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Are You Getting the Bandwidth You’re Paying For?

Not long ago, I was invited to participate in a post-session Google Hangout On Air at the Le Web conference in London. When the organizer asked me to report on my bandwidth, though, there was much head-shaking as to whether my roughly 1 Mbps upstream bandwidth would be sufficient to provide high-quality video (my 15 to 20 Mbps downstream bandwidth wasn’t a problem). After a couple of brief Internet outages several weeks before this, Time Warner had replaced both my cable modem and the entire cable from the street, so I was pretty certain all the hardware was working within spec.

I hadn’t revisited Time Warner Cable’s service offerings in years, but some quick research online showed that I had the Turbo Internet plan, which promises up to 20 Mbps downstream and up to 2 Mbps upstream. Ignoring the fact that I wasn’t ever seeing the 2 Mbps upstream I should have been getting, I decided that an extra $20 per month to upgrade to the Extreme Internet plan (30/5 Mbps) was worthwhile, since we upload a fair amount of data and the 5 Mbps of upstream bandwidth would be welcome for video conferencing in particular. But since downstream bandwidth has never been our problem, the Ultimate Internet plan (50/5 Mbps) didn’t seem worth the extra cost. Time Warner made it easy to click a link to chat with an online customer service rep, who was only too happy to help me upgrade. While we were chatting, I explicitly asked if my current cable modem — which had just been replaced, remember — would be sufficient for the Extreme Internet service level, and I was assured it would be. Some 20 minutes later, everything was done, and I was told that I’d start seeing improved performance either immediately, or within 2 to 4 hours.

(In fact, what happened was that 2 hours later, the entire connection went down, and I had to call support and get them to do something. It’s always a little unclear what they do, although I believe it involved properly linking my cable modem to the updated account. Luckily, they managed to fix it just as my iPhone dropped the call because I was in a low-reception part of the house.)

When I started testing the performance again, reported consistently that I was getting between 20 and 30 Mbps downstream, and while my upstream performance wasn’t 5 Mbps, it was regularly between 1.5 and 2.5 Mbps. Bandwidth is very often shared, so it’s entirely common to get a bit less than your promised bandwidth, and while 2.5 Mbps was less than the 5 Mbps I’d been promised with the Extreme Internet plan, it was good enough for the Le Web conference hangout (with Kevin Rose of Google, if you want to watch). But as the days went by afterwards, that 2.5 Mbps upstream maximum nagged at me, and when some ebook uploads were taking way too long, reported I was seeing only about 800 Kbps upstream.

Frustrated, I called Time Warner once again, the support rep agreed that I should be seeing better performance, and he dispatched a tech to my house. As with the first tech who had replaced my cable, the second tech was extremely amiable and knowledgeable, but he had some choice words for the online customer service rep who had upgraded my account. Apparently — and this is so common that the techs have a word for it: “office-only’d” — the change had been made only in the office, and there was no way my cable modem could support 5 Mbps upstream bandwidth. Making this even more obvious was the fact that the Extreme Internet plan includes wireless clients — the cable modem also acts as a wireless gateway — and the cable modem I had didn’t have any wireless capabilities at all (I didn’t notice this discrepancy when ordering, since I was focused on the bandwidth and had no desire to replace my AirPort Extreme).

After trying two cable modems that he’d been told were new (the first had a locked wireless network named “We no speak Americano” configured on it, and the second didn’t advertise any wireless network or allow wired connections), he grew irritated and gave me one straight from a shrink-wrapped box. It worked properly and provided the full 30 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream, as you can see in my graphs below, which also show the improvements over time.

(Or, rather, it worked for about 2 hours, at which point the entire connection went down again, and I had to work my way through three levels of Time Warner phone support before I got to a guy who was able to link my fancy new cable modem to my account properly and get it all to work again. It seems clear that the Time Warner system has some disconnects between what happens in the office and what happens in the field.)

So the moral of this story is that it’s absolutely worth using (or a similar service) to check your downstream and upstream bandwidth. Performance does vary throughout the day, so be sure to run multiple tests in over a number of days and at different times of day. Also be sure to test from a computer — although I like the Mobile Speed Test app for testing general connectivity, its download numbers are often way too low and its upload numbers are often a bit high. will keep track of your results (as you can see in the screenshots above), assuming you keep the same IP address, or you can set up an account to ensure that your tests are collected regardless.

