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When Providers Oversell the Network: Paying for 10Mbps Service, Getting 1.2Mbps Instead

Phillip Dampier January 31, 2011 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News 13 Comments

"It's like night and day."

Tim pays Time Warner Cable around $45 a month for 10/1Mbps service.  Jake pays Comcast $35 a month for 12/2Mbps service.  Neither reader of Stop the Cap! actually receives those speeds once the sun goes down, however.

Jake, who lives in a neighborhood near Philadelphia populated by loads of college students watches his download speed plummet to 4Mbps in the evening, even lower on weekends.  Tim, a reader in the North Ponds Park region of Webster, N.Y., does even worse — 1.2Mbps evenings and weekends.

Neither reader is alone.  The disparity in marketed speeds vs. actual speeds reveals the truth about cable modem technology — if not properly managed, congestion can bring the broadband party to a sudden halt (or at least rebuffering.)

Both are examples of “overselling,” the practice of piling too many customers onto too small a broadband pipe.  If nobody is using the connection in the neighborhood, speeds are great.  But as students get out of class and mom and dad get home from work, everyone wants to be online.  Soon enough, the pipeline gets filled and speeds drop as the network tries to accommodate everyone.

Most cable companies use fiber optics to bring a limited amount of bandwidth into individual areas of their network.  Some might cover the better part of a town, others only a few city blocks.  Every customer in the area shares that bandwidth.  Cable companies monitor these connections looking for signs they are becoming overcongested during peak usage times.  When those alarms start sounding consistently, companies are supposed to upgrade the area (or divide it up) to keep broadband service working close to advertised speeds.

But some companies are waiting until broadband service becomes practically unusable before spending the money to upgrade their networks.

“I knew they were overselling this area when I noticed downloads speeds fell off the cliff, but the upload speed was near normal,” Jake writes. “The time of day also tells the story.  Starting after 4pm, speeds begin to drop and become downright terrible after dinner and on weekends.  Sunday night is always the worst.”

It’s a similar story in west Webster, near Lake Ontario, where neighborhoods several miles apart all watch their Road Runner speeds slow to a crawl.

“Browsing is slow, downloads are painfully slow, latency is very high and streaming any sort of video online is impossible,” Robert, another Webster resident, told Time Warner Cable (and us).  “I have been a customer since 1998 and for me to not even be able to download at a 1 Megabit speed when this service is supposed to be 10 megs (and more with PowerBoost) is inexcusable.”

The problem of overselling is also common in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia, where some neighborhoods endure “broadband” speeds that resemble “dial-up” when customers pile on the network.

“Comcast says they never see a problem and have repeated that to me over and over, even when they send a truck out,” Jake tells Stop the Cap! “Of course, their truck rolls in the daytime when there isn’t a problem.”

Time Warner customers in eastern Monroe County have been told the cable company is well aware of the congestion problems, and technicians dispatched to area homes candidly admit the company has not kept up with the growth of new housing developments.  Several customers have asked for, and won, several months of service credits for broadband they simply cannot use.

Tim says the entire affair has left him with doubts about Time Warner’s reputation to provide quality broadband service.

“At one time, I considered myself a candidate to upgrade to Time Warner wideband when it became available,” he tells us. “My thinking on that has changed and I am looking into viable alternatives to Time Warner. Money has become of less importance to me than principle, and I may end up with a higher cost solution than staying with Time Warner.”

Ground Zero Bandwidth: The impacted area of Webster, N.Y.

With our encouragement, these customers (among others) have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and have tried to get attention focused on their neighborhoods.

A broadband speed test in Webster, N.Y.

A representative of Time Warner today told Robert the company has confirmed Webster has a problem and it is being worked on, but no specific date has been offered when things will return to normal.  He received a credit for one month of service.

Jake wants answers about how a company the size of Comcast can ignore a problem of this magnitude.

“Is it really about the money,” he asks.  “This company just bought NBC and doesn’t have the resources to sell Internet service that at least comes close to the speeds they advertise?”

Stop the Cap! advises customers with speed problems to make your feelings known.  The squeaky wheel gets the upgrade.  Start with customer service and work your way up.  Demand service credits, an in-person repair visit to check your lines, and then escalate complaints to supervisors and social media networks like Twitter and Facebook.  Also consider contacting local media “consumer reporters,” and file complaints with the Better Business Bureau.  Sooner or later, a manager will escalate your case to a department that is empowered to authorize upgrades without red tape.

Considering the enormous amount of revenue earned from selling broadband service, it is only fair to expect you will have access to something close to the speeds offered when you signed up.

