The Harsh Reality of Suburban Broadband, Part Deux

The Harsh Reality of Suburban Broadband, Part Deux

Summary: Goddamit! Why have I been offline for so long?As I explained in a previous article last summer about my broadband situation, my employer, like many large technology services companies, has elected to classify my work situation as "Home-Based", in that when I am not at a customer site, I'm working from home.


Goddamit! Why have I been offline for so long?

As I explained in a previous article last summer about my broadband situation, my employer, like many large technology services companies, has elected to classify my work situation as "Home-Based", in that when I am not at a customer site, I'm working from home. So for connectivity to corporate email, our Intranet and Instant Messaging system, my link to the mother ship is entirely dependent on the reliability of my connectivity through Optimum Online, Cablevision's cable broadband service.

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Service interruptions with residential broadband are not uncommon, in particular with cable and DSL providers. It's not unusual that once or twice a month, I'll have to re-boot my cable modem or have a 2 or 4 hour service interruption. I don't usually notice it though, as I spend a great deal of time traveling and my wife is usually the one complaining when it goes down. If she can't get onto, GMail or FaceBook, I'm usually the first to get a phone call.

This time, it happened when I was home for the entire week, so I was particularly dependent on my cable internet service in order to get work done. On Wednesday night, at approximately 10PM, I noticed a large amount of incoming/receive traffic on my Motorola Surfboard cable modem, and my web browsing performance ground to a halt. TweetDeck stopped updating and my Instant Messenger connections on Pidgin all dropped. My VPN connection to the mother ship also drops. I couldn't even get to the Google homepage. I yell upstairs to my wife.

"Honey, are you downloading something really huge?"

"No, I'm not. I noticed all my connections dropped, are you doing something?"

The Surfboard was lit up like a Christmas tree. I rebooted it twice, as well as my router/firewall. Same problem. Modem lights going crazy but the PCs have no apps running. DVRs aren't downloading anything over On Demand either. I'm thinking DOS attack, or some script kiddie in the neighborhood is screwing around. So I call up Cablevision.

Also Read: The Harsh Reality of Suburban Broadband (June 2008)

First, I get to the voice response system. Press 1 for English. "Empuje el numero dos para espanol". Press 1 for Sales and Appointments, Press 2 for Billing. No option for technical support, unless you hit zero a bunch of times causing to system to say "I didn't understand that, forwarding you to a representative." A rep picks up after about 40 seconds, where she then proceeds to look up my account number and service history. Then when I finally get to tell the representative I'm having a technical problem, I get transferred to "Mike".

I explain to Mike I'm getting a ton of incoming traffic and I can't connect to anything, this despite my router having leased a WAN IP  address from Cablevision's servers. Mike tells me from his remote diagnostics that I'm dropping a ton of packets, and suspects the modem is bad, and to get it swapped out the in morning from a local Optimum/Cablevision retail location.

Thursday morning I wake up and head right over to the local Optimum store. Optimum swaps out my presumably dead Surfboard for a Scientific Atlanta, a smaller modem with the equivalent build quality of a Chinese-made child's toy, and a date of manufacture of April of 2004. I don't complain about this because next Friday, I'm being upgraded to Optimum "Ultra" service, their competitive broadband offering to Verizon's FiOS.

I happened to find out about Ultra when I asked Mike if Optimum had rolled out DOCSIS 3.0 yet, and he said that they literally just got it up a few weeks earlier.  At $99 per month (as well as a $300 equipment fee for the new channel-bonding DOCSIS 3 modem and an on-site tech visit) for 100Mbps downstream and 15MPBS upstream, it sounds like a hell of a deal compared to my current $65 per month Optimum Boost service, which is 20Mbps down/5Mbps up.

I've been doing a lot more Internet streaming intensive stuff such as Netflix instant view with Roku and DirecTV On Demand, as well as a lot more usage of my Slingbox when I'm away, so the increased bandwidth should be really nice. I had been pining for Verizon FiOS, but after speaking to the mayor of my town about the prospects of it happening anytime soon, he told us we are on the bottom of Verizon's list and I'll be old and grey by the time it ever happens. So Ultra should be fantastic if it lives up to its promises.

