[ISN] Glitches hit cable modem users

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Thu Dec 03 1998 - 18:42:28 PST

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    [Moderator: Talk about downplaying a concern. This sounds so innocent
     and non threatening: "the problem -- apparently caused by a subscriber's
     computer that misdirected other customers' traffic.." Can we say
     man-in-the-middle attack? Being able to sniff all the other subscribers
     in your neighborhood seems to be a bit more severe to me.]
    Wednesday, December 2, 1998
    San Jose Mercury News
    Glitches hit cable modem users
    Mercury News Staff Writer
    Two years into a new generation of high-speed Internet service, computer
    users in Fremont are discovering that there are potholes in the fast lane
    to the World Wide Web. 
    Fremont was the first community to get low-cost, blazingly fast
    connections from Tele-Communications Inc. and its affiliate @Home Corp. of
    Redwood City. But a combination of new speed limits and poor customer
    service has rankled many users, raising questions about the residential
    cable modem service TCI and @Home hope to offer throughout the Bay Area in
    the next two years.  @Home officials said the new limits don't affect the
    service's main attraction -- the ability to pull information off the Web
    at up to 20 times the speed of the fastest dial-up modem. But Mark
    Mangiola, @Home's vice president for operations, said the company may take
    over customer service duties from TCI in order to respond faster to
    problems on TCI's network. 
    @Home, which provides access to the Internet over lines owned by TCI and
    other cable companies, recently began clamping down on Internet junkies
    who were gobbling up an unusually large share of its network's capacity.
    That step, taken to manage @Home's rapid growth, was a reality check for
    users who treated @Home's $40-a-month service as an inexpensive way to
    telecommute, operate Web sites or distribute software. 
    Then dozens of Internet users in Fremont had their Web surfing slowed to a
    crawl by a network malfunction that lingered for more than two weeks.
    Subscribers say it has been the first major problem on the network, which
    is among the best-established and most popular of @Home's operations. 
    The problem -- apparently caused by a subscriber's computer that
    misdirected other customers' traffic -- has caused lengthy delays in
    displaying Web pages that used to arrive in a heartbeat. But @Home
    customers say they are more offended by their inability to get straight
    answers about the situation. 
    ``It's not so much that they're having a problem, it's that they haven't
    told us anything,'' said David M. Treacy of Warm Springs. ``They're
    falling down in an area that they can't afford to fall down. TCI does not
    have a very good name to begin with.''
    Officials at @Home and TCI acknowledged that they didn't keep customers
    well-enough informed. TCI spokesman Andrew C. Johnson suggested, however,
    that many of the people complaining were ``bandwidth hogs'' who violated
    the @Home service agreement. 
    Lesson: There are limits
    The lesson for current and future @Home customers is that while cable
    modems still provide a much speedier link to the Internet than the
    quickest dial-up modems, there are limits. ``Law and order just came to
    the wild, wild West,'' Johnson said. 
    The timing of the problem in Fremont, one of TCI's most advanced cable
    systems, is inauspicious for TCI and its would-be buyer, AT&T Corp. The
    two companies were planning to demonstrate local phone service over the
    Fremont cable network this month, offering proof of the merger's potential
    to a skeptical communications industry. 
    It's inopportune for @Home as well. Eager to be the dominant Internet
    service provider for the cable industry, the company announced Tuesday a
    new venture aimed at spreading @Home service to hundreds of smaller cable
    franchises, where it faces competition from companies such as ISP Channel
    of Mountain View. Analysts already predict that @Home will have 300,000
    users nationally at year's end, six times what it had at the end of 1997. 
    Complaint categories
    The complaints in Fremont appear to be rooted in three separate elements: 
    + Shared capacity. Unlike a dial-up connection to an Internet service
    provider, cable modems have to share capacity, or ``bandwidth,'' with
    other users in the customer's neighborhood. The more users who start
    pulling down Web pages, the more competition there will be for bandwidth,
    potentially lowering speeds. 
    The cable network's enormous capacity can handle far more average users
    than @Home has in Fremont or any other community with no significant loss
    in speed, said Tony Werner, a top TCI engineer.  But because the network
    allows individual users to take up as much of its capacity as they are
    capable of, someone who sends or receives a steady stream of big data
    files can pose a real problem. 
    That's why @Home forbids customers to turn the network into a launching
    pad for services to other computer users, such as providing games,
    delivering mail or shipping software. As part of its contract with TCI and
    other cable companies, it also has agreed not to allow users to watch
    video transmissions over the Internet for more than 10 minutes at a time
    -- a limit that it has never enforced. 
    TCI and @Home officials said that more than 100 Fremont subscribers, or 5
    to 10 percent of the users there, have been violating the rules. @Home is
    taking steps to identify abusers and bring them into compliance, spokesman
    Matt Wolfrom said. 
    In late October, the company also instituted a network-management system
    in Fremont that included a speed limit on data sent by users to the
    Internet. The limit -- about four times what the fastest dial-up modem can
    do -- slows down telecommuters and other users who try to transmit large
    The restriction rankled some customers, who said they signed up for the
    high-speed service not only for entertainment but also to help them work
    occasionally from home. Cari D. Burstein, who designs Web pages, said she
    would be happy to pay @Home more for a higher level of service, but the
    company doesn't offer such a thing to home users. 
    That's likely to change in the coming year as cable-modem equipment
    evolves. Wolfrom said @Home wants to provide different tiers of service
    with different prices and speed limits and usage restrictions. 
    Other problems
    + The AT&T telephone trial. TCI's Johnson said the company has been
    interrupting Internet service occasionally in the past month to prepare
    the network for a trial run of phone service with AT&T. The shutdowns have
    lasted only a few hours at a time, he said, but a subscriber who
    encountered more than one might think the network was slowing down. 
    + Misdirected data. In mid-November, Fremont subscribers began complaining
    about a near-complete loss of speed. While some said Web pages appeared at
    a molasseslike pace, others said they were totally cut off from the
    ``I cannot download my e-mail. I'm not able to access news groups. I'm not
    able to access Web pages,'' complained Ravi Sathyanarayana, a software
    Sathyanarayana said a TCI technician told him the problem should be fixed
    by the end of the week.  @Home officials said they believe the culprit was
    a customer's machine that sent bad routing instructions to the network. 
    That's a problem that can affect any shared network, and it's common
    enough that Sathyanarayana and other networking experts said it should not
    have taken @Home three weeks to fix it. Several @Home customers said they
    tried to alert the company to the problem and offer potential solutions
    but they were not taken seriously. 
    They also said TCI's technical support desk for @Home customers, which is
    in Colorado, offered inconsistent and inaccurate explanations. 
    ``The biggest problem is that the response you get from them is so
    erratic,'' Fremont subscriber Craig Cooksey said. ``You don't know whether
    they (the technical support people) genuinely don't know or if that's the
    company line they're supposed to give.''
    Added user Kevin Rodrigues: ``I would not be complaining as much if I had
    been put at the bottom of the ladder and gradually climbed up and saw
    speed increases. But instead, they started us all out with great speeds,
    and I feel like the ladder broke and I am standing on the ground.''
    Many satisfied
    Wolfrom said surveys show that most @Home customers are happy with their
    service. Still, he said the main challenge for the company in the coming
    year will be backing up its growth with the right level of customer
    ``It's a challenge for any growing company, especially a service
    company,'' he said, adding that ``we are making investments in that.''
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