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High-Speed Internet Access.
February 23, 2001.
It's a long one this week, folks, but I hope you enjoy this article put together by Mike and Craig. Please see my closing remarks below the article for an important announcement about future Friday Features. Thanks.
High-Speed Internet Access
By Michael Hora and Craig Hartnett (firstname.lastname@example.org)
High-speed Internet access. Who really wants it? Hundred of thousands of Canadians, that's who. Is it worth it? The headaches I mean, not the monetary price. If you've heard of the @Home cable Internet service (run by Rogers and Shaw in Canada), then you've probably heard people say that it seems to be down more than it's up. On the other hand, the few people I know who use independently-run cable Internet services (Delta Cable in British Columbia is an example) don't seem to have any of the problems associated with the @Home service. However, chances are that the area in which you live is probably monopolized by either Shaw or Rogers.
Are there alternatives to the cable monopoly? Of course! There's the telephone company monopoly. Up until the last couple of years cable service was about the only high-speed Internet service priced for consumers and small businesses. ISDN (glossary at the end) isn't really "high-speed" (it's only twice the speed of a 56 kbps modem) and T1 lines cost thousands of dollars per month. With the relatively recent proliferation of ADSL, demand has outstripped supply, resulting in waiting lists months long in some parts of the country... if your area is serviced at all. The "telephone company monopoly" tag isn't 100 percent true though (unlike the cable monopoly) -- you can buy ADSL access through many ISPs. However, these ISPs are just buying the telephone companies' lines -- for the most part they are not building their own facilities -- and you may be paying a premium with them since the telephone companies control the price.
Cable Internet Access
Let's start by looking at the situation with the @Home cable service. Both John and Mike are former Rogers @Home customers -- Craig simply refuses to stoop to doing business with any of the Rogers companies. It comes as no surprise to any of the unhappy victims of the corporate bunglers who provide cable Internet access that the service stinks and finally the CEOs of the two major offenders, Shaw and Rogers, have admitted it. They gave up the ghost weeks ago.
Brad Shaw, operations vice-president for Shaw Systems, said that his customers were finding it almost impossible to obtain support from the technicians at the company's help desk. He puts the blame squarely onto the lap of the system they inherited from Rogers. The system they are using originates from Ottawa and is owned by a subcontractor originally brought on board by Rogers. The close to 600 000 customers that Shaw has in the Pacific region, roughly equal to the amount they gave over to Rogers in their east/west swap, will have to wait until at least the end of February, according to Shaw, for proper service levels to be available. This new service level that, according to Shaw, will deliver superior access will be Vancouver-based and at its optimum have 140 employees. There are, however, some problems at the recruiting end and Shaw is having trouble finding the skilled workers needed. The 140 will be about double what Rogers had provided at its Ottawa location.
In defence of the situation, and leaning toward the Shaw line, is customer service advocate Ken Moren, the BC representative of the consumer watchdog group Rogers @Home Users Association (RHUA). He feels that the West Coast users have the best of the situation and should be well off after everything shakes out. "I think Shaw is quite right at laying the blame at the feet of Rogers," he said. Rogers, he went on to say, is the author of its own misfortunes by staying with the congested US-based @Home, network while Shaw is determined that it will build its own platform from which to service its customers. "And, as Rogers contracted out its services to the lowest bidder," he said, "it's getting exactly what it paid for." Rogers chief executive, John Tory, on January 19, 2001, said, "The company's performance was unacceptable." He didn't say when he expected the service levels to be corrected after saying they would take the necessary steps to bring it up to par.
In a separate filing it was revealed that the Rogers group also intends to build its own network to replace the existing @Home one from the US that they use, although Shaw has offered to allow Rogers the ability to rent space from their new system. No comment from Rogers on the offer. John Tory, in admitting that the outages experienced by his company's customers were the fault of the service provider, said that he has taken steps to correct the situation. "I've written them a very stern letter telling them that we don't find the recent problems acceptable," he said. "I consider myself a customer of theirs as well." He's not alone either. Between January 16 and 18 over 20 000 @Home customers were unable to access the network due to system-wide glitches. This should provide Ted Rogers, the owner of Rogers, with no comfort. Rogers, a big booster of the @Home service, owned about two million shares in the company. Ironically, according to a January 19 news release from Washington DC-based Bloomberg News Services, Rogers has since sold all of his @Home shares. Was it a profitable flip? No -- the media magnate lost about $32 million. You think you're not happy!
