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Thread: A new editorial..get a drink before reading. :)

  1. #1
    Moderator Bouncer's Avatar
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    Post A new editorial..get a drink before reading. :)

    Go to the bathroom. This is going to loooong. Get me a donut while yer up.

    A couple of months ago, I posted an "xDSL Opinion" which talked about xDSL service, and it's marketing. I didn't pull a lot of punches, and got some people pretty darn mad.

    Today, it's cable's turn.

    Why is it, that cable modem service seems so unreliable, in both bandwidth, and actual experience? Why do some people get great experiences and lots of bandwidth, while others have truly horrid experiences and bandwidth that could be better described as a trickle?

    The answer is kinda simple and kinda complex, so let's take a minute, and start at the beginning.

    Your cable tv works, because each channel in the line, has it's own frequency. Chanel two might be two megahertz, channel three three megahertz, and so on. (This is a simplistic explanation, but makes the point). An analogy, might be the travel lanes on a highway. A three lane highway, would give you three channels. Make sense? Now imagine sixty lanes. So what if I took a couple of those lanes, and dedicated them to data flow up and down?

    Introducing the cable modem. In short, the cable modem takes certain frequencies (lanes) from the cable spectrum (highway), and sends and recieves data using those frequencies.

    The primary problem, is NOT the technology, which is sheer genius, but rather the application of it on a local basis.

    Standby for a LOT of background info. It's unavoidable. Sorry.

    Now Cable companies, are in the business of selling you TV. Data access, is something they don't really want to futz around with. It's not that cost effective for them to try and do it all themselves on a local basis. Think about it for a minute. Going into the ISP business is NOT cheap. Not only do you have to buy your own multiple broadband connections, but also a 24 hour X 365 day support staff, a Network Operations Center, and lots of expensive routers, switches, servers and other gear. It's LOTS more cost efficient to simply let someone else do all that, and split the profits, right?

    As a consequence, local cable companies usually contract to one of a couple (@home and RoadRunner are two of the largest) of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who supply some of the equipment and broadband connections and take care of all the network issues. The local cable company is responsible for local cable support, installation issues, and that's about it. From their perspective, it's very cost efficient. The primary cable runs are already there, and this is simply a new way of generating revenue off of them. Remember as well, that these runs tend to be permanent fixtures, so while it might be expensive to run a new line to your house, that line might stay in place for DECADES. It's long term cost effective to run that line. Plus they might start offering other services (like phone service) over those lines as well one day..so again, it's cost justified for future expansion purposes. Finally, they have an excuse to get the cable into your house, so you might as well sign up for 500 channels for 60 bucks a month right? MARKETING, people. It's here to stay.

    The problem though, is this. Local cable companies, because they AREN'T really responsible for much beyond the physical connections, don't have any real motivation to do more than jam as many people as they can into one node or area. They can do this, because network traffic is generally "bursty". I'll spend over an hour writing all this, but the amount of time it'll take to upload will be less than a second. So no one user is likely to be using most of the bandwidth at any given time. It therefore makes good economic sense to get lots of people on one headend connection. The more people they can pack in, the greater their profit margin. In addition, the local cable company frequently doesn't have their own network operations center, and honestly has little or no real idea how the network with THEIR NAME on it is performing.

    As well, almost ALL cable Companies are regulated monopolies, because your local government doesn't want cable running all over the place with no way to track who is responsible for what, as well as other regulatory reasons. (In most places, cable access is treated more as a utility than as a business..you don't see competing sewer or power lines, now do you?) So there's only ONE option for the user, and that's the local monopoly.

    Okay, whew, that's a lot of background info. But I had to tell you all that, to tell you this.

    Let's take a look at why there's such a diversity in cable modem performance.

    We have a situation, where you effectively have a HUGE PRIVATE LAN/WAN, with multiple sub-groups each being run by some local contractor. This sub-contractor frequently has no direct responsibilty or ability to react to local network problems besides cable cuts etc. In short, local physical problems.

    In the case of RoadRunner, for instance, Network Operations / Administration is run out of Tampa, Florida. Their presence extends all the way to Richmond, VA where I live and beyond. This means that even though I have a local cable company who's name is on the service, all the real admin and monitoring is being done over a thousand miles away from me. That's a long distance, and a lot of places where problems can occur. But wait, there's more. Many of these cable companies are interconnected, so it's not as if I go directly from Richmond to Tampa. I go through multiple other franchises and links, some of which might be owned by Smitty and Co. in backwoodsville, who are using two overworked hamsters to power their entire system. I have to go through all of this before I ever hit the backbone links to the internet.

