Sunday, August 30, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Internet

Along with television, internet access is probably the most important broadband service out there, and maybe the most important one to any geek worth their salt. We've been subscribers to Sunflower's top-level Gold internet tier for the past several years, and will be getting AT&T U-Verse's top-level internet packages, called Max 18, allowing for a good comparison of each company's best offerings, in the areas of speed, reliability, and performance.

First, a quick look at each company's best offering:

FactorSunflower Broadband Gold*AT&T U-Verse Max 18
Download Speed21 mbps18 mbps
Upload Speed.76 mbps1.5 mbps
Bandwidth50 GB/monthunlimited

* I have heard rumors that Sunflower's Gold service level will gain increased speeds and bandwidth later this fall as they adopt a new cable technology called DOCSIS 3.0 but this is not available yet so I can't yet compare it..

Both AT&T and Sunflower offer other service levels as well, generally offering less speed (and less bandwidth in Sunflower's case) for a cheaper price. Sunflower has an additional level of service called Palladium which does away with any bandwidth limits, and has variable speed levels.

There are technical differences in how Sunflower and AT&T deliver their internet service. As I mentioned, Sunflower uses the standard for all cable internet in America, called DOCSIS. The best way to think about how it is delivered is that the internet is essentially a "channel" on the cable system, except rather then being able to "tune" it with your TV or set top box, it gets "tuned in" by a device called a cable modem, which you can either rent or buy. Cable modems are made by many manufacturers and can be bought at stores like Best Buy. This is a nice benefit of the DOCSIS standard - you don't have to rent a special box, you can buy any compatible model and it can be used on Sunflower's network. Furthermore, many DOCSIS cable modems provide no routing functionality, so technically experienced folks can use all kinds of third party routers with cable internet service to construct sophisticated firewalls and routing systems.

AT&T's U-Verse internet is technically similar to the DSL service that has been offered for a while, although the enhanced bandwidth provided by the VRADs used for U-Verse allow for much faster speeds then previous types of DSL. Unlike the world of cable, there are no independent options for U-Verse's "DSL Modem" - the U-Verse packages includes a device called the Residential Gateway which handles the Internet networking and routing. It cannot be replaced. While this fully integrated device is a boon to less technical users, more experienced users who may have specific routing needs may find themselves frustrated with the built-in router and its limitations. Part of my evaluation of U-Verse this next month will be exploring the functionality of limitations of the Residential Gateway and seeing how adaptable it is to my geeky needs.

Of course, raw download speed isn't the only way I will be evaluating the two services. Upload speed is important as well, especially for people like me who routinely access my computer from outside my home, as well as for uploading movies and photos to the web, and of course peer-to-peer file sharing. Another area of concern in the evaluation will be to issue of bandwidth. Sunflower limits the amount of bandwidth you can use every month, although additional bandwidth can be purchased. We generally manage to avoid overage charges by keeping careful watch on our meter, and I am looking forward to not having this worry with U-Verse. But, is this "freedom" going to be worth an extra $15 per month? Only time will tell.

Another area I want to keep an eye on is network reliability, specifically slowdowns and outages. I run network monitoring software that automatically keeps an eye on the speed and reliability of the internet connection from my computer. I have months of data on how our Sunflower connection has performed, and I want to compare this to how U-Verse does. Will there be unexpected network drop-outs or congestion-related slowdowns in the evenings? My testing should be able to identify if this occurs.

There's only four more days until our U-Verse install. Still to come before then, a brief review of the phone options, and a discussion of customer service.

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