My ISP Runs On Smoke Signals

January 02, 2014

Here I am in the US, home of so many innovative tech and internet companies, the richest country in the world, and our internet service overall seems on par with some third-world country.

Currently I am writing this without any internet at all. Every time it gets cold and windy at night, both my cable TV and my cable internet go down. Eventually the sun will warm up whatever is broken outside and it will work again. Of course the cable provider said they will send someone out but the appointment is in the afternoon a week later at a time I am sure it will work fine.

My ISP is Time Warner, and they are likely to be purchased by either Comcast or Charter in the coming months and thus reduce the number of cable providers to almost none. I live in the 50th largest city in the US and I have a choice of two ISPs, Time Warner and AT&T. Some lucky cities in the area also get FIOS but only if they in the past supported a long gone phone company. Every city has its own single allowed cable company and phone company. There area a few providers that use satellites or wide area radio but their service is crappy all the time instead of just at night.

While the rest of the world enjoys higher speeds, lower costs (sometimes) and view a connection to the internet as a citizen benefit, our politicians either could care less, are bought and paid for, or because of ideology think huge monopolies are the best thing ever. Politicians at all levels don't see a problem with limiting customer choice. In exchange for that limited choice and competition we the customers get sluggish or inattentive service, poor speed and quality, and high price.

For my sometimes half a day service I pay $125 per month for my internet and TV. My internet speed, when it works, is either 18/2 MB as measured by the ISP's speed tester, or 6-12/2 as measured by everyone else to a local server. Although individual people I have dealt with have been mostly nice, it's the business that is beyond sucky.

The hallmark of US business has always in theory been competition breeds better products and services. Politicians love to trumpet how much they love the "market" yet in reality there are few industries where this market theory actually exists, and providing internet and TV is not one of them. It amazes me how much Cable providers fight to keep cities from giving up and providing their own services, even to the point of "paying" legislators to vote on bills making it illegal.

Now in a few place Google provides fiber internet, and in those areas the cable and phone providers have to compete. Gee, what a concept. Not here though. I think part of the issue is that the cable/phone companies are global in nature but each state and municipality does their own thing, which you would think would be more focused on what the local people want, but in reality makes it much easier for these giant companies to trump any local desires. It also makes it impossible for anyone to fix it. Neither the national politicians nor the local politicians have the desire to force change.

Of course it doesn't help when cable or TV lobbyists are hired to watch over the industry, with the lame excuse that people in the industry are the only people able to do the work. I assume given the current head of the FCC that the internet as we know it may become even more balkanized - you can only connect to IPs and get packets that your ISP is collecting money for. I guess then it won't matter that I write a blog as no one will ever see it again.

My cable modem finally was able to make a connection but the packet loss is around 27% which is almost low enough to actually do something again, like post this post.

Of course getting customer service is always a trip, it's rare to find anyone who can understand even a basic description of the problem. Before Time Warner I had Comcast, whose service was way worse, every problem would result in a "roll a truck" response and the person who showed up would exchange the modem. One time my connection failed every 15 minutes like clockwork for two months. It took 7 truckrollers before I found one who understood my analysis using traceroute that some server in their datacenter was rebooting regularly; he called a buddy who replaced the server and the problem was finally solved. Time Warner is still better than that.

Ah 23%, finally getting reasonable. I keep wondering if I should subscribe to Time Warner, AT&T, Clear and whoever does Satellite in the area just to have backups but that would be financially stupid. A couple months ago I had no service for 5 days, no TV or internet, and I had to use my LTE phone to provide internet. Whatever that issue was it was resolved by the 5th day before anyone actually came in a truck but of course there was no explanation.

According to Speedtest statistics the US is only 32nd on the list. My internet speed is either at Poland as Time Warner claims, or Kyrgyzstan as measured by others. Great.

So is there any hope? I guess if more companies like Google who have the financial strength to overcome the political might of the entrenched players start to compete, maybe at least in a few places better internet service will appear. Given the loss of net neutrality is likely to happen, what we can look forward to is even crapper service and more restrictions than ever. Add to that the NSA watching every packet we try to access and the internet becomes such a fun experience.

At least when my internet goes down the NSA is just as in the dark as I am. Hooray for benefits!