    The problem starts to take shape then. The local cable company has the area franchise, and has sold or contracted data access to @home or RR, or whomever; you, the user, are stuck with the local connection equipment being operated and maintained by people who have no direct interest in whether or not it runs well. More to the point, the cable company has experience in TV operations, and not data operations. You are also connected to other possibly independent cable operations who might have even LESS interest than your local company in this whole data business stuff.

    As a result, we see headend systems (where all the cable modems come together at their side of the local connection) that aren't even plugged into UPSs! This was a KNOWN condition in at least one headend facility. It's absolutely unthinkable for any normal ISP to run their primary equipment without redundant protected power supplies. But this kind of thing IS happening with cable modem access.

    In this case, what can happen then, is everytime there's a power blip, all the headend gear loses power for a split second, faster than you can blink. This causes it to reboot or more accurately, "recycle". When the devices recycle, all the users are cut off. Some of them come back, some don't, and the phone calls start pouring in. To the support center. Located in another state. Which has no IDEA what the problem REALLY is.

    Another example from real life: Until very recently ALL the cable modem authentication for one particular service EVERYWHERE IN THE US was being handled by a SINGLE server. When that server recycles or has a problem, this can affect TENS OF THOUSANDS of users simultaneously.

    Again the calls pour in, tying up the lines. Frustrated users vent on poor tech support staff. The staff (many of whom are pretty woefully undertrained and WAY overworked) has to begin walking them through the baby steps of troubleshooting, because the little book they were handed with their logo'd shirt says they must do this. I feel bad for these people, because they ARE overworked, ARE underpaid, and ARE recieving the full anger of hundreds or thousands of people daily. AND they have no REAL way of telling what the problem is OR solving it. I'd be a pepto-bismal freak after one week of that.

    In any case, the server has gone down, and has begun rebooting. They've walked ten thousand people through the "illustrated cartoon book o' troubleshooting". By this time, the server has finished rebooting. All those modems have re-authenticated. However, the tech support has the user reboot their machine, and they're back on the network without ANYONE having a CLUE as to what the real long term problem is.

    This cycle repeats itself, over, and over, and over.

    In sum, the real problem is NOT the technology. It's simply that most local cable company franchises do not have the staff or possibly even the equipment to support a network that has their name plastered all over it, and are interconnected to some other operators who could best be described as "fly-by-night". This problem will continue to grow and get worse until open access is mandated.

    I can hear people groaning already about AOLers flocking onto their system. Just think about it for a second though, before you start calling for me to be summarily executed with a large pointy stick.

    Open access means that multiple ISPs can be at the cable headend, and puts competitive pressure on the local cable co's to hire some of their own, LOCAL network support staff. It also means that the cable company, if they desire, can get more or less completely out of the ISP business (which many don't want to be in in the first place), and simply be the medium supplier. Leaving the choice up to the USER as to which service they want to subscribe to. It also means that more infrastructure will be invested in at the headend, which means most probably less users per node per service. It means in many cases a, faster, more direct connection to the internet backbones. With lower latency, and higher throughput. It will be a more complex set up at the headend facility, but in the end, I believe it will be worth it.

    I would also remind people that xDSL as a technology has been around for DECADES, but it wasn't until the open access for phone service was mandated that you started to see xDSL for residential service. Before that, ISDN was pretty much ALL you could get, and it was tres' expensive! Because the local telco had a monopoly on the line, and no interest in spending money provisioning equipment and lines in order to bring you a better service when they could sell you an expensive service they already had equipment for.

    Open access, boys and girls, has been VERY good for the consumer there. It's also brought in scammers and snake-oil companies, but the net effect has been positive.

    I want to stress a couple of things very clearly near the end of this lengthy opinion piece. One, I am NOT against cable modem access. I use it myself. Two, I have NOTHING against RoadRunner or @home as ISPs. I think they both catch the brunt of what may legitimately be local problems. Three, there are many fine, diligent cable companies out there that DO try and pay attention to what's going on.

    However, in the end, until we have more options, we're stuck in a situation where we have centralized management but regional implementation. Kinda like trying to run Ford Germany from Michigan. It simply doesn't work as well as it could by instituting management closer to the actual physical operations sites. There's NO way around that. Open access is going to mean more ISPs, and more users. But it'll also mean more redundant connections, and more options for the consumer. That is a good thing.

    As always, your mileage may vary. This is a general overview, and not meant to be specific to your cable franchise or area. Trying to do THAT, would turn this long winded piece into an epic.

