Update: Today, October 14, 2008, a Digis repair tech came out to make sure they'd taken back their antenna from off our house as a result of this blog entry. He actually had a copy of the discussion with him, and informed my wife that a Vice-President had received a copy of the email chain entitled "[Motorola II] 5.2 freq dishing?", looked up the linked blog entry (this one), and become very unhappy.
The truth hurts, Digis. If you were to modify your overbearing bandwidth-throttling policy to match twenty-first century needs, you would serve your customers better.
As many of you know, I recently moved from Tooele, UT to Riverton, UT. These two homes are, in fact, less than seventeen miles away from one another, but require approximately one hour to travel between due to the intervening mountain range.
Someone should build a tunnel.
My wife and I had been happy Comcast customers for two and a half years since ditching Qwest, who withdrew more than $300 from our bank account for phone service we didn't have. Although their upload speed was crap, Comcast had the bandwidth necessary to make our Vonage line run without any glitching, and also provided some QOS measures to ensure that even if we were downloading something or watching a video from the 'net, we could still use our phone.
In hindsight, I guess we were living in broadband nirvana. Our VoIP phone just worked. Our internet connection just worked. We'd had a problem the first summer with overheating in the network gear in the switching cabinet down the road due to a string of 100+ degree days, but it had not recurred the following summer. My kids could watch Flash cartoons on the 'net, send emails, surf web sites, and so forth, while I could download ISOs for the latest Linux distribution and my wife could listen to our voice mail in her inbox. Every so often, we decided to sit down and watch fully-legal streaming movies or TV shows from iTunes or Netflix. I caught up on all of "Heroes", even though I never sat down in front of my TV to watch, by watching the show from my Netflix player on my computer.
I think this is fairly typical use for a modern broadband-connected household. We have not used P2P file-sharing apps in our home since I got a Cease & Desist from Universal for downloading The Hulk in 2003. We're not bandwidth pigs, but the home broadband market of 2008 is a whole lot more bandwidth-intensive than the home broadband market of 1998, and we're along for the ride.
After our move, I called Comcast to ask about service in my area. After a lot of questions -- mostly involving "which development is your new home in?" by clueless salespeople who couldn't understand that our new home has been here since 1991 and there was nothing around when it was built -- and a truck-roll from Comcast, we were told that service was not available to our home. And that, because we live on a private road, service would not be available unless we arranged an easement and payment for running the line.
Well, crap. That option is out the window. A few of our new neighbors are opposed to making our private road a public road, and the city of Riverton seems more than content to continue charging us taxes for services like secondary water that we can't use unless we work with our neighbors to get an easement for the service. Alas. I need to meet all my neighbors this summer and see what we can do about getting this dirt road paved, with easements in place for various utilities, because the current arrangement isn't ideal.
I set about investigating broadband options. These were quickly reduced to three possibilities:
All right, I think I found our service. The throttling was of no concern because, as a fairly typical family with an Internet connection, our usage wasn't like those people who leave BitTorrent going all day to seed infringing videos and stuff. My mother is involved in trading stocks, so maybe her ticker will suck up some bandwidth, but that kind of usage is very typical these days.
We installed the service. I eventually put in a call to tech support because my uploads seemed to be throttled (they weren't, I just had to re-set QOS on my router), and everything seemed perfect for about a week. Fast up, fast down, working as expected. Wow, this is a great alternative to DSL!
Then one day, our phone sounded choppy. I wondered about it, but it cleared up the next morning. Callers said that we sounded fine, but on our end we couldn't hear them. Then randomly, again, it went choppy.
I'd seen some behavior like this on Comcast if I hadn't prioritized packets well on my router. I double-checked my QOS (Quality of Service) settings. They were in order. Why was I getting this random choppiness?
One four-hour call to Digis tech support later, and I learned that I was hitting their bandwidth throttle every day. According to Digis, typical usage of their service is less than 500 megabytes, so they throttle once at 500MB, reducing performance from 5 megabits down/2 up to 512kbps down/256kbps up. Again at 1GB transferred in a 24-hour period, they shut your connection down to 256kbps down, 128kbps up.
This throttling arrangement -- whatever hardware they are using -- does not honor QOS for VoIP. Which means that if you're getting throttled, your Lego Star Wars video is getting in the way your conversation with his great-grandmother. In our case, since QOS is working right at our little router, she can hear me perfectly, but all I hear from her is out-of-order gibberish.
