Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sunflower QAM channels in Lawrence

At last, a a break from speculating about the Knology purchase of Sunflower back into some good technical information on cable TV in Lawrence.

A very helpful individual named Sigmund on the Lawrence Journal World forums has done the hard work and put together an updated list of all the QAM mappings for the Sunflower Broadband Bronze cable networks.

As I have discussed last year, QAM channels are the actual digital cable channels that you watch on your TV. Most people watch these using a set-top box, which makes things easier, but at the cost of allowing "TV geeks" to use their own equipment (such as a PC-based tuner).

Anyway, Sigmund has written an absolutely wonderful blog post discussing the current state of QAM programming and Sunflower, as well as providing an up-to-date QAM channel guide.

Sadly, you'll notice the channel guide is missing some important channels, such as ESPN and Comedy Central. Commenter MizzouJayhawk notes that these channels have disappeared because of new contracts between the networks and cable company that require encryption...just like a "premium" network such as HBO.

Anyway, stop what you are doing and go read Sigmund's excellent post, and update your channel mappings in preparation for the fall TV season if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

And, it's official

Sunflower Broadband has been purchased by Knology for (cue Dr. Evil laugh) $165 million dollars

From the MBA-speak in the Knology earnings announcement:

-- Highlights of the Sunflower transaction include:

-- Acquisition of a very well managed business with solid
operational and financial metrics
-- Maintains Knology's strategic niche, operating in secondary and
tertiary markets with favorable demographics and positive economic
growth characteristics
-- Consistent culture and value system with focus on customers and
-- Similar hybrid fiber/coax network architecture
-- Incumbent cable operator, adding approximately 54,000 homes
passed to Knology's existing footprint and approximately 105,000
RGU's to Knology's operations
-- Geography offers attractive edge-out possibilities, tack-on
acquisition and larger acquisition opportunities bridging Knology's
southeast and upper Midwest footprints

So what will this mean for Lawrence broadband customers? Time will tell. I am sure a lot of details will start to come out about the announcement today and in the weeks ahead, and we will try to keep you informed here at the Lawrence Broadband Observer.

UPDATE: This rather folksy history of Sunflower written by her soon-to-be-former sister company, the Lawrence Journal World, contains a nugget of news: the local cable network Channel 6 which provides local news, features, and community access will continue to operate on the Knology system in Lawrence.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sunflower Broadband to be sold to out-of-state conglomerate?

Big changes might be coming to the world of broadband cable and internet in Lawrence, Kansas. According to a report in the cable industry newspaper Multichannel News, Georgia-based broadband firm Knology is close to finalizing a deal to acquire Sunflower Broadband.

This would probably mean some big changes to the broadband market here in Lawrence. It would also mark the end of Sunflower Broadband as a local, independent entity. Buyouts happen all the time in the world of business, but I still pause to shed a few tears for the demise of another independent, local, family-owned business - especially one that has always "punched above its weight" by being technologically ahead of the curve of many much larger companies over the years - both positive (cable internet, DOCSIS 3, digital cable and HD support) and negative (bandwidth caps).

So, what will the buyout mean for the local Lawrence broadband market?
Well, new logos on the bills and a new sign on the building for sure, but beyond that, who knows?

I browsed Knology's corporate web site and was actually pretty unimpressed. To put it mildly, Knology is well behind Sunflower both geographically and technically. Knology offers service in rural areas much smaller then Lawrence, like Storm Lake, Iowa and Dothan, Alabama. They also offer service in a few towns that are equal or larger then Lawrence like Charleston, South Carolina.

Technically, Knology is well behind Sunflower in what they offer customers in other cities. Top internet speeds (albeit cap-free) are only in the 8-10 megabit range, five times slower then Sunflower's new DOCSIS 3 offerings. On the television side, while it varies from city to city, Knology generally offers only 30 or so HD channels, which is less then half of what Sunflower offers. Knology offers a rudimentary DVR, but nothing like Sunflower's multi-room options.

Perhaps Knology is interested in buying Sunflower to learn how to offer more advanced services, knowledge they can take to their other markets. I don't know, but it seems like this is a case of a large buggy-whip manufacturer buying out a smaller company that makes automobiles.

