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Choosing A Wireless Router

Last week the network dropped.  Again.   This was the 5th time in about a month that I lost all connectivity mid-session.  I was in the middle of pushing some web updates and, as usual,  Comcast left me hanging.   When I made my 10PM call to customer service I was met with one of the rudest know-it-all “customer disservice” people I ever encountered.   She argued with me about everything and told me I had no idea what I was talking about when I told her that rebooting my laptop would not get my cable modem to sync up with their head end router.   (I had checked the logs on the modem and it lost sync and the signal level was out of spec.)

Even though the Comcast Business Class service rep., who came out the next morning instead of THREE DAYS later as the “service rep” insisted was the ONLY option, was very helpful and knowledgeable ; the damage had been done.  I was sick of sudden drops, lag, and network throttling that Comcast insists they do not do.    It was time for a change.

What does this have with wireless routers?  We will get there in a minute… just bear with me.

Knology To The Rescue

Fast forward three weeks.  The Knology installation guy shows up at my house EARLY (take THAT Comcast), was courteous, professional, and *gasp* actually knowledgeable about his trade.     He tested the lines, replaced several faulty splitters that Comcast had installed and eventually got a perfectly clean signal at the modem connection point.    We connected the modem and had a great connection.   The 20M/2M service was actually pulling 27M/2M consistently with 0.0001% rate fluctuation.    This guy actually tested things after he installed (take THAT TOO Comcast).   Everything looked great.   Then all hell broke loose.

I HAD NO WIRELESS ROUTER!

My old Comcast modem had wireless.   The new Knology modem did not.

Setting Up My Wireless

I left the install connected to my wired hub and went to work.  While at the office I picked up a couple of pieces of wireless network equipment we had lying around that was no longer being used.   In the mix I had an old Netopia Wireless DSL modem, which can be used as a wireless access point if you disable the DSL port and a 2-year-old Belkin Wireless N router that was a $200 top-of-the-line unit back in the day.

When I got home the first thing I did was hook up the Belkin Wireless N.  I was connected within minutes.  However I did notice the network was lagging.    I attributed it to being on wireless and having several devices on the wireless network as well as the TiVo and DVD connected.     Then I started getting dropped connections. However this time the modem logs looked perfect.  NO errors, no sync problems no dropped connections there.     Eventually I narrowed down the problem.  It was the Belkin router.    It was getting all kinds of packet loss and transmission errors and was dropping a TON of packets with .190-199 in the last IP address octet.  Very odd.

I temporarily tried the Netopia Wireless but that is a simple A/B series wireless router.  It worked, but was very quickly saturated as soon as other devices came online.  It simply did not have the bandwidth over the wireless channels to get the job done with a tablet, 2 wireless phones, the VOIP hard line phone, 2 laptops, the TiVo and the DVD player.    It worked but was slow as heck at peak load.

I needed something better.

The Netgear Utopia

Netgear N600
Netgear N600

I did some homework and found several glowing reviews for the Netgear N600 series wireless N routers.   Since it was now Sunday and neither my Netopia DSL router or my Belking N router were up to task for a big marketing and site update project, I decided to shop local.   Turns out Walmart had the very router I was looking at AND it was a fair price.   Even with taxes it was within $5 of the Amazon pricing and was near or below most online competitors.

40 minutes later I had returned from Wally World with my new router (and a big-bag of M&Ms, a new garden hose, and 3 coloring books for my son… this is WHY you don’t go to Walmart to shop for “just a router”… dang impulse buys).      Within 15 minutes my new router was installed, fully configured to my liking with a new SSID and passwords, and was online.

HOLY SMOKES WAS THIS THING FAST!!!

I mean LIGHTNING FAST compared to ANYTHING I was using before.     I immediately saw my laptop speed tests pulling the full 27M/2M speeds we had seen with the wired test unit at the router.  This was with all the other network equipment still online.

