Saturday, March 3, 2012

Adventures with Cable Modems

I've been a bit busy, and February was a short month (granted it was leap year)- that is my excuse for not updating recently. Nevertheless, I'm going to try and get caught up with some of my latest Mac Adventures in this entry...

In the dead of winter I find it extremely important that my internet connection works well. Around our house, there could be up to 3 or 4 people using an internet connection at any given point in time.  Usually at least that many people (or devices) are doing so in the evening hours and on weekends. It's just really cold in Northwest Ohio and there isn't much else to do apart from the occasional indoor sport.

Consequently, in February I had a few situations arise that reminded me of how important my internet connection was to me. This is where the adventures began.

Sometime in early February, I received the annual "here's your new bill" from one of my Internet providers, Buckeye Cable System. This greatly aggravates me, because the internet access I was paying for (via cable modem) was truly awesome, but the new price wasn't.  5 millisecond ping times and 80% of the time I got the full 10 mb/s that I was paying for.  Unfortunately, the price of this internet connection more than doubled- from $25 to $55.  Even worse- since I was an existing customer, I couldn't qualify for the promotional price which was now $30 or something. Instead, they reminded me of their policy- "you can't use our services for 6 months to qualify for promotional pricing". Apparently they'd prefer to lose me as a customer than let me pay an additional $5 / month. Terrible business model... (sorry, I'm getting a bit off topic).

At any rate, I decided that was enough and decided to cancel. Thus, I would need to rely on my other internet connection provider, Time Warner aka Road Runner. They also provide my cable TV and phone which I've seldom had any issues with.

As you can probably infer, there is a lot of back story here. Telling that story would only serve the purpose of further raising my blood pressure so I will summarize: I decided to order the alternative internet connection because Time Warner's was lousy. After many initial support calls (why is it always slow after 5pm and on the weekends?!), the technician was honest enough to tell me that there was a problem, but nothing they could do until enough customers complained. He even gave me the scoop- a head unit in one of the offices needed to be replaced. 

At that point I was able to complain enough to get a refund of the Internet portion of the bill that month, but I ultimately threw in the towel and decided paying $25 for an alternative connection was well worth it. However, $55 is not.  

Fast forward to the end of February. I decided to give the old "bundled internet connection" on Time Warner a try.  Up until this time, I had been pointing my wife's laptop to this connection, so I knew it worked- she didn't complain too much.  For the first week or so it seemed to be working fine. But before I knew it, Saturday came around and I was trying to stream some videos.  Sure enough, my typical 10 mbit connection dropped down under 1 mbit.  

Obviously I was a bit irritated. I called Time Warner to see if there was any issue, but nothing on their end seemed to be amiss.  I went down and checked my hard-wired PC and ran a speed test from there and I was still getting around 10 mbit.  Something just wasn't adding up.

At the time I wasn't really thinking about it as scientifically as I should have been. I was hoping for a quick fix so I called Time Warner again and asked if there were any options for upgrading my connection speed. After going through about 3-4 different people, I finally got connected to the competent "tier 3" which could answer some of my questions.  I was on the "standard" plan which meant I would occasionally get burst speeds of up to 25 mbit or so when the bandwidth was available. Otherwise I could expect "up to" 10 mbit. That was pretty consistent with the speed tests that I had been running, and there didn't really seem to be an issue whenever I tested from my hard lined PC. Unfortunately, there were two levels above me that got prioritized bursting (turbo and super turbo, or something like that).  But there was some great news- I could upgrade my modem to a DOCSIS 3.0 and get a 30 mbit connection for only $20/month more.  That ended up being $5 less than my previous "alternative" connection and 3 times the speed... I was a little suspicious but I decided to pull the trigger anyway.

There was a minor fiasco where I lost my internet connectivity for about a day, because they upgraded my line before they sent the modem. I called in to have them revert the connection back, and in the process I later found out they also took away my package pricing deal (how does that happen?!) but was assured it would be corrected (I'm not holding my breath).  

Just this past week the modem showed up and I installed it with relative ease.  Now I've got a 30mbit consistent download pipe, along with a 5mbit consistent upload. It's truly awesome- I've never had a connection this good.

On a side note, I am just amazed at the lack of customer service in the industry. The terrible service is  consistent across all the cable companies that I have ever had the displeasure of getting service from.  In any other non-captive market, these companies would be long out of business....

Back the this adventure.  Congratulations if you've made it this far! :)

Unfortunately, my connection problems aren't over yet!

Despite having the new 30 mbit pipe, I am still having problems (only via wireless) achieving those speeds. When I am on the first floor, approximately 20 ft or so from the router, I can get 30mbit.  The signal strength is about 40%. But just about anywhere else in the house I get a lot less.  

This post is getting a little long so I'll summarize once again: it turns out my old trusty DLink DIR-655 might be on its last legs. This is a wireless N router I picked up a few years ago with hopes of it being able to stream HD (which it couldn't do- at least not with 25MB ABR video files).  I ran iStumblr to try and detect wireless signal strength.  The next door neighbors have about the same amount of signal... And they are a good 30-50 ft away from me on both sides.  

Fortunately, I have an old Wireless-G Linksys WRT-54g that I was also using for my "alternative" connection and it currently seems a lot more reliable in the more distant parts of the house. I also made some parabolic antenna that help with the range. Since it is running DD-WRT, I also boosted the transmit power.  I dusted off the cobwebs and plugged this in and it is getting me by for now- though with the speed tests I'm typically not getting more than 12mbit in the furthest reaches of the house. 

So it looks like I might be on a quest for a new wireless router.  Airport Extreme looks like it may be my next one- but I'm not eager to shell out $179 right now.

A few links from this post that you may find helpful:

iStumblr - great tool for checking signal strength on the Mac. - where I check my bandwidth speeds
Wifi Windsurfer - a cheap DIY wifi antenna  extender you can make (took me about 10 minutes w/ some card stock and aluminum foil). Works great with the WRT-54G
DD-WRT - linux based firmware, a great way to keep your old routers going. Works with a lot of older routers, and especially with the Linksys WRT-54g variety.