Once you have a pretty good sense of your average downstream and upstream bandwidth, compare that against what your Internet service provider promises you. Based on my experience, here’s what I’d advise:

  • Internet plans are a bit like phone plans — they’re always changing, and there are often limited-time signup discounts — so what you signed up for a few years ago (or more) may not be the best plan that’s available to you now.

  • If you decide to change plans, I recommend calling rather than using online chat, if that’s available. Online chat is fine for determining service levels and asking questions (and it eliminates issues with heavy accents from offshore phone banks), but I think it’s better to have quick interaction with someone while actually making changes.

  • While you’re talking to the rep, make absolutely certain that your cable or DSL modem will be able to handle the new service level. Be insistent on this point, and make sure that the rep understands how long you’ve had your current hardware if it’s old. Modems are generally identified by their unique MAC addresses, but there might be several such numbers on your device, so it’s worth taking pictures of all the appropriate labels ahead of time so you can read out numbers easily if requested.

  • If a tech comes to your home or office to troubleshoot problems, stick with them while they’re working and tell them whatever you can think of that might help. For instance, my house was wired with coaxial cable in the walls, and while we originally had to use it, the first tech found that it was adding interference. Relocating the cable modem to avoid the internal wiring helped with upstream bandwidth. Also ask them to check your cable’s connectors, since corrosion there can cause loss of signal.

  • Don’t let the tech leave until you have tested the connection with and can prove to your satisfaction that you’re getting the promised bandwidth. Although I had two good techs, the second one grumbled that there were a number of others in the organization who did shoddy work and ended up having to be bailed out later.

  • If trenching is necessary, be certain to talk with the crew doing the work and tell them if you know where any underground wires are located. And, regardless, ask them to try to locate whatever electric, phone, invisible fence, or other wires might be buried in the trenching area, since trenching machines can slice right through existing cable with little or no indication (speaking from hard-won experience here). Personally, I plan to photograph the area and mark up the photos for future reference, now that we know what wires go where.

  • Lastly, whenever you talk with anyone from the Internet service provider, make sure to write down a case number or get contact information, so it’s easier to get back into the support queue should you need additional help. In my case, both the service level upgrade and the second cable modem swap required phone follow-ups to bring the connection back online, so be aware that such efforts might be necessary.

I certainly wasn’t expecting my Internet connection — which is generally quite reliable — to require so many phone calls and truck rolls to my house, but I’m glad I stuck with it in the end, since I appreciate actually getting the full bandwidth that I’ve been promised. It’s easy to imagine someone who’s not particularly network-savvy suffering with a lousy Internet connection, just because they don’t realize what they should be getting.


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Comments about Are You Getting the Bandwidth You’re Paying For?
(Comments are closed.)

SSteve  2012-07-12 14:25
I always loved when an AT&T tech would come to my house. They were always knowledgeable and helpful.

One of the greatest things I did regarding my DSL service was to switch from AT&T to a local reseller. The service is still through AT&T but whenever I have an issue I call the reseller and talk to Bax. If the issue involves anything at AT&T he deals with them. Plus, AT&T said the fastest plan I could get was 1.5Mbps down/320kbps up (I live in a rural area). When I switched, the reseller set me up with 3Mbps/640kbps.
Dave Sacher  2012-07-12 16:38
Great info, Adam...and always glad to hear of a happy and satisfactory ending! My two related bits:

Originally, I had DSL service from the phone company. I upgraded twice, first from basic/starter 1.5 meg service to (quoted) seven meg, and finally to the "12 meg" service, which was the fastest available, due to my long distance from the telco switch. Fortunately, I had an outstanding sales rep at Qwest, who advised me on the need to upgrade my DSL modem, each time I upgraded my connection speed.

About four months ago, my wife's medical chart analysis job was outsourced -- to our home. Her new boss sent her an email indicating we would need 8 megs down, and two up. My (now) CenturyLink DSL, which routinely clocked DL speeds between 8-10 megs, was woefully inadequate for uplink, at around 3/4 of a meg. And due to my line distance from the CO, it was not going to get any faster!