Bad Communication = Slow Networks

After doing a good bit of testing, re-trying the Belkin, re-connecting the Comcast service (it was not turned off yet), and doing a bunch of general cross-checking and sanity tests it had become clear.    Choosing the right networking equipment is paramount to maintaining solid throughput to your desktop (or tablet) computers.  If any link in the chain is weak you will suffer.

The technical reasons for highly variant network performance has a lot to do with packet re-transmission.   To keep it somewhat less technical, think of it as a simple phone conversation where you MUST get every word right.   To do this you ask the other party to repeat every word they hear.   If they say a word incorrectly you repeat that word until they say it back correctly.    On a poor connection this may happen 3 or 4 times on every-other-word.   That can make for a VERRRRRYYYY long conversation.

In today’s networks a lot of things can go wrong to make your surfing destination and your computer “repeat the words” over & over again.   A wireless network often adds a lot more possibilities for interference.   For example, turning on the microwave oven, or a neighbor turning on their TV.    You don’t HEAR the interference, but your wireless network does.  Think of it like someone turning on a vacuum cleaner right next to you while you are doing the “repeat every word” conversation with your long distance friend.  You are likely not going to hear very well and be repeating a lot of words.

Erradicating Slow

In my case several things were causing problems.   The Comcast connection to my house is not very good which means the “volume” of the conversation is very inconsistent, too loud some moments, too soft at others.   Then the modem Comcast had was an old model that was very slow, think of it as if you had a semi-retarded phone operator in the middle trying to keep up with the “repeat the word” conversation and they just skip words when they fall behind.    The Belkin router refused to repeat any word with the “ch” sound in it, like a Chinese waiter mixing up L’s and R’s and you trying to guess what they really meant.     The Netopia DSL router was mostly just very retarded and easily distracted, barely being able to keep up with a slow deliberate conversation.

In the end I eliminated all the slow, retarded, missed-translation, volume related issues.    A tested solid clean connection with a modern high-speed modem from Knology connected directly to the Netgear N600 Wireless N Router keeps everything humming along.  The conversations are crystal clear and the Netgear N600 + Knology modem rarely, if ever, repeat a word.   A 2-minute conversation takes 2-minutes, not 20.    That translates into getting the full 20M (27M) /2M service all the way from “the Internet” straight into my wireless network.

Get The Best

In your network, choose the best equipment you can afford.   Read online reviews and select the RIGHT solution.   Higher price does not always mean better performance.    In my case the reviews proved out to be well founded and I too give the Netgear N600 (WNDR3400v2) 5-stars.

Netgear N900
Netgear N900

I liked the Netgear N600 so much I bought the “big brother” N900 (WNDR4500) for the office and I like that one EVEN better.  It too was quick to setup and improved network performance.  It also gave us the ability to quickly and easily turn a USB drive into a network share and turn my old Brother MFC-4800 laser (another great piece of equipment, by the way) printer/scanner into a network printer/scanner within minutes and with one quick/simple applet install on our Windows and Mac computers.

If you are in the market for a wireless router I highly recommend the Netgear N600 and N900 routers.

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Is Comcast Playing “Big Brother” With Your Internet?

The Symptom

This morning I spent over an hour trying to publish a new update of Store Locator Plus to the public WordPress extensions directory.   It failed, multiple times.  I assumed it was something wrong with our repository so I decided to move on to something else until the remote server was fixed.

My next task was to get the WordPress language translation tools into my dev kit so we can start providing better international support.  I decided to fetch the latest language dev kit with subversion via the standard checkout:

svn co http://svn.automattic.com/wordpress-i18n/tools/trunk/

 

Here are a couple of the many failure messages I received back after about 10 minutes:

svn: PROPFIND of '/wordpress-i18n/tools/trunk': could not connect to server (http://svn.automattic.com)
svn: PROPFIND of '/wordpress-i18n/!svn/vcc/default': could not connect to server (http://svn.automattic.com)

 

My first assumption was that my virtual machine was having network issues.  I reset the network, then shut down & restarted the virtual machine.  No luck.   I then tried directly from the host.  Again no luck.  I decided to go to the office and try it from there.  Maybe my modem or router at the house was causing issues.