Mark O'Leary, vice-president of @Home Service's Business Networking Solutions in Redwood City, California, USA, said that it was not his company's fault that service went down for Rogers. He did admit that they had experienced difficulties in their e-mail services and that it would be rectified within 30 days, at which time it would be "bulletproof". "I'll stack my stats against theirs anytime," he said. He did admit that there have been problems in maintaining a dialogue between the two companies.
With all of the negative publicity surrounding the @Home service (there are plenty of links to news stories on the RHUA site under the "Latest News" link), how many customers are jumping ship? Who knows? Not many companies issue press releases detailing such expressions of customer dissatisfaction. Somebody out there must be satisfied with their service. One who was not is John MacDonald, the chief writer at FactsCanada.ca. John jumped on the consumer / small business high-speed bandwagon early, and was a loyal Rogers @Home customer until last year when Telus ADSL became available in his area. Then he was more than happy to jump off the bandwagon.
Starting in 1999 for John it was not unusual for the Rogers system to be down for days at a time, and not just once or twice. Sometimes it was just the e-mail, sometimes just Web access and usually both. The stake through the heart of any loyalty John might have felt to Rogers came when he moved from Vancouver, BC, to Surrey, BC (which is, for all intents and purposes, a suburb of Vancouver). Rogers cancelled his e-mail account for the period between when his access in Vancouver was cancelled and finally reinstated in Surrey. This was nothing short of a shock to John, who didn't realise until too late that all of his personal and business e-mail (as well as various subscriptions) would all bounce back to the senders during the move, leaving them wondering where John went and why he didn't inform them of a change of address. He had to contract e-mail service from a third party (at a not inconsiderable expense to him) to survive until Rogers saw fit to reinstate his account. Their excuse? When people move their e-mail accounts tend to fill up. That certainly may be the case, but why not let it fill up and then start bouncing mail? Maybe the customer is actually intelligent enough to tell their e-mail contacts to hold off on the feature-length movie files they were planning to send. John was finally reconnected after no less than two visits by the Rogers technicians.
Rogers will not apply credits to accounts unless specifically supplicated to do so. This you have to do by telephone. If you're a Rogers customer, you're rolling on the floor right about now. You had better bring a book, lunch and dinner to the phone, because you're going to be there a while. If you're lucky, your Internet access is working and you can actually do that while you're waiting. John decided his time was worth more than that and never bothered. Besides, a log book of all the outages would be quickly filled up, and Rogers would have to either set up a special refund department, or just stop giving them. (According to the RHUA, the latter is the course of inaction that Rogers has recently chosen to follow.)
Mike's brief experience with Rogers, and the system Shaw inherited from Rogers, was not any better. In fact, he terminated that painful relationship this week. He has gone back to dial-up access. That in itself should speak volumes.
All is not well in Mr. Roger's neighbourhood. As Chris Weisdorf, president of the RHUA said, "This is potentially the worst thing to hit Rogers since the introduction of his negative billing scheme." (See comment above about Craig's refusal to do business with Rogers.)
Some of this begs the question: "Is there an inherent problem with Internet access over the coaxial cable traditionally used to deliver television?" The thought hadn't actually crossed my mind, as it doesn't make sense from a technological point of view, although in the early days there were some security concerns which have since been cleared up. The answer is no. The ongoing problems experienced by @Home are the result of unexpected demand and an inadequate network and server set-up, according to John Thomas at Delta Cable, whose independent DCCNET high-speed, cable Internet service doesn't appear to suffer from any of the woes afflicting @Home. Delta Cable initially considered signing on with @Home, but "felt that the fees they wanted and the control they wished to exercise over our activities were much too onerous." He continues: "We believed that we could do as well with our own upstream provider and standard content providers. We have not regretted our decision at any time." Considering the press @Home continues to get, I don't doubt that last statement for a second.
