Wednesday, March 16, 2011

AT&T shoots self in foot, reloads

AT&T has made a major announcement that represents a significant degrading of the quality of their internet services. Starting May 2, AT&T will begin capping the bandwidth for all of their internet offerings. Many in Lawrence are already familiar with caps such as these, as Knology (previously Sunflower Broadband) has implemented them for years.

Needless to say this announcement hasn't gone own well amongst AT&T's customers.

AT&T's excuse, that such draconian new restrictions are needed to prevent "network congestion" has been ably debunked - likely the real reason for AT&T's move is that many customers are downgrading their U-Verse television service and preferring to get content via sources such as Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and Hulu. Bandwidth caps are a dagger aimed at the heart of services such as these - after all, who's gonna watch TV via Hulu and HD movies via Netflix when they have to keep a careful eye on the meter? Much easier to just upgrade your U-Verse TV plan (which isn't subject to the cap - how convenient!)

Anyway, for those of us in Lawrence, U-Verse has suddenly become much less competitive with Knology. Let's stack up how the top of the line plans for both providers now compare.

Knology GoldAT&T U-Verse Max Turbo
Download speed50 Mbit24 Mbit
Upload speed1 Mbit3 Mbit
Bandwidth cap250 GB/month250 GB/month
Bandwidth meterUpdated hourlyUpdated every several days
Base price$60$65
Overage Fees$25 per 50 GB$10 per 50 GB
GraceUnofficial, can call CS to get overage reduced3 overages allowed over account lifetime before charges begin to accrue
Bandwidth trackedUpload and downloadUpload and download

(sources: public web sites from AT&T, Knology and first-hand sources from both companies)

So, basically, with AT&T, you get faster upload and cheaper overage fees although you pay a slightly higher base fee and have slower top download speeds. Knology gets you faster downloads, but it will be more expensive if you go over your cap. As a side note, AT&T's metering is a joke - it will only be updated every few days, making it almost impossible to figure out what might be using bandwidth. Knology's meter is update in near realtime, making it a useful tool. Of course, in both cases, the meter's accuracy is "in the clouds" - unlike, say, your electrical meter, there is no independent body which calibrates and audits the meter. Do you trust AT&T (or Knology) to keep accurate track of your data usage?

Either way, the only winner is the service provider, and you, the customer are the loser, because you can't take advantage of new innovative video services or important security measures like online backups without the anxiety of watching a meter run and the risk of billing surprises.

What will the Broadband Observer do? Probably stick with U-Verse....for now. All things being equal, still like the higher upload speed and slightly lower overage prices. However, Knology could upgrade their upload speed by flipping a switch, and will probably adjust their overage fees to stay competitive. When they do so, AT&T will likely be kicked to the curb at our house.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I For One Welcome Our New Knology Overlords

Not really, but I am always looking for an excuse to use an obscure Simpsons reference.

Anyway, it is official.

Knology is now Lawrence's local cable-based broadband provider. The old Sunflower home page redirects to a new Knology Kansas page. I guess I need to update the sidebar links on the blog.

The natives are showing signs of restlessness.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Who knows? Sam knows.

The Broadband Observer has become friends with Sam. Uncle Sam, that is, or at least the Federal Communications Commission part of it, who is helping run a first-of-its-kind national three-year study of broadband connectivity and performance in America.

These are real, scientifically sophisticated automated regular tests of connectivity, bandwidth quality and speed that will be used to gain an understanding of what actual broadband performance is being delivered to customers. Over 100,000 users nationwide, subscribing to hundreds of providers and tiers of service are being studied, and the results will show if consumers are actually getting what they pay for, as well as what the true broadband infrastructure in America is like.

I am excited to be one of the people selected for this test. The test works by having a special NetGear router with custom firmware attached to your broadband connection. It regularly tests the connection and uploads statistical information to the study's managers. The owner of the broadband connection being tested (me) also gets to see my own data, which I am definitely interested in!
You can learn more about some of the technical tests if you are curious.

Watch for future posts about the SamKnows testing as I learn more about the process and find out some preliminary results.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Odds and ends: Waiting for Knology, U-Verse hits a rough spot

It's been a while since I have written here, mostly because not too much has been happening in the Lawrence broadband arena. Knology officially completed their purchase of Sunflower Broadband although as of yet there have been no changes to the technology or service offerings for Lawrence consumers. The only change of note was a rather aggressive swinging of the layoff axe as Knology decimated one of the best parts of Sunflower, their local customer service. Impact of these cuts (and any changes in services and branding) will probably become apparent later this Winter, and I will try to write about it here when it happens.

Ironically, those changes might be happening right around the same time that Mr. Observer himself might be shopping for a new ISP. Our 18 month long U-Verse experiment is showing signs that it may be in trouble. You might remember that last summer, which was the last time I really talked about U-Verse, service was humming along without any problems. This has mostly continued since then, with occasional glitchiness that usually resolved itself after a few days. The main problem we have had over the past year is internet slowdowns where our speed has dropped drastically, on its own, for a few hours or even a few days before magically correcting itself.

However, in the past week, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, with significant VDSL signal problems, including random router reboots, dropped signals, and numerous line errors - more then we had ever had before (hundreds of millions of corrected blocks in a day). Topping it all off, our internet speed sometimes randomly slows way down for hours at a time before returning to normal. When this happens, speed tests to multiple sites show average speeds of less then half of the 24/3 we are paying for, with ridiculously high ping times (over 150 milliseconds) even to the local AT&T switch behind the VRAD (these are normally in the range of 40 milliseconds when things are working right).

AT&T has already tried numerous remedies; they've swapped our in-house router (the residential gateway), cleaned up our outside wiring, and even switched our connection port on the VRAD itself, to no avail. My suspicion is that there is likely a problem with network management or a network device in the AT&T network itself (this would account for the slowdowns and terrible ping times) and perhaps something wrong with the local line as well. The problems with the AT&T network itself probably affect other customers, but I would imagine most do not notice it, as they are not as technically inclined as I am and probably do not have the higher-speed internet tiers in which a slowdown would be way more apparent.

It just seems very weird that an installation that has been rock-solid for over a year would suddenly fall apart like this, without any obvious causes. AT&T is coming back out today, and my expectations are very low, both based on the intermittent nature of the problem, and past experiences. I am expecting a bunch of "shotgun debugging" - I predict they will try to replace the router again, and run more line tests that will show things to be "clean" and it might work for a short while...and then, ugh. This is nothing against the service technicians themselves; to a man, they have all been as helpful and courteous as possible - they just haven't been able to solve the problem!

We've been spoiled by a year of troublefree service, and the joys of 3 megabits upload speed and no bandwidth caps, but if these issues can't be solved, Sunflower (or I guess Knology) might be getting another look.

As a side note, I am really glad we do NOT have U-Verse for TV now. Slow internet stinks, but you can live with it. But I have to imagine that the television service would have just been decimated by all these glitches and we would probably have been forced to miss a bunch of our favorite shows.

PS: I would think an issue like this would be something AT&T would be very interested in solving, especially if it does involve something higher up in their network infrastructure that may potentially affect many people. I know that the different parts of AT&T are like islands, and the guys who come to your home to troubleshoot do not work with the network engineers, or the line repair guys. I've been told that is the corporate nature of AT&T, which is sad, because just like in medicine, sometimes you need to approach a problem from many different angles and get teams from different departments to work together.