Sunday, May 13, 2012

Knology raises its rates, and its upload speeds

Recently Knology (soon to become Wow!) made some minor changes to its broadband internet offerings. The most obvious change is that the prices of ever tier of services went up by $3.00, but in return for the price increases, every tier now enjoys much faster upload speeds. These improved speeds bring Knology in line with common DOCSIS3 cable internet speeds from other providers, and represent the results of some major behind-the-scenes infrastructure upgrades over the past 6 months (that's part of the reason there have been so many outages on Knology as of late).

Knology's Sunflower-era web page hasn't been updated with the new plan information, but in return for that extra three bucks a month, here's what you'll receive:

Bronze: Knology's low-end service retains its DSL-like 3 megabit download speed, but gets a nice boost in upload speed to 1 megabit (up for 256 kilobits). The bandwidth cap for the Bronze service gets a slight bump for 3 gigs a month to 5 GB, which is still ridiculously low. At $22.95 a month (assuming you already have cable TV), Bronze is still a very poor deal, as even a single system update or movie download would blow through the puny bandwidth cap and have you paying overage charges.

Silver: Knology's mid-range service gets a solid speed boost, going from 10 to 18 megabits in download speed and 1 to 2 megabits in upload. The bandwidth cap remains 50 GB, for a monthly price of $37.95 (if you have cable). The bandwidth cap is still too stingy, but the speeds are very solid for a mid-range option. For most people, Silver is the definite sweet spot and probably the best value as long as you stay under the cap.

Gold: Knology's premium service for serious internet users retains its old 50 megabit download speeds, but gets a major upgrade from 1 to 5 megabits for upload, finally making Knology useful for common tasks like online backups and video uploading. The 5 megabit speeds might even be understating things, as anecdotally, some Knology Gold users have seen speeds in the 6 or 7 megabit range at least in shorts bursts uploading. At $62.95 (with cable), Gold is pricey, and sadly, Knology has not upped the barely adequate 250 GB monthly bandwidth cap. For a premium service, it would be nice if Knology offered the 500 GB caps that many other providers offer for their highest-end service.

Palladium: Knology's cap-less Palladium server, now $47.95 a month (with cable), still offers download speeds of between 2 and 25 megabits, and upload speeds up to 1 megabit, unchanged from before (other then the higher price). Palladium may be a good value for those who move a lot of data but do not care about speed - perhaps folks with nailed-up VPN connections, or large continuous online backups.

The improved upload speeds are a good value for only $3.00 more a month, and it is nice to see Knology offering speeds that are at least mainstream, but here's hoping WoW continues to improve things - DOCSIS3 is capable of much faster speeds, and many providers off 10 megabit upload and much higher caps. Still, Knology has definitely thrown a gauntlet towards U-Verse, who offers 24/3 on their fastest data tier at roughly the same price (albeit without currently enforcing any bandwidth caps).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A year come and gone

The Broadband Observer has been deep deep undercover for the past 400 or so days. The good news (well, really, bad news) is that not much has changed in Lawrence in the past year or so in the world of broadband. What are some of the highlights? As Google continues the rapid build-out of a true fiber network just 30 miles to our East, Lawrence residents still limp along with the same sloth-like Knology upload speeds that the old Sunflower Broadband was selling over 10 years ago! Meanwhile, there's always U-Verse, but if you can't get U-Verse in Lawrence, you probably will never get it, because as far as I can tell, they are done with their build-out in our area. At least in some slight good news, the promised AT&T bandwidth caps are not being enforced, at least for U-Verse customers.

Considering cord-cutting? Well, paying $10 a GB for Verizon's zippy LTE network (which blows U-Verse and Knology out of the water speed-wise) will bankrupt you quickly, but don't worry, Lawrencians, because while Verizon is hurriedly activating this wicked-fast 4G service in bustling metropolises through our state such as Great Bend and Hayes, Lawrence is still poking along in the slow lane with ancient 3G service without any sign of LTE on the horizon.

But who needs the Internet when there's something good to watch on TV? The past year has seen Knology complete what Sunflower started by encrypting all of the non-over-the-air cable channels, meaning that you need a set-top-box (or a CableCard device like a TiVo) to watch even basic cable networks like CNN and ESPN on a digital TV. Thus the long, 30+ year era of being able to watch basic cable by just plugging a coax into a television set ends with a whimper.

Finally, the big news of the past year is that after making a quick meal of Sunflower Broadband (including several dozen local jobs swallowed whole as the appetizer), Knology has gone ahead and been bought out itself by WideOpenWest (from hereon to be known as 'WOW' not to be confused with a certain addictive video game). What does this mean? A safe bet is increased prices, decreased service, and possibly the loss of those kicking-it-old-school email addresses. There is hope for those of us eagerly looking East towards 1 gigabit speeds in KC...WOW offers 5 megabit upload speeds and apparently no bandwidth caps, which will, if provided in Lawrence, move broadband in our town into the 2000s right as the rest of the country hits the mid 2010s.

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.

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.