My prediction is that for Lawrence broadband customers of Sunflower, not too much will actually change. Obviously, Knology is not going to reduce the service levels that Sunflower already offers. Perhaps they will make positive changes. Some folks are already speculating that the change in ownership might mean the elimination of bandwidth caps for internet, and perhaps the adjustment of the speed tiers (as long as we are dreaming, how about maybe raising the ridiculously low 1 megabit upload speed on the high-end plans?)

On the TV side, I noticed that nothing on Knology's site referenced support for the critical cable cards which are essential for TiVo use. However, the FCC requires cable cards to be supported so I doubt there would be any changes here. Of more concern would be an end to Sunflower's refreshing and fairly unique policy of not encrypting the majority of digital QAM channels. This very consumer-friendly attitude allows Sunflower customers to use a variety of independent and PC-based DVRs. However, most cable companies don't allow this, encrypting all non-premium "basic" channels except the over-the-air networks. Hopefully, Knology won't change this, but my guess is that they will.

Another question is what will happen with customer service. Will it still be local, and will great features like live Twitter support remain? I really hope Knology enters Lawrence with a very light hand and allows the good things about Sunflower Broadband - including all of its employees - to keep doing what they are doing.

UPDATE: Broadband blog "Stop the Cap" has some additional coverage of the impending sale.

UPDATE 2: A great analysis of the potential effects of the sale by Dave Greenbaum.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No news is?

Good news?

I'm still alive here, although things have been pretty quiet. Our U-Verse Max Turbo continues to hum along, outage free and with reliable speeds, so there's not much new to report. The same goes for the Sunflower cable TV service. Of note to Sunflower customers, is the unfortunate news that the company has recently started encrypting some of the previously in-the-clear QAM channels such as Comedy Central, meaning only Cable Card devices are now capable of viewing them.

Later this summer as the 1-year anniversary of the blog (and our broadband switch) occurs, I'll be posting some more retrospectives, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Turbo. Max. Max Turbo, at your service

If you read my post yesterday you know I was quite frustrated with AT&T's customer service and inability to properly provision my line to support their new fast internet tier, Max Turbo.

What a difference a day makes. I took my frustration onto Twitter, and god the kind of friendly helpful service that Grandma probably got in the olden days. I followed the official AT&T group Twitter presence and directed a mention their way, describing my frustration. Within an hour, I got a response from a very helpful gentleman named Jason who works for AT&T's Twitter team. We exchanged some Direct Messages (I pointed him to my blog entry) and he said he would contact AT&T's U-Verse team to get a straight answer.

This morning, I got a call from a U-Verse Tier 2 technician, who, within 5 minutes, was able to look up my account, determine that my line qualified for the higher speed, actually get my line properly provisioned with the 32/5 profile, and added the Max Turbo level of service. The profile took effect immediately.

And that's it. A tale of successful customer service. I am quite glad that it all worked out and I am very happy with the level of service I got after reaching out to AT&T on Twitter, but a part of me wonders why I had to go to this length? Shouldn't you be able to get the same service if you call in? It almost seems like there's two levels of service -- the basic, poor phone support, and for those savvy enough to use Twitter, premium, high-quality support.

But, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Thanks to Jason and the rest of the AT&T Twitter team, I have Max Turbo:

Over the next few weeks I will put it through the paces, keeping an eye on my line stats and real-world internet speeds. As always, I'll share the results with you here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Max Power? Not quite.

Boy I was excited yesterday. AT&T announced a big U-Verse internet speed increase was available across their network. For essentially no increase in our monthly price, AT&T was offering 24 mbits download speed (up from 18) and 3 mbits upload (up from 1.5).

Twice as much upstream capacity, and a nice little bump on download, for the same price? Cool. The new service tier is called "Max Turbo" (why do all the U-Verse speed tiers have names that sounds like porn stars?)

However, when I went to actually upgrade, I was reminded of why it is so frustrating to deal with AT&T. I went online to change my plan, and of course the online form allowed me to select the new tier, but when I tried to place the order, it just said "not available in your area."

A brief perusal of the AT&T online forums shows that a lot of people are having this issue.

The technical reason why is that your U-Verse VDSL line is "provisioned" to support particular tiers of service. The most common tier is 25/2 which means your line can support 25 mbit down and 2 up (remember that some of this is reserved for TV use, even if you don't have U-Verse television).