In any case, I bring the replacement modem home and hook it up. It lights up like a Christmas tree, just like the Surfboard did. I yank my router's Ethernet and do a direct CAT-5 bypass from my laptop,  pull up Wireshark, and begin capturing on my primary interface, which spits out a ton of errors about dropped packets and malformed TCP requests. GODDAMIT!!!!!

I call up the tech support line again. It's 11AM. I call back the same support phone number, but now it takes a bit longer to get through to the technician. I explain to him, again, the packet situation and that the modem has been replaced.

"Well Sir, it does look like there is some sort of outage situation going on, but the system doesn't have any updates about it logged since 8:05AM."

"So you can't definitively tell me if people are working on it or what exactly is wrong?"

"No Sir, I cannot."

I call back in at 1PM, effectively having the same conversation. Frustrated and angry, I hang up the phone. My Internet access has now been out for 14 hours. My entire business day is on the verge of being completely shot. Thankfully, my BlackBerry works, I'm able to tether it to my laptop for some limited 3G email and web browsing, and I haven't had any urgent company messages or issues that need to be addressed.

At this point, if I were the average Joe, I would have had no recourse. He would have waited, and waited, and waited, and maybe at some point that day, or the next, or perhaps the day after, his service would have come back. Maybe. But I'm not the average Joe. I'm a columnist for a high-profile tech blogging site, and when I bitch and complain, people tend to listen. So I do the only thing a mad-as-hell tech journalist does when deprived of his broadband. I jump on Twitter with my BlackBerry.

Not surprisingly, right after my first complaint that the modem swap didn't do any good, I have some direct Twitter messages Jim Maiella, Cablevision's Vice President of Media Relations waiting for me. Before you can say "Don't incur the wrath of the fat angry Jewish dude from New Jersey" I have the regional Director of Network Engineering on the phone, and two Cable Guys at my house and casing the neighborhood for several hours chasing what appears to be a systemic problem that is now affecting a large number of customers, not just my "Node".

Nevertheless. I get my modem swapped out AGAIN, for a Motorola surfboard just like the one I first had, because the on-site tech tells me the Scientific Atlanta I've been given is a piece of crap.

Predictably, the new-new Motorola lights up like a Christmas tree, and I show him the Wireshark readouts with the red errors and warning signs about packet loss and malformed requests. I also show him that they've got a CISCO router or switch going nuts on Cablevision's internal network, sending out a broadcast storm that is effectively causing a denial of service. Not alarmed by this, he walks outside and attaches a portable network analyzer to my coax drop at the house. 60-70 percent packet loss.

The Cable Guy leaves and comes back a few hours later -- 8:30PM, telling me that my service has been restored. I've experienced an outage of approximately 22 hours.

The cable guy informs me that the problem was "On the back end, related to switch port configuration." OH REALLY? I HAD NO IDEA!!!!

I think there are a couple of things that need to be added to the lessons learned pile here, and that is that I don't think broadband customers should need to be authors of high-profile tech blogs in order to get prompt customer service. If there's an outage, some sort of update as to the nature of the problem would be nice.

Additionally, if you're running a large residential broadband provider, it's probably a good idea to have some sort of low level network monitoring of all your manageable devices put in place so that you can trigger and send alerts of exactly what is going wrong to the right people who can fix the problems. Having cable guys chase down endpoints at customer premises when the problem is on the back-end is a huge time waster.

Has anyone else experienced a significant downtime or lousy customer service with their residential broadband provider? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Telcos, Broadband, Hardware, Mobility, Networking


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • Reminds me of Comcast.