ADSL Internet Access
"Telus high-speed Internet service will be available in your neighbourhood in approximately 90 days." I shook my head. The mailer I had just opened came within days of my most recent and seemingly continual service outages courtesy of Rogers/Shaw. At this point it is hard to pick between the two -- it seems that they are as much to blame as the other. After all, they are both using (until Shaw gets up and running with its own infrastructure) the @Home platform out of Redwood City, California. Now that Ted Rogers has divested himself of a couple of million shares in the company I think you are going to see a real shake-out in the company. Cheeky ol' Shaw had the gall to offer Teddy-boy a chance to rent some space on their almost, as they say, ready to go server platform.
So, here I am. I am a little ticked off at what I am forced to operate under and I feel that I do not have a chance to acquire adequate recompense from the monopoly that serves my area. What can I do? Well, for starters, there is the CRTC. It may well not have a good and viable policy as relates to the Internet, but I'll bet my bottom dollar that the heads in Ottawa are starting to turn. They may be slow but once in motion, bureaucracy is almost unstoppable.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Telus. Then what came as an insert in my local rag but a bright and glossy flyer from Telus. This was another insult. They are spending muchos dineros to preach to an audience that cannot access their product. Don't they understand what sort of angst this is causing? I have resisted the blandishments of their competitors for years in the case of phone service -- I wouldn't switch just to make Murphy Brown smile nor would I consider doing it just to hear a pin drop. I just want steady and dependable service. That's all! Anyway, here is the latest missive received from Shaw/Rogers or whoever is running the show in Richmond, BC, these days. This one, too precious by half, was waiting for me as I settled in after coming home from a stressful day at the office. I'd like to share it with you:
Subject: Internet Upgrades in the Richmond Area
Dear Shaw customers,
We would like to take a brief moment to welcome you to Shaw high-speed Internet. For a Chinese version of this notification, please visit blah blah blah blah. We will be completing upgrades in your area on Thursday February 8, 2001, (4:00 am to 6:00 am) to improve your service as part of Shaw's commitment to ensuring a high-quality Internet experience.
When my service went down, not hours later, I almost cried. I don't like to pick on just one thing and, heaven help me, I am far from being a bully but... there is just one target out there. To add insult to injury, when I do need to contact them, such as when there is a service interruption, they supply an e-mail address!
The company line from Telus on the waiting list for an ADSL port in your area is that they are busy building facilities. Any further probing of the issue with a lowly customer service representative is met with stony silence. Craig shuffled to the end of the queue in Richmond on June 12, 2000. The people in the Telus marketing department are pros: "We are pleased to inform you that your residence falls within our current service area for telus.net High Speed Internet. [Yipee!] As there has been an overwhelming demand for our service, we are in the midst of building additional facilities in your area. While it is impossible to provide you with the exact date that facilities will be ready, your request will remain on our pre-qualified list and we will ensure you are notified immediately when the service is once again available." A remarkable piece of work, worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature. First it says that you qualify, then it says you don't -- Telus giveth and Telus taketh away. On February 2, 2001, eight months later: "telus.net is pleased to announce our High Speed Internet is now available in your area neighbourhood. According to our records, you requested to be contacted when High Speed service was available." Craig couldn't get to the phone fast enough.
Is eight months the norm? This question was posed to Doug Strachan, the director of external communications for Telus. He readily admitted that eight months is not unusual, although strangely enough he didn't offer any information on the most patient Telus ADSL customer. A November 2000 press release from Telus contains a lot of interesting numbers. (See John's commentary on statistics in issue 2001-03Su at this link.) The most interesting is that they have committed $500 million over the next five years to making ADSL available to about 70 percent of consumers and businesses across BC and Alberta, with 40 percent of the investment and work to take place before the end of 2001. The burning question in my mind is that, if the demand is so great and there are so many people just dying to give Telus $40 every month, why spread it out over five years? Perhaps I should have taken that second economics course in college after all.