In order to support the new faster internet, my line has to have its provisioning profile updated to AT&T's new "32/5" profile. Not all U-verse customers support the profile; if you are too far away from the fiber optic node (VRAD) in your neighborhood, you are out of luck. The key statistic to help determine if you can support the new speed is your line's "maximum sync rate." If you have U-verse, you can view this number in the Residential Gateway's user interface.

If you have the "new" UI, you can see it here. Here's what mine shows:

The blue circle indicates what I am provisioned at... 25/2

The red circle indicates my lines maximum speed, which is over 50 mbits!

While no U-Verse customer can actually have a speed close to the max (if you get too close to it, the number of line errors goes way up...think of it as being the same as the maximum speed your car can go...the engine wouldn't last long if you drove at that speed all the time).

However, the 50 mbit max speed is important, because it indicates my line can support the high-speed 32/5 profile (generally, if you max user rate is 45 or above, you definitely qualify for the fast profile). Furthermore, our line is very "clean" with no errors, making it an ideal candidate.

So, my line can support the fast speeds, but my profile needed to be updated to actually make it work. Simple call to AT&T tech support to get this taken care of, right?

Simple as creating world peace, perhaps.

After a frustrating hour on hold, being shuttled between several different folks, nobody at AT&T can tell me why they can't make this simple switch. Changing line provisioning is something that Tier 2 technical support can do remotely (on-site techs can also initiate this).
The excuses I have been given included the whopper that "the central office in your town can't support those speeds" which is factually wrong, as well as "maybe the system will be upgraded in the future." Adding to my frustration, the Tier 1 representative, and an additional sales representative refused to escalate me to tier 2 support so perhaps I could get this fixed, or at least get an honest answer as to why it can't be done.

Needless to say I am quite frustrated. I've reached out to the AT&T staff on Twitter (this is a good way to test their responsiveness, especially compared to our local cable company's responsive Twitter presence.

I'll update this blog when I hear more from AT&T, meanwhile the "dis" in front of my "gruntled" is growing.

UPDATE: I reached out to AT&T on Twitter and they responded quite well. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Unloading on uploading

If you live in Lawrence, Kansas, you have some decent competitive choice amongst broadband providers, at least compared to other areas of the state. We have Sunflower Broadband offering cable internet, AT&T offering both VDSL (U-Verse) and traditional ADSL, and Freenet for a wireless solution.

All of these services have one thing in common: their upload speeds absolutely suck. AT&T, Sunflower, and Freenet won't sell you a decent upload speed at any price.

According to recent reports from the FCC Broadband Speed Test, the average internet upload speed amongst all broadband customers in the Sunflower State is between 1.5 and 2.0 megabits per second. None of Lawrence's broadband ISPs can provide upload service within that range. By way of comparison, the average download speed in Kansas is between 7.9 and 10 megabits per second, which is exceeded by both Sunflower Broadband and AT&T's U-Verse.

The upload speeds offered in Lawrence are a joke. The maximum speed Freenet offers is only 512 kilobits. AT&T's maximum VDSL upload speed is only 768 kilobits, and Sunflower can only manage a meager 1 megabit, even on its brand-new DOCSIS 3 cable network. AT&T's VDSL service, U-Verse, manages 1.5 megabits, the very bottom of the state average...and that is their top-of-the line theoretical speed, generally not matched in actual deployment.

Freenet and AT&T ADSL get a bit of a pass, because technical reasons make fast speeds extremely difficult. However, U-Verse and Sunflower don't have any good excuse for their terrible upload speeds. U-Verse is capable of upload speeds in excess of 2 megabits, but AT&T chooses not to provision such a speed or offer it to most customers. Sunflower Broadband is even worse. Cable infrastructure is easily able to support upload speeds much greater then they offer; indeed most cable companies around America (and elsewhere in Kansas) offer 2 to 5 megabit upload speeds, even in their mid-range tiers. Why Sunflower refuses to offer acceptable upload speeds is a mystery.

Upload speed is important, nearly as important as download speed. A lot of the activities you do with your internet connection require a good upload speed to function properly. Uploading HD video to Youtube, sharing photos on Flickr, utilizing online backup services, and VPNs/remote offices all work much much better with decent upload speeds.