    Back when I was a customer of theirs, I had some troubles. I eventually got to a tech support person that actually understood what I was talking about when I told them the IP address of the equipment on the network that was dropping about one packet in three.
    • Comcast is quite a bit better than this

      I've had my internet drop for about 3 hours at a
      time once a month, which I figure "Okay, they are
      upgrading something!"
      Never had it go out for more than 4 hours at a
      time, in all honesty.
      • I lost service for more than a day on one occasion.

        Most outages were anywhere from 3 to 12 hours and once or twice a month.
        • Mine's been butt-tastic for the last couple of weeks.

          Yet when I do ping, traceroute, packet sniffing, or anything else, it's
          been clean. I even went as far as to replace my aging WRT54G with a
          Time Capsule and upgrade my cable modem from a SB5100 to a 5120,
          with no luck.

          I'll be waiting a week for Comcast to send a tech out.

          BTW Jason, those Motorola MTAs suck. If you have to swap it out again,
          see if Cablevision has Arris brand MTAs.
      • Did they notify you?

        If your electric company or your phone company were doing upgrades and turned you off for three hours, you would be up in arms that you were never notified, and rightly so. Why do you hold Comcast's Internet service to such a lower standard?

        I think this is the #1 reason why service companies can get away with these outages and why they are so frequent. They are not held as accountable as the electric, phone and water companies are. This needs to change.
        Michael Kelly
        • Cable company notify you? HA!

          I think that if their service is so unstable that they have to take it down to update it 3-4 hours per month, you should be finding a different provider.

          I do echo the extremely low standard that ISPs are held to by the public, the industry, and their own corporate leadership. Since when is it ok to pay for service you don't get? One of my biggest beefs with Qwest was a 10-day outage during which I paid for service I did not receive and lost revenue in my business to boot. I think if they had to credit their customers back for lost service time per minute, the industry would shape up real fast!
      • Comcast "Not Any Better"

        No way Comcast is better than this. I've had similar episodes pretty much every month now for the last year and a half! If I could dump Comcast for something else (oh heck, even Verizon DSL would be better at this point!) I would. The last time I had a similar problem it took ComCRAP 2 days to figure out the problem, this after repeatedly being told "there's no issue that we're aware of." Oh B.S.!! I know every single one of my neighbors in my subdivision, we ALL had an outage and ComCRAP ignored it for 2 full days. This is the danger of working from home, especially where ComCRAP is concerned. They simply do not guarantee suitability for business purposes. If I had an alternative to ComCRAP, I'd switch in a heartbeat!
        • Comcast "Not Any Better"

          I think a lot of the issues are untrained / unqualified customer service reps. If your problem falls outside of their script then they are lost. I once had a slowness issue and knowing full well the person at comacast had no idea what ssh was I told them I was using telnet and ftp to connect to servers at another location and the connection speed was very poor. The first thing he wanted me to do was check my browser cache... WTF... browser cash has nothing to do with it.
          • Second Comcast is not any better

            I lost my internet connection last week for 3 hours. Lost my phone, too, as it's Vonage and it uses my cable connection. This happens about once per month. Sometimes they tell me they know about it and other times, they say they are not aware of any issue. What a terrible way to run a business. Gee, sounds like AT&T and the iPhone.
          • When it's clear the person you called is clueless

            tell them you want them to kick you up a level. If done with tact it works surprisingly well.
            Michael Kelly
          • In My Experience, The Real Job of the Support Desk is....

            In My Experience, The Real Job of the Support Desk is to jerk you around until you get disgusted and give up.

            In my experience, no amount of civility, tact, cajoling, or even threats and profanity will have any real effect. You can go up 4 levels of customer service and they are all as clueless as the next.

            The reason is that (as with UPS for example) they are all looking at exactly the same package transit progress screen as you are at home.

            The truth was stated in the movie I can no longer remember; "I used to be a Customer Service Rep. Now I'm a Customer Account Manager because clients are not to be provided with (better) service, they are accounts to be managed for more money. Milked like the cash cows that they are."<br><br>
            <a href="">Western News Co (Chicago)</a><br><br>
            Seamus O'Brog
          • untrained/unqualified csr

            They are not trained to provide you service, they are there to upsell you.
          • Used to be you could bypass first level tech...

