Internet of things weakest link: Residential broadband

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?


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. 

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


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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  • Redundancy is the key to good engineering & also to the Internet of Things

    My consumer redundancy game plan currently is: AT&T basic land line phone system, Verizon Cellular, DirecTV and Xfinity cable internet.

    Why not bundle all four services together? Jason outlined the reasons in his blog. Using an old '70's term: Being Wired at all times is essential today. If Xfinity goes down (and it has), I still have HDTV and two phone system - one of which can supply a WiFi hot spot capability.

    If the weather knocks out DirecTV, I have Roku and Apple TV supplying video content to my HDTV via cable.

    If Verizon goes down (and it has) I still have a land line for use.

    I'm afraid my career as an automotive engineer has reinforced certain habits or traits that I live by. Redundancy is one of those traits.
  • I can understand why you were jobless in a horrible econcomy

    You're stupid, that's why! Now sod off, you vapid spambot, and I hope they find your controller dead in a ditch on fire.
    • I sense some unpleasant feelings.

      To whom was this reply directed? The post immediately above yours mentioned nothing about being unable to find a job, or even about being unemployed. And his mentioning of four services (for which the monthly fees would seem to rule out his being unemployed and financially suffering) is reasonable, if a bit overkill.

      Please get some help with these issues, so you can have some inner peace. Namaste.
      • Re: To whom was this reply directed?

        Presumably a spam post which has been deleted. I haven't been on here in a while, but I recall those "I made $6000 last month from home" sort of ads were rampant.
  • Redundancy you say?

    My primary ISP is Comcast. Should that go down, my backup ISP is a Freedompop hotspot (so, basically Clearwire WiMax). Since I'm paying Freedompop by the megabyte, I only use the hotspot for mission critical work stuff when Comcast is down (for instance, after a storm). My backup-backup is the tethering feature of my Cricket phone, but since that's only super-slow Sprint sourced 3G in my area, that's definitely a last-resort backup to my backup.

    I suspect most people have "tether to my phone" as their backup internet fallback plan.
    • That is my backup WiFi plan. Verizon hot spot from my phone.

      One must always have a backup plan.
  • How about the current state of Internet security as the weakest link?

    Internet security is an oxymoron.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • That may be the number two problem.

      But security is not relevant if you have no access at all.
      • Depends entirely on what particular "Thing" is pwn3d by the miscreants

        as well as the nature of the malware operating on the device. Remember Stuxnet (as an example)? No air gap is necessary for the IoT and an Internet connection may be totally unnecessary for the malware to do its deed.

        The IoT includes devices well beyond what Jason Perlow mentioned in the article. Like, for example, one's HVAC system.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Life Residental

    There no such thing as a free lunch. It is why residential price is dirt cheap compared to what Enterprise and business pays. As the cost for backup equipment i will be passed on to the consumer as higher bills.
    • In a free market, isn't that how are things supposed to work?

      Everything gets passed to the customers, except any cost savings...

      And given that residential prices are far lower in Europe, and at faster speeds...

      And "supply and demand" - businesses have more money and have greater expectations and needs, so of course they are going to pay for it.
      • And they seem to fail less in Europe

        I live outside a major city (smallish town), and outside of a full power cut once, think the longest I've lost by net access in 3 years is for about 5 minutes.
        Previous residences all have had the same reliability.
        • In my previous job I had to work from home

          On occasions, and also provided 2nd line on call.
          The company paid for a second line with a different ISP to be provided to by residence.
          2 line with 2 ISP meant that I could always get on, worth the cost for the company.
  • My backup internet plan

    is Starbucks. Yep, it's got free WiFi and has great coffee!
    Tony Burzio
  • Hi Jason, try this

    Switch from watching TV to jogging.
    The pavement outside of your house is there 24/7.

    You will get fit, will see other people, your attitude will improve.

    Try this for a month and let us know if your life got any better.
  • Redundancy Costs

    As a retired IT and telecom guy, I can tell you that redundancy costs. Larger businesses pay quite a bit for full redundancy. Your good news is that you only have to pay for the redundancy when you need it. My old company paid for it whether we needed it or not. And you can't double up everything. Using the author's example, his DSL goes back to a Central Office of AT&T. Guess where the local cell tower goes. Back to the same Central Office.
  • Primary first

    We don't need a redundant connection, most of us simply need *A* connection. My parents 2 options are super expensive satellite or less expensive but capped cellular.