    Regards,
    -Bouncer-

  2. #2
    HMS White Star
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    Nice post Bouncer, I don't agree with every point (well the many disagreement is there bit more local control, not much but in some places there is a lot more on site control), but over all I shook my head yes. Btw I believe the NOC is in Virginia.

    "Again the calls pour in, tying up the lines. Frustrated users vent on poor tech support staff...I feel bad for these people, because they ARE overworked, ARE underpaid, and ARE recieving the full anger of hundreds or thousands of people daily. AND they have no REAL way of telling what the problem is OR solving it. I'd be a pepto-bismal freak after one week of that."

    Being one of the "poor tech support staff" I can tell you it's really not that bad (however I agree with the under paid part), I never even bought pepto-bismal, but not being able to solve problems really sucks.

    "The staff (many of whom are pretty woefully undertrained and WAY overworked) has to begin walking them through the baby steps of troubleshooting, because the little book they were handed with their logo'd shirt says they must do this."

    Wait someone got a shirt and a book, hey that's not fair I didn't get a book or a shirt, seriously .

    "In sum, the real problem is NOT the technology. It's simply that most local cable company franchises do not have the staff or possibly even the equipment to support a network that has their name plastered all over it, and are interconnected to some other operators who could best be described as "fly-by-night". This problem will continue to grow and get worse until open access is mandated."

    I completely and absolutely agree with this I have actually come to the same conclusion over the past 5 months I have worked at my job. Good post bouncer.


  3. #3
    dan2525
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    Nicely done sir, but I should have listened to you when you warned me to go to the bathroom first. nnnrrrrgghh....

  4. #4
    fanta
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    Awesome post Bouncer I agree with you on the open-access issue. When I first read about the AOL-Time Warner merger, and about AOL getting its foot into broadband technology, I winced in pain. After a while though, I kind of thought about the benefits of open access. I believe that open access will eventually increase the speeds for everyone a lot faster than if we were to rely on the regulated cable monopolies. Think about it, if there is no competition to force them to upgrade services and infrastructure, then what makes you think they are even going to? We might even see prices for cable internet access dip down to $19.95 a month. That would be very nice indeed, along with low-priced xDSL.

  5. #5
    RIRed
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    Jeez.......you guys are scaring me. I'm a 56k dial-up kind of guy getting Cox@Home in 10 days here in New England. Think I would settle for what I have now rather than much faster but with many more problems.../ but I guess my son and I will risk everything for a "40 ping" to the Quake 3 server !!!

  6. #6
    Murman
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    I would agree nice post, some good information which may or may not be fully accurate.

    I have to disagree with this

    "Another example from real life: Until very recently ALL the cable modem authentication for one particular service EVERYWHERE IN THE US was being handled by a SINGLE server. When that server recycles or has a problem, this can affect TENS OF THOUSANDS of users simultaneously."


    So your saying that a wonder server, serves ALL cable modem connections for @home, RoadRunner, Adelphia etc..? I find that rather hard to believe. Who would maintain the monster server. In your post you did make some points but either you got bad data from "someone" or bad info from articles. Not speaking for any one Cable CO, I find it hard to believe head end equipment isn't redundant to some extent. Again not speaking for any one cable CO, some may not have backup but I would assume the bigger providers do. Also you are correct to some extent on the tech support issues. It's all mostly out sourced and there's lack of communication from the Cable CO provider to the folks taking most of the calls, but not all cable companies. Nodes and head end's can go down for multiple reasons besides power loss. There's RF issues, leakage, equipment problems, deterioration of lines, fittings, impulse noise. Also keep in mind that "end users" play a part in RF issues such as, CB usage, setting up multiple TV's with in a home with cheap coax and splitters, bad grounding in there homes.. leaking into the system causing issues for the plant of the cable provider, again not speaking on cable company. Some issues that come up for problemís have never come up and it's a learning curve for the folks that operate and monitor the plant of one company. High speed access is really new compared to dial up and there's still issues out there that havenít come up and will come up and no one will have the answer until a multitude of trouble shooting is done. Also I wouldnít fully agree about cramming or over cramming users on any given node of a cable provider. The HFC architecture can handle up to 2000 users and not speaking for any one company, they do monitor that and split them up accordingly / when needed.

  7. #7
    Moderator Bouncer's Avatar
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    Murman, some good points. I'll try and clarify.

    1) Yep. A particular service was (and may still be doing so) using ONE server to run authentication for ALL the cablemodems.
    The inherent problems from that I'm sure are obvious. I didn't say ALL services used this server. To wit:

    "Until very recently ALL the cable modem authentication for one particular service EVERYWHERE IN THE US was being handled by a SINGLE server."

