choke by the amount of throughput it has to forward.
  • If your router is up to the task, your CPE is gonna struggle forwarding to the tower’s basestations due to noise or someone else hogging the bandwidth
  • Cleared all those? Good for you. Now the tower’s 1 gigabit connection is likely saturated.
  • Tower is fine? Have you checked the sub repeater to see if another tower isn’t hogging their bandwidth?
  • If you suddenly see fire in your neighbourhood, it’s likely the ISP’s main repeater catching fire.