    I'm in a city, my options are an unreliable cable provider or 4MB DSL. (Yes, 4 is the top speed anyone can bring to my house over DSL, in a fairly good sized metropolitan area.)

    I'm not all that concerned about redundancy, I'm more concerned about an affordable primary option.

    For Jason Perlow, it sounds like you're doing a lot of work from your house. Perhaps you should look into a business grade connection which would come with business grade service? Like guaranteed 30 minute response times.
    • Business-Grade service

      Cannot be deployed by U-Verse in a private residence. Unfortunately.
  • My backup is... Windows phone. I am fortunate in that I get reliable 4G LTE and using the hotspot gives me access to everything I need. I have actually only needed it once in several years when a pickup truck went out of control and took out the local hub. We had a general power failure but it didn't affect my WAN as the modem is plugged into a UPS that could probably power it and my Surface for days since is designed for a commercial server. I got it surplus and it only needed batteries.
    The Heretic
  • Same Thing Here - already exchanged first NVG589, 2nd Level3 Tech Visit 7/1

    Jason, did this first offline in text editor, but having similar issues with AT&T U-verse and I don't understand, technically, seeing the daily fluctuations and intermittent speed shifts and jumps which should not be possible since I get a dedicated fiber-optic service line?

    NB: this is from text to customer service when I could not log on and wasn't receiving password reset link, so it third person when referring to you and your article, etc. Please make corrections mentally, or ask me to rewrite, but I absolutely positively have to run in the next fifteen minutes to help a friend having a landscaping crisis.

    "Having the same issues with ATT U-verse as Jason Perlow wrote about in his 05.13.2014 article, "Internet of things weakest link: Residential broadband"; URL
    but was unable to login -- have been offline almost 6 months -- since 13DEC13 and wondered if my account or membership data was "stale" now that I am back on line - my email is alumni account, so while its free for life I don't know how quickly it gets from you to Princeton, and from Princeton to me.
    Like Jason wrote about I've already had my first Apr14 NVG589 Motorola or ARRIS gateway exchanged out, and the last 'tech specialist' visit the guy spent an hour on site before he came to my home, I suspect, in the IT room of our building making some kind of lashup
    so my speed and performance were through the roof. Of course he didn't cover his tracks very well, went back to the IT room, "unlashing" whatever he had put together before he left the site (again I only suspect but cannot prove what he did). There was a significant and marked falloff in speed and performance after he came out of the IT room, hmm?
    And as Jason writes, residential or single employee businesses, even small startups often cannot have multiple accesses/suppliers; or even a backup by primary ISP. For example when I first went to AT&T DSL (we're out in the boonies and in a poor economic area to boot, so improvements and high tech things get here last) I was given a dialup number to use in the event ATT DSL went down; and since I had been an ATT WorldNet customer for years when 56K was blazing speed compared to the first Anderson-Jacobsen acoustic coupler we used n the last century, that was an acceptable 'backup' and as it turned out one I never had to try to use.
    If you can forward this to Jason Perlow while I am waiting to get my password recovered, reset, or resuscitated maybe that would bridge the gap while my fire is up about this -- at 5 AM this morning I was getting 9-11 MBS speeds are better now [???] and it seems technically funky as if they (AT&T) is having supply problems with their modems/gateways and maybe their CAT5 cables.
    BTW my setup is one GATEWAY, one DELL XPSZ desktop tower, and it is an entirely WIRED setup - nothing wireless here because of some interference due to local physical features . . .

    The frustrating thing to me is how ATT is willing to spend so much on people talking me to death, on multiple defective modems or whatever is happening, on having "Level 3 Internet Technical Specialists followup on the service calls of their Level 1 and Level 2 technical specialists, and on requiring me to spend, at this point almost 20 hours on the phone overall with all of these people, who at least in the phone contacts seem to have no technical skills but have been taught all these 'touchy-feely' cant phrases to us, things to say to soothe us.
    Ah my undergrad school came thru, pw is reset,at gateway
    Thank you. RK