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Rob
Rob
10 years ago

Please add North Carolina to this article. Users in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem/Greensboro (Triad) area are experiencing the same woes. Speeds will drop as low as 2mbps download during the worst of the congestion, starting around 5PM and usually fluctuates between 2 – 5mbps until just after midnight. I have a White box from SamKnows and it has been very plainly recording these issues. The only problem is that this information that is collected, is being collected by the FCC for studying, not for any type of action to be taken for bad performance. It may influence the bigger picture, especially… Read more »

Lou Grinzo
Lou Grinzo
10 years ago

Interesting that I should see this particular article this morning — as I’m waiting for a TW technician to arrive. My wife and I have been experiencing very poor broadband performance from RR intermittently, but more frequently, in the last few weeks. The pattern is: Between noon and 1PM our speed plummets and we have a terrible time connecting to anything. DNS lookups routinely fail, making it all but impossible to use the web at all. Loading cnn.com, for example, will often take several tries and over 10 minutes. This sorry state lasts until about 5PM, and then it magically… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago
Reply to  Lou Grinzo

“I didn’t bring this up with the CSR, as he sounded very curt and didn’t seem to be in the mood for such questions.” Most people that I have dealt with via TWC have been borderline or just flat out rude. Doesn’t matter who calls who. “Since the modem is nearly 7 years old, it could certainly be the problem.” That could very well be a problem, I’ve never had a cable modem last that long before it started dropping packets and causing a general headache for no reason, especially the cheap Ambit (now Ubee) modems provided for non-D3 offerings.… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago

Phillip, Thanks for the information concerning logging into the modem itself for a reboot/reset. I’m still laughing at the sunspots reasoning… its not like they use satellite Internet… hah That would be the reason everyone’s TV reception goes to crap, now those feeds are sat. I’m perplexed however about electromagnetic interference. No solar storms that I was aware of… that’s what you should have told them. It would have been priceless for you to have caught them off guard with that quick response and see how they acted knowing the gig was up! We all know it’s issues with over-subscriptions.… Read more »

Tim
Tim
10 years ago
Reply to  Lou Grinzo

[quote] My wife and I have been experiencing very poor broadband performance from RR intermittently, but more frequently, in the last few weeks. The pattern is: Between noon and 1PM our speed plummets and we have a terrible time connecting to anything. DNS lookups routinely fail, making it all but impossible to use the web at all. Loading cnn.com, for example, will often take several tries and over 10 minutes. This sorry state lasts until about 5PM, and then it magically becomes usable again. [/quote] Might want to benchmark various DNS servers to see if there are faster ones out… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Very interesting program that I had not run across. Run it against my network this evening and was surprised to see my ISP actually ranked #1 in the test. It wasn’t the particular DNS server I was already using, but still belongs to them just the same. Score +1 for Road Runner, as hard as that is for me to type right now. Oh, it scored 21% faster than my current settings, measuring at 34.17ms . Runner up was Google Public DNS-2 with just 0.40ms behind and then BellAtlantic W4 with 5.82ms behind.

Tim
Tim
10 years ago
Reply to  Rob

I have Uverse and the AT&T DNS servers are really poor. For one, a website that I visit, changed its IP address and the AT&T DNS servers were very slow in getting the updated IP address, it took several days. Two, the web pages were loading slowly, most likely DNS look-ups the main culprit . I ran that benchmark and OpenDNS was faster in my case, I think it was over %100 faster. If you do change your DNS servers, be sure to flush your DNS cache in Windows. Go to Command Prompt and type in “ipconfig /flushdns” without quotation… Read more »

Doug Spry
10 years ago

Thanks Phillip for posting this article. I live in Webster right near Bob and that speedtest you posted in your article is mine(Hotshot187). Those are the type of speeds I typically see when the kids start getting home from school and everyone starts getting out of work. I’ve had numerous techs over here. They have replaced everything and the problems still persists. The bottom line is there is just too much network congestion and nothing was ever done to split nodes to provide a service that we are paying for. A friend of mine that lives one street over from… Read more »

Lou Grinzo
Lou Grinzo
10 years ago

Just to update my situation (explained several comments up-thread)… The service tech was on time and very professional. This is only the third time we’ve had someone from TW to the house, including the initial install when we moved here in 2004, and all three times the men who showed up left us feeling we’d had a good “service experience”, as opposed to simply “being serviced”. The tech checked the connection in the basement, which was fine, and replaced the modem. Our old one was a Toshiba(!?), and the new one is a much smaller ubee brand. After we had… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago
Reply to  Lou Grinzo

After seeing that I dropped to 3.78 again last night during peak usage hours, I called into the local office and the national help desk, is where I was transferred. The representative was very thorough. He covered every imaginable possibility and decided to have me swap my modem out. He was fully understanding, and seemed concerned enough to tell me he did not feel the modem was functioning right. All of his tests showed correct, but the historical statistics were way off. He spotted what he felt was an anomaly since it got my attention while he was reading things… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago
Reply to  Rob

This of course did not fix the issues that are prevalent. The modem given seems better, snappier actually, but this does not help when there is no bandwidth available. On Feb 2, it was not too horrible measuring 5.55mbps.around 21:00 hours, which seems to be the breaking point of time where everyone should be seeing issues. Feb 3, however, it was horrible! SamKnows measured a bandwidth dive that started after 15:00 hours and bottomed out at 2.66mbps at 21:00 hours. HORRIBLE. Who can do anything productive with an expensive connection to the Internet that is so overcrowded that it simply… Read more »

Tech Savy Gal
Tech Savy Gal
10 years ago

Overselling is definitely a problem especially when yes, the company suffers but who really suffers is the customer. The downward spiral is evident throughout the company and well into the future. Comcast has made quite a few efforts in this direction one specifically being the release of the partially complete Xfinity product. I am impressed by the technology, it’s innovative and reaches out to several demographics but it is kind of a let down when the product is being released in cycles instead of as a complete product. When you have a huge company with the resources to provide an… Read more »

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