Step 2 is the hard part.

Matt Ginzton writes here.

State of the Last-mile Internet Connection, Year 2011

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Given the reliability problems I’m experiencing with my otherwise nicely fast Comcast DOCSIS 3 connection, I’m looking for something new. It has to be reliable, and it has to be at least competitive on speeds for both download and upload, though I’m willing to sacrifice some speed for reliability and better policies.

The long and short of the Comcast connection: it’s flaky (manifesting as modem crashes. I’ve called Comcast multiple times and they’ve twice told me to remove splitters, twice visited and measured the signal and said it looks good and once replaced a poorly wired splitter; after all this the problem is less frequent but still occurs multiple times per month.

So what are my other options? Astound worked ok for me but is too slow (esp. for uploads); AT&T’s best is U-verse which also has slower upload speeds and apparently isn’t available here anyway; other DSL options have even slower upload speeds; then there’s this newer indie ISP,, with a DSL option I haven’t seen before. Fusion Broadband is intriguing: an ADSL2+ connection advertised as 20mbps/1mbps, but supporting an optional Annex M mode where you might get can get upload speeds as high as 3mbps by sacrificing some download speed, and it allows you to bond 2 lines together for double the speed in each direction. Even accounting for some falloff due to distance (I’m estimated to be about 3000 wire feet from the central office, which should be just fine for ADSL2+), it seems like dual-line Fusion should get me back in the ballpark of 30mbps/6mbps like I have now. And from a company whose entire business is data, not trying to tie me to legacy TV or voice business models, to boot.

So, provisionally, I’m trying out Sonic: The plan was to get the lines installed, see a nice 40mbps/2mbps connection, then see how good Annex M actually does for upload speed (nobody will make solid predictions, so I just have to try it for myself), and if (across 2 lines with Annex M enabled and at my loop distance) the resulting speed is even, say, 75% of what I was getting from Comcast (30/6mbps), consider it a keeper, due to friendlier policies and reliability.

Easy in theory. In reality, signing up with Sonic was easy, but the going got rougher right after that. Sonic doesn’t own the wires to my house; they have to rent them from AT&T; as I found last time I tried indie DSL in 2001, this isn’t a perfect recipe for success. The day they were supposed to connect the wires, AT&T showed up 7 hours late, then told me they couldn’t do the job because it was too late in the day and they’d have to come back the next day. The next day, they connected the wires, I plugged in the DSL modem from Sonic, and found myself the proud owner of two 4mbps/1mbps DSL circuits. This wasn’t going exactly as planned.

I called Sonic; they looked at the statistics they monitor from their end of the DSL equipment and immediately agreed this was a problem that AT&T would have to look into; they made an appointment and AT&T sent someone back to my house a few days later; the AT&T tech measured a bunch of stuff, said “looks good to me”, and left without anything having improved.

Fast forward a few weeks. Sonic seems to be going to heroic lengths to get AT&T to up the quality of the wiring, but the fact that heroic lengths are necessary, and haven’t succeeded after 6 weeks, is disheartening. They’ve managed to speed up one line and not the other, so one line syncs at 18mbps/1mbps and the other at 4mbps/1mbps. (Now that one line is behaving as promised, it’s also hard to believe they can’t get the other one into shape — before that, I was starting to think the distance to the CO was wrong and there was another 6000 feet of wire in my loop.) In any case, I have yet to even get to the second step of my plan, after dozens of calls to Sonic and 5 visits from AT&T service technicians.

At this point, it continues to be a race to see who can give me fast reliable access. I’m continuing to try to get Sonic to get AT&T to provide the promised line quality and speeds. The more time that passes, the harder it is to remain optimistic about this. Meanwhile Comcast seems to remain the owners of the highest-bandwidth wires into my house, so at the same time I keep trying to get them to fix their reliability problem, though they’ve been charging me $30 for troubleshooting visits which didn’t find or fix the problem, which is not cool.

My current plan is still to stick with Sonic — I really want to like them — but the difficulty of getting AT&T to give me a good line (after 6 weeks and counting) is disheartening, and even when they do get that fixed, I’ll have to cross my fingers and hope that Annex M works out ok. Also, the Comtrend 5361 modem Sonic sent me has now crashed 3 times even though I’m barely using it, and generally seems buggy (which is scary since, you’ll recall, I only reached this point because of cable modem crashes). And worse, the reported 22mbps speed I’ve reached so far is just the sync speed reported by the modem — actual usable transfer speeds to any site I’ve tried top out around 7mbps down, which I suspect might also be a bug in the modem firmware when bonding lines of different speeds (maybe it won’t shove any more data over the fast line than the slow line). If once the lines are the same speed, usable speed remains only 1/3 of nominal sync speed, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

So. Maybe all these problems will be resolved and I’ll get a reliable modem that syncs at 30+/5+ and actually delivers that as usable speed. And maybe I’ll have to consider other options.

Backup plan 1: Get Comcast to fix the crashtastic-cable-modem problem. I’m losing hope in that, too, after multiple service visits, all they want to do is yank on wires, and that hasn’t fixed it; also their monitoring is poor (I called in while modem was down and they say they have no record of outages and I say what about right now?); also I filled out a survey about customer service and got a phone call from a manager saying “ok I see you’ve been having this problem for a while, we’ll make sure to send you the good tech guy” and the next tech guy they sent did seem better but still didn’t fix it.

Backup plan 2: Maybe Comcast’s business options have better tech support, troubleshooting abilities, or reliability guarantees. A business-class line of my own costs a lot more than what I’m paying now; the teleworker plan is actually cheaper but relies on support from my employer, which may or may not exist.

Backup plan 3: Stick with Comcast, but route around the crashtastic modem: install a USB-controlled kill switch/STONITH device, connect that to my router, and teach the router to reboot the cable modem when necessary.

Backup plan 4: A low-tech version of #3; run a pull cord toggle switch (like those used for lamps), controlling the cable modem’s power line, from the modem’s home in my server closet up through the furnace duct to my office.

Backup plan 5: Hmm, I wonder how much fiber from fastmetrics would actually cost. Way too much, I’m sure. But still.