A Clue

I get to the office and try again.  Same problems.    Odd, more Googling was in my future.   After reading a lot of articles about proxy servers with svn (I don’t use a proxy) and doing all the “svn tricks” I know and that I could dig up online, I stumbled across an interesting post at Stack Overflow.  This is what caught my attention:

Update

I had a co-worker test this out on his home connection — he uses Comcast as well. He got the same error as I did. So it appears to be some Comcast-related issue specific to the WordPress svn repository. I was able to checkout other public repositories via http (e.g. from Google Code) just fine.

Huh, that’s interesting.  I too could use SVN with a variety of other services.  I also was using Comcast at the home office and on one-half of the network at the corporate office.   So I decided to try a couple of things.

The Test

First, shut off the Comcast connection at the office and force my system to connect via the T1. Guess, what?  It worked.  The repo was cloned immediately.

Interesting.   Second test, log in to our server in Michigan on multiple backbones, NONE of which are on Comcast.   Hey, look at that… it worked immediately as well.

Back to the office services.  Turn off the T1, turn on just Comcast.  Instant fail.   Well not instant, it waits for about 5 minutes then fails.

Bandwidth Caps

In addition to the failure to pull subversion content directly from the WordPress IP addresses, we have also found several other interesting things about Comcast Business Class Internet.   Comcast is billing us for 50Mbps/10Mbps speeds at both my home office and our corporate office locations.  We have NEVER been able to get anything close to that at either location.  Our download speeds always seem to max out around 20Mbps/4Mbps at home and 26Mbps/6Mbps at the office.

Today, in an effort to understand what may be going on, we ran ShaperProbe from GA Tech.   It turns out that at my home office we are dropping so many upload packets that many tools, including ShaperProbe fail.   We also learned the Comcast is THROTTLING the incoming bandwidth at the home office to 17Mbps, less than HALF the 50Mbps promised and paid for.   This is one method used to ensure all users have some bandwidth when they oversell a neighborhood.   Ouch.

Comcast Traffic Shaping Test
Comcast Traffic Shaping Test

Comcast Speed Test Results

After the “network improvement” work that Comcast did this week our Corporate line is now crawling at 1/10th the advertised download rate.    We are able to receive our packets from WordPress, but now we can’t get more than a handful of simple transfers going at the same time.

Comcast Speed Test December 2011
Comcast Speed Test December 2011

 

Comcast Fails

I am still doing research on this issue and will post updates here.  However it is very obvious from the initial tests that Comcast is doing some sort of traffic shaping or other network manipulation on their business class services and it is “breaking the Internet”.

I’ll try contacting them, but I am 99.999% certain that whomever I get ahold of will be clueless.  They usually are.    In fact I bet the first thing they ask me to do is reboot my computer, then turn off the modem.  Then they’ll bounce the modem remotely.

We have called Comcast Business services and we are quite shocked to have reached Terry at Business Class Services.  She actually emailed us and is escalating the problem to a higher level tech and is going to chase this down for us today, on a Saturday of all days.   Wow.  That was surprising!  Now lets all pray for some results as doing this proxy thing is a pain!

Reaching Comcast

http://business.comcast.com/smb/contact

Business Customer Service:  (800) 391-3000

Residential Customer Service: (800) 266-2278

In the meantime if you are having the same issues with Comcast please share.   Especially if you found a viable workaround to the issue.

Tracking The Issue

Here are some related articles we’ve dug up about this issue:

 

Update

 

12/17/2011 03:45 EST
Comcast has found a routing issue and is working on it.  We’ll see what happens.

 

12/17/2011 04:15 EST
Comcast claims the routing is fine.  The problem, they claim, is on the WordPress servers.   I made it clear via email this is not the case.    The service works 100% fine when I switch all routing to/from the wordpress.org or automattic.com domains to go over the Windstream T1 v. Comcast business service.   Looks like they couldn’t find a quick/easy answer and are back to their lame excuses and passing-the-buck.