This type of throttling is not gentle traffic shaping like I'm used to. It is a punitive degradation of service. And I strongly suspect that Digis sets their caps this low in order to mask very real problems they have with their uplink and Canopy deployments: namely over-selling available bandwidth. It's the most logical explanation for such diminutive throttle levels. They lack the capacity to handle peak loads from subscribers, so they throttle to ensure that their under-sized pipe is not overwhelmed.
It's basic ISP capacity planning, but in this case, execution is faulty. In the first place, bandwidth has gotten so cheap that you should simply purchase enough bandwidth to handle your peak loads, rather than squeezing the customer because you don't want to invest in your infrastructure.
I have not experienced performance this slow since I was on dialup. Seriously. I used to have two phone lines and use SLIRP (with the endorsement of my ISP) to join them so that I could get 108kbps connections. That old connection that I did in like 1995 seems faster than Digis when I'm throttled.
Now, the reason it feels so much slower is pretty clear. Whatever the throttling product is they have in place seems to follow a "first in, first out" algorithm. If you are just surfing the web, there is not a substantial loss of service. However, if you have a download in the background -- like Windows Update, the last one of which was over 300MB for my aging Windows XP computer -- that download ends up taking priority over any other traffic because it was the first thing going, and the part taking up the majority of the connection when it's otherwise idle. Subsequent pages actually time out because it takes so long to retrieve them with a background download going on.
I tried negotiating with them: "Can you just prioritize VoIP traffic so that my phone doesn't get all choppy when you throttle?" Short answer: no, "bandwidth is bandwidth" said the tech after an hour on the phone and even more time spent talking to his supervisor. "Can you implement QOS so at least my incoming telephone traffic is not waiting on the throttle to open so that I can hear callers clearly?" The tech's less-than-helpful response was to tell me that if I needed more bandwidth, they could provide unrestricted bandwidth for the first (if I recall correctly) 12GB per month, with an additional $5 per gigabyte cost after that.
Hmm, let's think about this. A VoIP call is somewhere near 100kbps. That's bi-directional, so a total of 200kbps/sec. That's around 90 megabytes per hour, plus overhead. Admittedly, one would have to be a heavy talker to hit that cap on VoIP alone, but an hour or two per day on the phone is pretty typical for our family. That's about five and a half gigs per month, just telephone traffic. Which would leave only four and a half gigs available for everything else we do on the Internet, until we start paying extortionate prices.
If I wanted some other plan than the "attach a vacuum cleaner to your wallet" one proposed above (last month's total transfer would have bled us of a total of $135 using that brilliant ploy), according to this tech, I needed to purchase a "business" level of service. He transferred me to the voice mail of the business services rep. This rep called me back a couple of hours later, told me that business service was around $100/month, and that it still throttled connections. In this class of service, however, it throttled them after your first gigabyte of transfer. The second level -- the punitive "Dear lord I wish I were on dialup" setting that can't handle background transfers -- kicks in just like the personal plan, but at 2GB per day.
Yeah, that's useful. Crank your business customers down to ISDN speeds. If Digis stakeholders ever read this blog, here's a clue why your "business" class of service isn't selling well: it's not business-class service to expel your bandwidth-policy diarrhea on your customers the moment they transfer a total of 2GB of data. I could lease a business T1 line in downtown Salt Lake City for prices similar to your "business class" service, and be guaranteed 1.644Mbps both ways, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a bandwidth cap of around 537.51 gigabytes per month. That happens to be the theoretical maximum throughput of a T1 for a 31-day month. This would be a better option than your service, and equally cost-effective.
Take, for instance, this web site. I transfer somewhere between 4GB to 20GB every single day between several web sites. This is a reality of living in the twenty-first century. And usage is only going to continue to grow, not stagnate at 1998 "a hundred megabytes per day or so, max" levels. Right now, the Digis cap means I can't watch an entire Netflix movie without it invoking the cap somewhere in the middle. My daughter can watch perhaps an episode or two of her favorite anime before the throttle is invoked, causing lag so bad she has to go do something else for half an hour while her show is paused so that she can actually watch it without constant sputters.
For the near term, I think I should save my $5 a day and downgrade my service to their "high speed" instead of the "ultra high speed". I hit the throttle threshold halfway through the day anyway, and I may as well save some money rather than paying for "ultra high speed" internet that, truly, is anything but.
Digis, I'm pissed off at you.
Almost enough to be very nice and ask Qwest to come back to me. But like an abusive girlfriend who's bad with money, if I took her back, she's not going to have access to my checking account again.