Some Technological Asides
Although the cable companies like to tell you that their service is much faster than ADSL, the truth is that, for the most part, it isn't. Nor is it slower. There are two reasons for this: The first is that the numbers they throw at you are obtained under ideal conditions. Is your neighbour downloading the Library of Congress, or are ten of your neighbours relaxing in front of the computer after dinner? Your speed just went down. The second reason is that much of the time taken to connect to Web sites is taken up by your computer finding the Web site, introducing itself to the Web site, agreeing on a common language, and then downloading the necessary files to display a Web page. This communication process is not sped up no matter what kind of connection you have to the Internet, simply because most of it is taking place "out there", not in the wire between your computer and the wall. Where cable will beat ADSL is on big downloads (did somebody say "Windows Update"?). In such situations the routine of establishing communications is only a small percentage of the entire transaction, as opposed to the relatively small download of a single Web page. Once the link is established, that 50 MB download will zip in a lot faster over cable than ADSL -- again assuming your neighbour hasn't found the mother lode of free XXX videos at the same time.
Ever wonder what a traffic jam on the information super-highway looks like? Craig knows. As the owner of NinerNet Communications, I operate my own mail server for myself and my clients. Without wanting to raise any privacy concerns here (because there are none), I have to have the ability to monitor the flow of traffic on my server to ensure that it is operating properly, and not acting as a bottle neck to the flow of information. Below is the output of a check on the status of e-mail being delivered through the niner.net mail server (non-FactsCanada.ca staff e-mail addresses have been x'ed out for privacy reasons):
Mail Queue (7 requests) --Q-ID-- --Size-- -----Q-Time----- ------------Sender/Recipient----- WAA17565 3590 Wed Feb 7 22:21 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Connection refused by mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org> VAA12659 2911 Wed Feb 7 21:57 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Connection refused by mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org> WAA14121 3230 Wed Feb 7 22:03 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Connection refused by mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org> WAA13347 1321 Wed Feb 7 22:00 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Connection refused by mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org> TAA12490 2946 Wed Feb 7 19:41 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Connection refused by mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org> SAA23751 19461 Wed Feb 7 18:19 <email@example.com> (Warning: could not send message for past 4 hours) <firstname.lastname@example.org> OAA00164 1971 Mon Feb 5 14:18 <email@example.com> (Deferred: Operation timed out with mx-d-rwc.mail.home.com.) <firstname.lastname@example.org>What does this tell you? It means that the @Home mail servers are down again, and e-mail is backed up on my server waiting for them to come back on-line. This is the equivalent of the post office in Halifax (@Home) telling the post office in Vancouver (NinerNet) not to send any more mail for now, as they can't handle what they already have. Everyone suffers and the niner.net mail server has to deal with the problem by holding all mail and trying to resend every few minutes. So much for "bulletproof" e-mail!
Does all this make you want to return to the good old days of hand-written letters and dealing with people at the neighbourhood store in person or on the telephone? Me too. It would be nice if one could make a decision between two competing technologies based on their "all things being equal" merits. However, the fact is that, on the one hand, we have the large cable monopolies which simply can't seem to get it right -- on the other hand we have the telephone company monopolies who can't seem to build new facilities fast enough. Which do you choose?
For the most part this depends on where you live. If you have cable television, you are probably a phone call away from having high-speed Internet access. In more remote areas you're probably out of luck with both ADSL and cable, but you'd know that better than I by looking at the wires emanating from the back of your TV (as far as cable is concerned) or calling the telephone company yourself. If you're living in an area serviced by Rogers or Shaw, forcing you to use the @Home system, I'd run like hell to the telephone company to see if you can get ADSL. If you can't, or can't right away, and you decide to get cable, I'd strongly recommend maintaining a dial-up account of some sort (either a free one or the cheapest package available with just a few hours access per month) as a back up if you really can't go without any access for days on end. I would also use a non-@Home e-mail address. There are countless sites on the Internet to get free e-mail addresses (does FactsCanada.ca ring a bell?), or even ones that charge a paltry $5 per month. If you live in an area serviced by an independent cable operator not using the @Home system, that might be your better bet, especially if ADSL is not available there. However, you might want to quiz them on their commitment to ensuring that they "segment their systems to ensure that customer service levels are maintained within reasonable limits", according to John Thomas of Delta Cable. This means that they shouldn't put too many cable Internet customers on the same connection, otherwise your speed will definitely suffer.