 

12/18/2011 01:05AM EST
Comcast reps never pinged me back before they left for the day (10PM) as promised.   Not surprised about that.   “Dave”, the level 2 tech, said it is not a Comcast problem and that was that.  Bah.  Time to ratchet it up a notch.

 

12/21/2011 10:03AM EST
Nobody ever called back or emailed us about this issue.   We did receive two automated calls the past 2 days in a row that our service would be offline from midnight until 5AM for “network improvement
work.    This morning our WordPress packets are now arriving intact.   Slow as can be though.  Our 50M/10M line is now clocking in at 5M/5M as noted by Comcast Speed Test.

 

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Charleston High Speed Internet – Part 2.5a

A client told me tonight that they are switching Internet Service Providers in Charleston.  They are dumping Windstream because they had been “been bundling 2-T1’s into one and calling it two” and replacing them with DeltaCom because they had a 4.5M Internet service. Yikes!  DeltaCom scares me. They almost killed my last company with a 10 day outage on my primary redundant T1 lines, but that is another story.   The interesting part is that they are pretending they are even selling something different at all.

Bundled T1s

As for Windstream bundling 2 T1s, that is how it works until you get to a higher class service.    It is called bonded T’s and is the only option for data services over copper wire until you get up to something like DS3 (45M).   I’m curious what DeltaCom is providing.  I’m certain it is bonded T1s exactly like Windstream, they are just giving it a new name.  They’ve just added another T1 to the bonding group (each T1 is 1.5M), which any T1 provider can do.  In fact in the good ‘ol days… literally over a decade ago, that is how you got “big fast Internet”.  You just kept adding 1.5M chunks of T1 until you used up the entire telco bundle coming down your street.   These days real cities offer fiber everywhere and the few places without use cable so this sort of thing is rare.

Charleston Area ISPs

I’m sure it will work out fine for my client, but these data communications providers in Charleston really irk me.    I am somewhat knowledgeable about this stuff & they still try to convince me how their subpar & overpriced service is “different”.    T1 services are nearly 50 years old and survives only by government mandate & scare tactics of “ohh…. only T1 is truly reliable” (true in 2001, not true in 2011).   And the fact that all the big telcos have billions invested in that infrastructure that they still need to recoup.   Selling old crappy services for 10x what they are worth really aggravates me.  Especially when I know how arbitrary the whole price model is from the bottom up through the incumbent carrier and the competitive local exchange carriers.    Even more aggravating is that bad overpriced Internet services affects everyone these days, especially my client base, and we have so few choices in Charleston right now.

Internet service in Charleston is horrible compared to “big boy towns”.   When we moved into Wando Park we only had DSL (unreliable and slow) or T1 available, which is why I had numerous discussions with the town, Comcast, Knology, and AT&T about pulling fiber or cable to our area last summer.  When everyone started saying “not enough interest in that area of town”, I actually looked into getting VC funding for deploying WiMAX in small cities. WiMAX is basically a big bad-ass wireless router that covers an entire section of town (11 miles+) with 100Mbps service.   No more wires & true high speed everywhere.

On a bright note, there is progress in Charleston with general connectivity if not on the pricing front.  In the past 12 months we’ve gone from having DSL (copper pair) and T1 (expensive copper pair) to also having business class cable Internet at the office park.  At my home, just 6 miles away, we have gone from DSL and a single cable provider to having TWO cable providers on the same street and there is even rumor that the new provider (Knology) pulled fiber alongside that new cable line this past fall.   Can we possibly have the option of Knology’s FIOS eqiuvalent service in a Charleston neighborhood before 2020?

Copper Lines? It’s The Second Decade Of the New Millenium!

Can you tell this stuff gets me going?   Damn Internet Service companies!

I only hope my customer doesn’t get bamboozled into signing a typical 3-year contract for 4.5M internet at $800/month.   The fact that anyone is even allowed to still sell that kind of service going into the 2nd decade of the new millenium is truly sad.