            Back in the 90s I could get past my ISP's first level techs easily, just by saying things that they didn't understand. If I called up and said, "there's a problem", I'd get stuck in the "reboot your computer and modem" hell, even if I told them that I was connected, but couldn't resolve DNS requests, but if I called up and before they could say more than, "hello", I said that their bind server was hung, that I could ping the server fine, but DNS queries were timing out and a traceroute was showing that there was no outage between me and the that case there would be a pause, and then, "Let me connect you to the network guy..." and I'd be talking to the network manager, who understood what I was saying, checked, saw the hung bind process, restarted it and all was good again.

            Too bad that ISPs have insulated themselves so well from calls like that. They don't get information they need, and customers are put through hell talking to script-readers who couldn't tell a packet from a postage stamp, and still don't get the service they are paying for.

            Are there still countries where looking stupid is still a Bad Thing (tm)? Do they accept immigrants?
      • Comcast is quite a bit worse

        I have Comcast and I have to reboot (power down the modem and router and restart them) three to four times per week. Last week it was every day and three times on Friday. In addition Comcast will slip in a $30 increase on the bill every so often for no apparent reason and I have to call them and get them to refund the money. If I had another high speed solution I would take it.
      • Different for me.

        Comcast was going out two or three times a week for an hour or two each time,with random full days thrown in where I had no access at all. Also twice a year (February, and May) there were up periods of up to two weeks where I would have either no service at all, or it would be so slow that it made me wish for a 300 baud modem.
        Phone calls were always answered with "you're the only one in your area with problems" I know my neighbors well enough that I can say I am NOT the only one in the area with trouble.

        Finally switched to DSL, less throughput, but it has only gone down once in two years, and that was because a tree took the line down.

        To me three hours a month is too much, they've contracted to provide a service. they should make sure the service is reliable.

      • Why do you accept that?

        Would you accept a monthly 4 hour outage from any other utility provider? Telephone? Electricity? Water and sewer? Why do you accept it from your ISP???

        What I don't understand is why the phone company, which does a pretty damn good job of keeping things working all the time, is so bad at keeping the internet service working. It's like the telephone system was designed by engineers, and the internet setup they have was designed by chimps.
      • Comcast Theft

        Comcast in Illinois stole $770 from my mother after my father died.

        I live and work on the east coast. I nneded to quickly get my mother out of their trailer and moved in with us. I arranged for the trailer park manager and the Comcast technician to meet to retrieve the Comcast equipment.

        Comcast never showed. They simply billed my mother. I didn't find out until I returned home with my father's vehicle after a 2-day drive, by which time it was too late.

        Comcaat here tried to steal from a friend of mine. My friend's Comcast service was terminated by a Comcast mistake, mistaking my friend for someone else who had ordered termination. When my friend complained and requested restoration of service, Comcast tried to bill him for a whole new installation. My friend cancelled and switched to DSL instead.

        Comcast here has horrible reliability, constantly strives to install tracking cookies on their customers' systems, and oversells their lines with drastic reductions in throughput.

        The second that Verizon FiOS becomes available here, we're jumping ship. Until then, Comcast has a monopoly. And they act like it.
    • VoIP issue too

      When I leave a voice mail for someone and then hang up, my phone immediately rings back. It's like it doesn't recognize that the phone call is terminated. It never did this with my prior phone service. Comcast has been out twice and they have no idea what is wrong with it. I'm posting this in the hopes that someone else has solved this issue.
      • VoIP Issue Too

        It could be your eMTA (modem). It sounds like your eMTA is not sending the on hook message like it should. Dial tone and ring voltage come from your eMTA not the system via SIP messages. If they haven?t replaced it, ask them too.
    • re: Comcast

      Reading all of these replies, I'm feeling like the luckiest Comcast customer alive. I think I've had 1 outage in the last year. Lasted about 2 hours.

      ::knocking on wood::