    I don't know how I can be more clear than that. One particular service, means one particular service. (shrug)

    2) You're absolutely correct in that some headend systems are spec'd to accomodate 2000 users. But if the channels allocated to that headend aren't enough, the problems again are obvious. Would you want to be user #1957 on a headend using one channel for downstream and one for up? That'd be 27mbps for 2000 people. I can only imagine what would happen between 5pm and 11pm, when everyone gets off work, and starts to surf the web. Not to mention the 300 napster/game/ftp servers all running at the same time.

    3) I never really talked about user issues.
    They do contribute to problems. No doubt about that. Reemember though, I wasn't trying to write a white paper on the technology, I was opining more on it's implementation, especially at the local level, and some of the management issues. On why I can have great service, and someone five miles away can have completely crappy service. User and physical layer issues aren't as important in that regard.

    4) Please remember, I was describing a general overview of the system, not a particular branch of any one system. As long as you try to apply it to an individual system, there ARE going to be differences that we could argue forever and two days. For instance, I didn't discuss one way cable (modem return) systems at all.

    Because this is such a widespread implementation of a particular broadband technology, any report encompassing all systems everywhere would be monstrous. You're certainly welcome to do so if you'd like, and I look forward to reading it should you do so.

    Regards,
    -Bouncer-

  8. #8
    Kevin
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    Fanta wrote
    ----------
    Awesome post Bouncer I agree with you on the open-access issue. When I first read about the AOL-Time Warner merger, and about AOL getting its foot into broadband technology, I winced in pain. After a while though, I kind of thought about the benefits of open access.

    (Snip)

    We might even see prices for cable internet access dip down to $19.95 a month. That would be very nice indeed, along with low-priced xDSL.
    ---------

    That sure would be nice, but does AOL even charge 19.95 for dial up? I think its like 21.95 a total ripoff, I got my dial up local for $12 bucks a month almost half that. There probably going to start cable at fifty cause they think sense there AOL people will choose them just because there AOL. Prices will drop but it'll be awhile untill they do.

    Now as for the original post, that was just plain excelent Bouncer, more like a article then a post on a message board.


    AOL SUCKS

  9. #9
    John
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    You always manage to fit in quantity and quality bouncer! great work

    ------------------
    What NOT to write to your ISP

    What every broadband rant should be like.

  10. #10
    Amro
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    If my memory serves me correctly, AOL's dialup stuff runs on two main locations... one in east one in west.. and they're linked. hmm..whether they run on one machine each or not.. i dunno but i doubt it because it'd have to be one hell of a server.. like a quad pentium III xeon 1ghz w/ 2gbs of ram or somethin hehe.. i dunno maybe.. yeesh.. i do know this -- microsoft has 1 teraserver

    Amro

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    Regular Member emixnem's Avatar
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    Registered User therealcableguy's Avatar
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    1."Now Cable companies, are in the business of selling you TV. Data access, is something they don't really want to futz around with."
    Totally disagree.Data access is big business.Which is why we have launched our own networks.Contrary to popular opinion this had nothing to do with @Home's demise.From the beginning we were told that we would be building on own network and become our own ISP in due time.@Home's early flameout only accelerated our plans.Which even back then made me wonder about @Homes future.They were going to move into providing content

    2."Why is it, that cable modem service seems so unreliable, in both bandwidth, and actual experience? Why do some people get great experiences and lots of bandwidth, while others have truly horrid experiences and bandwidth that could be better described as a trickle?"
    Why is that not everyone that buys a Dell gets a great computer?Most work great and the company does a great job.But they have their fair share of complaints.Why is that not everyone that eats at Mcdonalds has a great experience?Could be that the majority of their customers do.You can't control it all.
    Enough examples.Bottom line is that the majority of our customers are satisfied with the product we provide and we care about giving our customers the best.The internet was designed as a "best effort" service.The way it is being used today far exceeded anyone thoughts at the time.The impact that it has had on our lives the last ten years is incredible.Technology is improving everday with things like QOS(quality of service).With those improvements in technology we will be able to provide you an even better product.How many people b4 broadband did you know with 56K modems?Now how many actually connected at anywhere near that speed?I know the answer already.Same here.Not many.There are to many variables to garuntee a certain rate of speed.Which is why the ads say up to xxxMbits per sec.