I don't know why the providers in Lawrence don't offer higher speeds, or why Lawrence lags behind the rest of our own state (not to mention the rest of America) in this aspect of broadband. I would guess it is a combination of factors. Perhaps the providers don't understand that the nature of the internet has been changing and that consumers utilize uploading a lot more frequently these days then 5 or 10 years ago, when the internet was less interactive and participatory. Hopefully AT&T or Sunflower will offer faster upload speeds in the future and give customers some additional choice.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A quiet broadband new year so far...

The blog's been quiet as of late because not too much has been going on. Our broadband "experiment" in Lawrence continues to be status quo - Sunflower Broadband cable (via our Tivo and a ClearQAM PC tuner) has continued to handle our boob tube needs (can an LCD screen still be called a 'boob tube?')

Internet-wise, U-Verse continues to be quietly reliable, with no downtime since November and reliable speed, both up and down. The only fly in the otherwise perfect ointment has been some random and minor packet loss, in the real of .1% or so. This doesn't rise to the level of causing any issues whatsoever (at least so far), but is still detected by my testing, and from a pure technical standpoint, ANY packet loss over time is not supposed to happen.

That's where we are at, but what has changed in the Lawrence-area broadband scene in general since last Fall?

In a nutshell, Sunflower has been busy upgrading their internet offerings, catching up to U-verse in several areas, surpassing them in others, and still trailing in one important area.

No bones about it, Sunflower has improved their internet offering quite a bit. The speeds are much faster, and anecdotally, I have heard that the network congestion and evening slowdowns are much less frequent on the DOCSIS 3 network then on the older DOCSIS 2 network. Furthermore, they have raised their bandwidth caps to 250 GB per month for the Gold plan, which is in line with other cable providers like Comcast.

If I were doing the U-Verse vs Sunflower internet comparison today, it would be much, much closer. The one area where Sunflower still lags is upload speed, which even on the high-end plan is still limited to 1 megabit. This seems puzzling, and the 50 down to 1 up ratio is greater then any other DOCSIS 3 cable company I was able to find, and makes it difficult to use services like photo and movie uploading, file sharing and online backup services. If Sunflower ever raises their upload speeds, they might just be able to lure this former customer back into the fold!

Sunflower has also added a comparison page similar to the ones I did for TV and internet, of course focusing on the areas where they have the advantage. With TV especially, the equation changes based on the number of rooms and specific needs of each TV. Internet is more static in comparison; but notably Sunflower didn't note the one area where they remain slower then U-Verse, upload speed.

In the mean time, AT&T U-verse has made little change to their internet offering. They are testing a slightly faster service providing 24 megabits down (up from 18) and 2 megabits up (up from 1.5), but it is only available in three test cities (not in Lawrence).

By the way, as an aside, looks like TiVo is announcing something in a few weeks, perhaps a new DVR or maybe a new OS?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2010: A Broadband Odyssey

I just discovered that I got linked from a blog called Stop the Cap which appears to cover internet broadband issue with an editorial position against usage caps. They linked to this blog from a post covering broadband in Lawrence so it is kind of cool that a national blog not related to Jayhawk basketball has discovered our little town!

Anyway, if you are visiting from Stop the Cap, welcome! I started my blog as a way to document a side-by-side comparison my family made of our local cable provider, Sunflower Broadband, with AT&T's VDSL service, U-Verse. The links on the right cover the highlights, but after trying both services, the end result is that we went with AT&T for Internet, and Sunflower for television. Even if you don't live in Lawrence, hopefully my blog will be a good comparison between cable and VDSL for anyone through the country who can choose between the two technologies.

We made the decision in late September, and in the four months since then things have been working out well. We continue to enjoy our Sunflower television service on our TiVo (and on my Mac using a QAM tuner box) and our U-Verse internet has been nearly flawless, with a single pair of glitches over a day in mid November, and other then that no downtime whatsoever with consistent and fast speeds.

Of course there are no use caps on U-Verse in Lawrence. This hasn't turned my family into bandwidth hogs, but it is really nice to be able to veg out to Hulu, utilize online backup services, or download massive software updates and games without worrying about the meter running.

I don't think AT&T is perfect (hey, I have an iPhone too!) but they have been good to have in Lawrence as they have spurred competition. Sunflower has responded by raising their bandwidth caps from 50 GB per month on the Gold plan to a better 120, definitely an improvement for their customers, and hopefully both companies will continue to improve their respective offerings.

Thanks for visiting, and I'll keep writing occasionally about our experiences with broadband here in Lawrence.