Internet of things weakest link: Residential broadband

Summary:Most enterprises have backup Internet connectivity in the event their primary WAN links go down. So why don't providers offer this to end-users?

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Anyone who has residential broadband has encountered this problem before: without warning, your internet service goes down.

You walk over to your wireless router, unplug it, and restart it. Not fixed? Reboot the on-premises equipment.

Not fixed? Call your service provider. 

But with the integrated services that we consume today as residential broadband customers, it's not just our internet that goes down when our broadband has an outage for whatever reason.

In my case, with AT&T U-Verse, it was goodbye DVR service and live television, because all of that is IP-based as well.

No Game of Thrones, no COSMOS, no Bob's Burgers on Sunday night. It was also goodbye telephone service, as I have no POTS lines in the house, I use an OOMA VOIP gateway.

No Netflix. No Amazon Video. No Apple TV. No XBOX One multiplayer games. No Boom Beach or Real Racing 3 on my iPad.

All of your Internet of Things devices become useless when your residential broadband goes down.

Fortunately, my AT&T Windows Phone has Wi-Fi LTE tethering capability and I get good signal in my house, so for Monday, I was at least able to do work on my primary laptop computer and call into conferences without having to run into the local Microsoft office in Fort Lauderdale for the day.

I wouldn't want to run that way for more than a few days, and I definitely would not want to start streaming tons of video with it, but it was at least an acceptable backup for general work tasks that required internet connectivity.

All of your Internet of Things devices become useless when your residential broadband goes down.

On Monday morning, an AT&T technician arrived to resolve the service issues. As it turned out, the latest model ARRIS residential gateway (RG) that AT&T uses, the NVG589, which had been installed a month earlier on a different service call had malfunctioned. 

The technician that AT&T sent out was superb. He's probably the best one I have ever seen, given that I have interacted with a bunch of these guys over the last two years. He's been with the company for seven years as an installer and has seen everything.

He replaced the VDSL D-mark outside the house. He checked all the wiring. He changed the on-prem RJ-45 jack. We replaced the DVR and the two ARRIS wireless receivers. After doing all that and performing a signal check, noise of the VDSL twisted pair from the fiber node was non-existent.

So far, so good.

But he went through four NVG589 RGs over a period of five hours before the two of us came to the conclusion that we had a bad batch of equipment we were dealing with. So he went back to his truck, got an older model 2WIRE unit, and everything went peachy.

First, I think AT&T needs to have a talk with ARRIS regarding quality control on the on-prem equipment, and maybe they need to introduce internal processes that actually QCs the RGs and other on-prem devices before they get thrown onto the trucks.

I also hope the local techs are not throwing bad units back onto trucks, and having them end up in the install pool when the next tech borrows a truck. Because if that is the case, AT&T is causing themselves lots of unnecessary churn which is burning a lot of time and money, causing multiple revisits, not to mention serious customer satisfaction issues.

In my part of Coral Springs, Florida, I don't have a lot of choices as to what provider I can use for TV and broadband. But chronic issues of this type could easily inspire a far less technical customer than myself to go running for a competitor in other markets, where they have more provider choices to choose from.

Frankly, I don't know why U-Verse switched from 2WIRE (now part of Pace) and Cisco to ARRIS (who bought Motorola's on-prem residential equipment business in April of last year). Maybe ARRIS cut them a better deal, or their RGs have better technology. I can only speculate.

I would like to see providers like AT&T or Verizon install a 4G device with a built-in Wi-Fi access point on-premises in the event the primary residential gateway goes down. 

I do know that the NVG589 can handle dual twisted pairs (channel bonding) for VDSL so that would be needed for residences needing 45 megabit service or higher. But at the moment, I can't get higher than 24 megabit in my community, so I'm fine with an older model, proven on-prem device for now. 

VDSL and fiber providers like AT&T and Verizon FiOS both rely heavily on these residential gateways to offer their integrated on-prem services. And from what I hear from my industry contacts, more and more capabilities are going to be integrated into these boxes in the future, including the central DVR functionality itself.

Even cable providers such as Comcast XFINITY and Cablevision's Optimum Online that used to separate modem, VOIP and router functionality into two or more separate devices installed on premises are going the integrated residential gateway route. 

Not all residential broadband problems can be attributed to malfunctioning residential gateways. Sometimes the local fiber node for the neighborhood goes down, sometimes you have network issues. Sometimes "acts of God" knock out coax or fiber cables. Unpredictable, widespread outages happen.

Enterprises are able to mitigate these types of issues by having more than one provider, and more than one network access method (such as having backup ISDNs or T1 in addition to their regular MPLS WAN) that will provide sub-capacity or slower connectivity in the event of an outage.

At the very least, they can prioritize their traffic so their email and other critical services (such as VOIP) do not go down entirely.

But the residential or small business broadband customer doesn't really have a backup in the event their broadband fails and if they go down for an extended period.

My AT&T Windows Phone with the LTE Wi-Fi tethering was a lifeline while I was down for two days. I think every home broadband customer should have tethering turned on with their phones for the express purpose of having it in the event of an outage and they can still do basic things like email and web browsing, and potentially VOIP. 

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But ideally I would like to see providers like AT&T or Verizon install a 4G device with a built-in Wi-Fi access point on-premises in the event the primary residential gateway goes down. And the data connectivity should be provided for free until the primary service is restored.

Sure, I know AT&T gives me public Wi-Fi access at cafes and various other places. That's fine when travelling, but that's not always convenient being someone that works from home. And most other small businesses that use this same residential-class technology can't just pack up shop and move to Starbucks or McDonalds for the day either.

Frankly, given that I am both an AT&T Wireless customer and a U-Verse customer I should be provided free tethering services and free wireless data on my phone for the duration of the service outage. It sounds like an outrageous request, but if you think about it, two days of wireless data over a month of paid service is not huge pill for AT&T to swallow, particularly if it only happens a few times a year per customer.

I see this as a potential competitive play against other service providers that AT&T can leverage and maintain customer satisfaction. And Verizon should do the same for its own customers as well. As should the others in the cable space.

Should residential broadband customers be provided with backup Internet services by their providers for free? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Cloud, Broadband, Networking

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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