    3."As well, almost ALL cable Companies are regulated monopolies"
    Simply not the case.Cable companies have NON-EXCLUSIVE FRANCHISE AGREEMENTS.Which means another company can come apply for a franchise and offer service.If they don't its because its an expensive venture.That takes years for the payback.Who can afford that?Apparently someone can because we have competition here with Knology cable.The reason there is only one option in most cases is because it is expensive to set up.To match us mile for mile.The competition will have to spend a good forty million.A wait for the payback.Then look at industry stats and you will find that in most cases where this has been tried(another cable company)they were never able to steal enough customers to justify the build and end up selling to someone else who also tries,fails and sells.If the existing company is doing a decent job its hard to get customers to switch and since they are not switching as much as the competition would like we must be doing a good job.
    I could go on but I'm tired of typing Just my two cents worth.

  13. #13
    Moderator Bouncer's Avatar
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    A lot has changed in the three years or so since I wrote that. It was an explanation of the events at the time, and an opinion on why cable internet, as a service, was so varied in it's performance.

    I stand by the statement.

    As well, Cable companies are granted exclusive rights to an area by the local government. Your argument is horsehockey and misdirection. NO other company can come in and use existing utility infrastructure. They can neither dig their own lines or use existing ones. Since they cannot get right of way, they can't lay down the infrastructure. It is ONLY in those places where the cable companies are FORCED to allow competing services on the lines that we see a more reasonable pricing structure.

    It is a defacto monopoly. The Local governments have an incentive to keep it that way too, since they get a kickback from every subscriber.

    Regards,
    -Bouncer-

  14. #14
    Registered User therealcableguy's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Bouncer
    A lot has changed in the three years or so since I wrote that. It was an explanation of the events at the time, and an opinion on why cable internet, as a service, was so varied in it's performance.

    I stand by the statement.

    As well, Cable companies are granted exclusive rights to an area by the local government. Your argument is horsehockey and misdirection. NO other company can come in and use existing utility infrastructure. They can neither dig their own lines or use existing ones. Since they cannot get right of way, they can't lay down the infrastructure. It is ONLY in those places where the cable companies are FORCED to allow competing services on the lines that we see a more reasonable pricing structure.

    It is a defacto monopoly. The Local governments have an incentive to keep it that way too, since they get a kickback from every subscriber.

    Regards,
    -Bouncer-
    That's not true.No one forced anything in this market.A competitor came in and applied for a franchise and got it.Cable companies have a non-exclusive franchise agreement and no matter how loud you scream and cry about horsehockey what ever that is.It does not change the facts.Just because competition does not exist in your market does not mean that that it can't.As for the local government and "kickbacks" as you call them.They would get the same kickbacks from a competitor

  15. #15
    Moderator Bouncer's Avatar
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    Yes, it IS true. The cable infrastructure runs in parallel to the various utility and telco infrastructures. Because of that, the laying of lines is controlled by the city or county. THEY decide whether or not the cable company may use the utility trenches to lay cable. The Cable Companies argument is that they can't "afford" to share lines with another service, but the fact that some communites up in the NW have MULTIPLE cable companies sharing the same lines, NONE of whom have gone out of business, proves that this is simply not the case. The claim is that it's too expensive and therefore they need to be exclusive in order to be cost effective. That claim is a lie.

    The way the city/counties make a deal is by offering an EXCLUSIVE (read: MONOPOLY) to whatever cable company promises to pass them the highest percentage of use fees and profit splitting. Are you aware that money from every cable subscriber goes back to the City/County and that the AVERAGE amount is in the neighborhood of 15 dollars PER subscriber?

    Let's see.. avg 30000 customers.. $15 a head per month.. gee whiz.. that's $5.4 million. A Year. It's a kickback system.

    Regards,
    -Bouncer-

  16. #16
    Registered User therealcableguy's Avatar
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    Ok Bouncer you just lost me.Are we talking about two different things?If you are talking about getting additional ISP's available to the consumer then that is being tested and coming soon to a cable modem near you.All down the same pipe.What I'm talking about is another company can come into town and hang their own cable on the poles and put their own cable in the ground.It has ben done in numerous communities throughout the country and thing primary thing that holds that back is definitly the expense of building it.As for the franchise fees,I'll get back to you on that one tomorrow.Fifteen dollars per sub would put any company out of business.

  17. #17
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    In Columbus the Franchise fee is 5% of all revenues of the cable company. The revenue to the city is around $6 million per year.

    Cable agreements are not exclusive. Exclusive agreements are contrary to law. We have three cable companies in Columbus (Insight, Time Warner, and WideOpenWest) and at most locations (including my house) there are two to choose from.

    The cable companies also pay the telephone or electric utilities for the use of their easements and poles. It's around $5 per pole per year.

    Four different ISP's offer service over the TW network - Road Runner, AOL, Earthlink, and a fourth, small, ISP whose name I have forgotten.

    Kip

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