Internet service provider, indeed

— 4:24 PM on July 23, 2009

Going into this, I should probably state that I'm well aware of the deplorable state of broadband Internet access and management in this country. If Time Warner's naked attempt to extort its customers by testing tiered Internet access with absurdly low download caps is evidence of anything, it's how much we're at the mercy of the companies involved. I feel as though in many instances, we're dealing with a "race to the bottom," if you will: how little can a company offer, and how much can it charge for it? If I learned anything in college, it's that you don't have to be the best, you just have to be better than the alternatives. This all seems very grave for something much smaller, but I habitually look at the disease instead of the symptoms. Even if that might blow things a little out of proportion.

In my area, the Internet access options consist of AT&T's DSL service and Comcast's cable modem service. Most people out here go with Comcast. I can't say I blame them. Comcast is an evil empire if ever there were one, with their history of futzing with BitTorrent packets among other things, but remember what I said about not having to be the best, just better than the alternatives?

My Internet connection with AT&T had been stunningly mediocre for the entire time I'd had its DSL service. Despite being on the 6Mbps "Elite" plan, download speeds only ever topped out at about 600KB/s. Fine, whatever. That was until around the 10th of this month, when my connection took a nasty nosedive, averaging about a sixth of what I'd been getting before. Ping was astronomically high (thus ensuring I wouldn't be enjoying my recently replaced copy of Call of Duty 4 online or playing Left 4 Dead with my friends), download speeds were dismal, and my connection would periodically drop. With my pitiful connection, I was able to speak to AT&T through its online chat and get on my way to having the problem corrected. First, the representative and I ran the company's bandwidth meter test which, surprise surprise, measured my download speed at about 2Mbps. Then eventually a line test was performed, and a problem was indeed noted. The rep told me he would escalate my issue to the line department, and I would receive a phone call within the next 24 hours.

I did not.

I eventually had to call back and jump through hoops to speak to AT&T's line department on the evening of the 13th. The specialist I spoke to said that there was nothing wrong with my equipment, but that there was indeed a problem with the line. Lots of packets were being lost, corrupted, and dropped. So he dialed back my bandwidth in an attempt to mitigate the problem somewhat and produce a more stable connection. He also put in to have a technician come out to my apartment to locate and fix the issue. On the 17th. Not a whole lot of options, so I went ahead and made the appointment.

So the technician arrived that day, tested the line and found nothing wrong with it, and asked me if I had a laptop to test the DSL modem. (Why, I don't know, when there was a tower on which the modem was sitting.) Ignoring the fact that I'm used to seeing technicians with their own laptops, I loaned him mine and marveled as he struggled to find the shortcut for the command window in Windows Vista.

Maybe I'm being unfair; I'm not really sure, but if I were a technician regularly handling network issues, I'd probably know the keyboard shortcut to open a command window: Windows+R, then "cmd."

Eventually, after running tests, he informed me that it was my router and not the modem or anything else, and he plugged the modem directly into my laptop. The connection was indeed faster. I sent him on his way, figuring "fine, I'll just go buy another router, this one's pretty old anyhow." The router (Linksys WRT54G v5) had been having trouble even registering the PPPoE connection—surely that must have been it.

Unfortunately, upon testing my connection using the direct link to the modem, I found it was faster than it was before, but by a hair, and, woefully, still not terribly stable. Download speeds were topping out at 200KB/s, still a far cry from what I was getting before this mess began and nowhere near what I was paying for. So I figured it could be the modem, and I went and purchased a DSL modem and router combo. (The technician informed me that if the modem was bunk, I would have to pay for a new one out of pocket anyway.) Naturally, the unit couldn't make the DSL connection, even with the same settings as the original modem: it returned "no PPPoE" errors. Finally, I went back to the original modem—this was on the 18th, mind you—and chatted up AT&T's tech support online again. Their bandwidth test again showed me having far more bandwidth than I was actually getting, and independent sites were testing bandwidth at 50% of that speed. Arguing with the tech and explaining what had been going on thus far escalated back to the line department.

The following morning, I received an automated phone call saying the technicians had resolved the problem and asking for me to press "1" if everything is okay and "2" if it is not. This was at eight in the morning; an automated call that forces me to immediately check my Internet connection is preposterous. And at this point, I'd had it. The connection wasn't working at all, constantly redirecting me to a login page where the password had been reset. I had gone more than a week without stable Internet access, to the point of not having any at all, and the one technician who came out didn't seem to have much of a clue what he was doing.

I wound up switching to Comcast the next day, a Monday. That wasn't before calling Best Buy, which carries self-installation kits and whom I remembered as being able to set up a new connection in-store, and telling the customer service rep I'd like to start a new account with Comcast and asking if they had the equipment in store. "Yes, we have wireless and regular." She thought I was talking about routers.

The switch to Comcast should've been more painless than it was. I was able to go to a local store and pick up the equipment, add it to my account and so on, and I didn't even need to buy the self-installation kit. "Just hook it up, then call our customer service line and have them activate the modem." Okay, fair enough. I do as instructed, and three hours after picking up the equipment, getting it home, and setting it up, the technician on the other end of the line informs me that high speed Internet service is not on my account. I explain to him that it was just added hours ago, and he says it probably hasn't gone through their system yet. This is after having been on hold for a half hour. He puts me on hold again to look things up.

Popping open my web browser in the interim, since Windows did indicate it was getting an Internet connection from the cable modem, I'm given two options: one for home users setting up their new connection and one for technicians. The one for home users links to a program you can theoretically download to install your connection, and I say "theoretically" because it refused to download. At this point, I figured, "What the hell," and went with the technician link. Lo and behold, it never asked me for credentials or anything, just the account number, and proceeded to activate the modem just fine. I hung up the phone, still on hold.

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