Is high-speed Internet access worth the headaches? Headaches are not guaranteed with high-speed Internet access, nor are you guaranteed not to have any headaches. Such is life in the high-tech world in which we live. However, by carefully evaluating the information available to you in this article and others before picking a service provider, you can go a long way towards leaving that bottle of Tylenol 3 in the medicine cabinet.
While it is not absolutely necessary to know the precise definition and technology behind every wonderful acronym in the computer industry, it does help to have some background.
ADSL -- Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line. A high-speed Internet connection through your phone line that is connected all the time and does not interfere with the use of your telephone.
Bit -- All information used by computers is made up of zeroes and ones (called the "binary" system). A single 0 or a single 1 is a single bit.
Byte -- A single piece of information, usually used in reference to memory. The letter "a" constitutes a single byte, the word "byte" consists of four bytes. There are eight bits in a byte.
Cable -- The coaxial cable traditionally used to deliver cable television, but now also used for high-speed Internet connections.
Glossary -- A list of definitions that starts out with just a few entries, but quickly grows as you have to define words used to define the words in the original list.
ISDN -- Integrated Services Digital Network. A "medium-speed" Internet connection through your phone line that may or may not be connected all the time.
ISP -- Internet Service Provider. Some have forgotten the "service" portion of this tag.
kbps -- Kilobits per second. A measure of the data transfer rate capability of a modem. A "56k" modem can (theoretically) transmit and receive at a rate of 56 000 bits per second. In reality this is not the case, but this is beyond the scope of this article.
LAN -- Local Area Network. A network of computers in a small area such as a home, office or building.
MB -- Megabyte (1000 bytes).
T1 -- A high-speed connection, traditionally used in the data world to connect two geographically distant LANs. Available through ISPs and telephone companies.
== PREVIEW ==
On Sunday (this is a recording) I educate you on some Nova Scotia lingo, cover the life of Edmund Harry Botterell, tell you about the Shaw Festival (not related to Shaw high-speed Internet service!), tell you how Twiggly Wiggly Road got its name (I'm not making this up, honest), and provide an addendum to Billy Bishop's biography from a couple of weeks ago.
I must inform you of a change we were not expecting to make around here. One of the three integral members of our group, Michael B. Hora, has been forced to resign from FactsCanada.ca due to health reasons. Craig and I have known Mike on and off for almost 15 years now, and between the three of us we decided last year that this would be a great venture for us to pursue together, each of us bringing specific talents necessary to make a go of it. As is outlined on our home page, a number of factors combined to result in the birth of the Friday Feature (which you have just read). Chief among these was that most of the Friday Features were to be authored by Mike in his unique style. Mike has done a great job, and the results are all archived on our site for you to read if you haven't been with us since day one.
With Mike's departure, and the fact that Craig and I are already over-committed in our respective lives, we will most likely suspend the Friday Feature for the foreseeable future after our current supply of articles dries up. The simple fact is that we would rather bring you one well-written newsletter every week, than two poorly-written ones. There is the possibility we will do a feature article once a month, but this decision has yet to be made.
We have occasionally published articles by guest authors, and will continue to do so in the Sunday Newsletter. We may even consider a Friday Feature wholly based on guest submissions for the time being. If this interests you, please review our mission statement at this link and contact me at email@example.com. The only caveat is that any articles so submitted would benefit the authors only by the intrinsic satisfaction achieved, and the exposure they would get through our mailing lists and on our Web site. Until Craig and I recover our initial investment of thousands of dollars and hours, we simply cannot consider payment for articles.
I will make this announcement again on Sunday, as we do have some subscribers who subscribe to one newsletter and not the other.
Please feel free to send any greetings or wishes for Mike to firstname.lastname@example.org. These will be forwarded to me and I will pass them along to Mike personally.
== LINKS AND RESOURCES ==
FactsCanada.ca -- http://www.factscanada.ca
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