With some trepidation, I called Comcast and inquired about their Business Internet service. The sales rep was friendly and knowledgable, and sold me their basic package of 12/2, for around sixty bucks a month. (My wife's job reimburses her; I was able to cancel DSL and save $65/month.) I have to say, I have been VERY impressed with Comcast Business. I've had "truck roll" two service calls, the first to replace the gateway box (a/k/a cable "modem") with a more robust model, and recently to have the outside cable from the pedestal to the house replaced. (I wonder how long I will have to wait for burial services?)

The best part is, I am receiving download *and* upload speeds around 17 megs! To borrow an ad slogan from McDonalds, "I'm lovin' it!"

- Dave in Denver, Colorado
david cuddy  2012-07-12 18:38
In addition to speedtest, another very useful network test tool is Berkeley's Netalyzer.

It not only tests upload/download speeds, but measures network latency, jitter, health of your DNS servers, and even verifies accuracy of your computer's clock.
I appreciate your article. Yet I'm saddened that we, in the US have to beg these unregulated behemoths of ISP cable companies to give us so little.

check out what VirginMedia broadband offers in the 100Mb/down category my friends! it's $26/mo for six months then goes up to $50 full price! That hurts and makes me queasy as well. No one in this country is getting 100mb/down's not for sale. Nope.

We're getting bled dry like hydraulic brake lines and nothing can be done about it. Ill shut up now and go back to my 32mpbs/down connection which i know i should be greateful for. Thank you Time warner. please dont censor me or throttle my bandwith!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-13 09:54
The state of broadband in the US is pretty lame at times, though the physical and logistical and regulatory constraints are very different than in other countries.

Nevertheless, that's why I asked Kirk McElhearn to write about Free in France - good to make sure those in the US release what it could be like.
that was a very interesting read. about the service "FREE" in france. In my previous comment, I forgot to mention VirginMedia is in UK.
It's hard NOT to feel that we're falling behind....when the carriers are not offering the current technology (ie; 100mbps down for home, Unlimited for 4G mobile) thanks for keeping the discussion going , i appreciate.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2012-07-16 23:20
Charter Comm now has 100mbs but it is $90/mo. I'll stick with my 30/4 which is what the test gave me.
Mike McDonnell  2012-07-13 08:16 claims you get better performance with Google Chrome. I did not notice any differences from Safari compared to Chrome.

Should this matter? Bandwidth is bandwidth right?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-13 09:51
Yes, that's true - bandwidth is bandwidth. The claim on about Chrome is just an ad. My experience is that which browser is fastest depends a little on which has been released most recently, but that all are fast enough that you won't really notice much difference any more.
david cuddy  2012-07-14 12:18
Bandwidth is bandwidth, but the way that a browser utilizes the bandwidth can make a difference in perceived response speed. A typical web page might comprise content from dozens (sometimes hundreds) of different web servers. In order to render the page, the browser needs to establish TCP/IP connections to each of these servers, often multiple connections to each server, to retrieve all the HTML eye candy. A 'clever' browser (or other internet app) can employ various techniques to manage these many TCP connections in parallel, or piggyback multiple connections on a single TCP socket. These optimizations can get a web page to load faster over the same 'bandwidth'.

Google/Chrome has been experimenting with an improvement to the HTTP protocol known as SPDY ('speedy') which claims to improve web page load times. It's a double-ended protocol - both the browser and the web server have to implement it. Both Chrome and Firefox V11+ support SPDY. It remains to be seen whether it will garner widespread adoption on the web servers of the world.

As Adam points out, what you read on was an ad. However, you might detect faster load times with Chrome (compared to Safari) IF you have SPDY enabled on Chrome AND if you are connecting to SPDY-enabled websites. Personally, I've never noticed any difference over my 20/0.5 Mbps Rogers internet service.
Sanford Lung  2012-07-13 16:46
Time-Warner's franchisee in Hawaii, Oceanic Cable said to my inquiry about upgrading my cable modem to a DOCSIS 2 or better that while they would exchange my DOCSIS1 (it's been more than 5 years on the account) for another, there is no guaranty that I'd get a higher spec'd box in exchange. I get 3 - 5 Mb/s down against the advertised 8 Mb/s. The arogance of monopoly.
Kirk McElhearn  2012-07-14 17:27
Interesting. For me in France - with Free now, but with Orange for many years before - my maximum bandwidth is rock solid. Currently, I get 1.1 MB/sec - and I can test this easily by downloading something from Apple's servers. I never get more, but I never get less either (ie, my maximum is never less).
paulguinnessy  2012-07-16 22:36
I was surprised how fast RCN cable was compared to Verizon. For years I thought FiOS would be better but it turns out not to be the case, especially with the sneaky way Verizon keep adding fees. Instead RCN its a flat $50 per month for 50 Mps.
Dave Price  2012-07-17 08:51
I've used Charter Communications since it came to my town in the early 90's. Their base plan now offers 30mbps. I wasn't getting it... checked with an very good support person who said I'd never get it with my old cable modem. He said I needed to get a modem that supports DOCSYS3. I asked him which brands Charter supports and he suggested Motorola. I bought a Surfboard SB6121 at Best Buy for about $100 and that solved my problem!
Frank S Streeter  2012-07-17 09:58
Adam - you must use DIGSAFE before you start trenching!! Call 611, but otherwise you will be liable for anything you accidentally cut, which could include gas lines, and there are lots of them out there.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-07-17 10:03
Frank, didn't you mean 811 ?
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-07-17 10:02
In regard to trenching, there is the 811 number to call and have buried utilities identified. See for specific state info.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 16:15
That's great advice, Dennis - thanks!

In this case, I was certain there were no gas lines (since we don't have gas in the neighborhood) so the main question was the electric lines. I wasn't very impressed with the guys doing the trenching - they just had a cheap metal detector for finding wires and they never really found the electric, so they just got lucky missing it or not going too deep.

They did cut the wire to our driveway buzzer (this great thing the previous owner put in that tells us when someone is coming down our driveway, so we can ignore car noises coming up the road outside) but were luckily able to find the break and fix it. It took hours, and a lot of my time as well.
I haven't tested my speed @ home, but at work (a University) I regularly get 175mbps in both directions... hard to find fault with that.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 16:16
175 Mbps bidirectional? Man, talk about rubbing it in! :-)
How much do you pay for that [besides tuition], or is it a job perk?
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2012-07-25 17:40
They clearly work at a university but it's fairly typical for on-campus housing to be on the same network. The network is usually included in the cost of housing like heat and electricity. If the Ethernet cabling in the walls and switches in the closets are new enough to support it, hundreds of megabits per second, at least for on-campus traffic, is fairly common. If the university is on Internet2 and the destination is also on Internet2 or peered with it, you can get that kind of performance beyond the campus as well.

Of course in the dorms you have of people all competing for that bandwidth. Universities often have to do things to manage dorm network traffic to make sure there's enough to go around that they don't do on the non-residential parts of the network.

From my university office, connecting to speedtest servers hosted in the same city, I got 209Mbit/s on one and 535Mbit/s on another!
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2012-07-25 17:41
Oh, but "only" 92Mbit/s and 135Mbit/s on uploads. Not sure why the difference in upload rates, it's not an asymmetrical network.
We have basic DSL. I refuse to pay the outrageous prices for faster speed in the US. Since my email is in Spain, I get their local ads. Last week showed 15 euros/mo for triple play broadband--TV, phone, Internet at 20Mbps or 25 euros for 40Mbps, both increasing by 5 euros after a few months. Comcast charges $68/mo for 12Mbps broadband here.

According to New America Foundation, cost of connectivity in the US is high, while speeds are low, DSL could support 20-40Mbps service--even up to 80Mbps--but Verizon only offers up to 2Mbps here for $35+ and claims it's impossible to get faster speeds on DSL. They won't install FIOS because "nobody lives around here". We've had the tech out here a half dozen times to get our DSL up to 500Kbps.

Broadband in the United States is both pathetic and exorbitantly expensive. No matter what the techs do, it will not improve price/speed when the providers care more about their bottom lines than the customers.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-08-19 17:49
As a coda to this story, I discovered that problems with some (but not all) incoming CrashPlan backups turned out to be related to my new cable modem acting as a full router, thus causing my AirPort Extreme to report double NAT errors. Everything apart from CrashPlan worked fine, so it took some time to zero in on the problem. Once I realized, I was able to log into the modem and put it in bridge mode, so the AirPort Extreme handled all the NAT and DHCP work for my network again, and CrashPlan started working perfectly again.