Hardware Software

Debugging Poor Internet Service at Home

From March 2020 to the present I have worked from home; I am fortunate that my company allows me such freedom. I am interested in returning to the office next year but I enjoy knowing that I can work from home fairly efficiently and that my company invested in their infrastructure to facilitate a mass migration from the office to almost entire WFH overnight. My home Internet access, powered by Comcast Xfinity, and my personal computer needed upgrades though to reach the level of performance I required to do my job (more on my desktop computer in a future post). Prior to Covid-19, my home network was not slouch, but I honestly didn’t use it except nights and weekends. Middling performance was sort-of ok — I mean it wasn’t but I’m not going to call Comcast to complain if my Internet drops occasionally. Raw network speed is important but stability is the most important factor. If I’m on a call with my supervisor (or a team meeting), I don’t want the Zoom call to hang or drop. This adds a level of stress on me as my home Internet connection is now a requirement for not only me working from home but also my daughter completing her school-work.

Let me first define what a poor Internet connection looks and feels like. As I mentioned, I have a Comcast Xfinity Cable Internet connection; specifically I have the Performance Plus package which is 600 Mb down and 20 Mb up (notice the little b in that statement). Megabits stands for a million bits (a one or a zero) and it’s a common trick that network service providers play. A byte is 8 bits, bytes are what file sizes are measured in. The large Megabit number feels impressive but btyes are a better measure of file transfer speed and usage. Honestly though, it doesn’t matter as long as you know what you need and most importantly you don’t overpay for bandwidth you don’t know or vice versa. Comcast offers a Gigabit internet connection for a bit more money each month; I’m not going to bite at that until I can prove that my issues/limitations are caused by the bandwidth cap and not some other weak link in the chain (you are only as fast as the slowest link in the proverbial network chain).

Remember that scene in “The Matrix” where Neo swallows the blue pill? You may ask, which Matrix movie which I would respond “There is only one Matrix movie”, but I digress…. You know that sound that is made when Neo swallows the pill, it is a very distinct sound of stuttering audio. That is the sound that Zoom (or other video conferencing apps) make audio or video lags. This sound kills a meeting and impacts your ability to WFH. A more nefarious version of this issue is when the Audio/Video of a Zoom call is coming in fine for you since the download speed is typically much higher bandwidth but your meeting recipients see a stuttering mess when it comes to your audio/video feed. That stuttering audio sound should be familiar to many as it’s the result of poor Internet connection. There can be many reasons for this sound and we’ll go through them one by one to triage the problem.

Step 1: Call Comcast and Complain

If you are a technical person and you know a bit about computers and networking, this is going to be the hardest step. Calling the 800 number can be a frustrating experience for technical-minded individuals. Please remember to be courteous and kind to those who answer the phone. They must run thru their approved script of troubleshooting activities and mostly they speak to non-technically minded individuals — so cut them some slack! Your conversation will always start with, “Let’s reboot your cable modem to see if that fixes the issue”. I’m sure in many cases that would do the trick, but we (my cultured friends) are technically minded and we’ve already done that step. They will send a signal to your cable modem to assess connectivity and reboot as needed. I have not seen this script but it seems a required step before they move on to other steps. Every call or conversation starts with, “can we reboot your cable modem Mr./Mrs <insert your name>?” or the familiar question of “Is your computer directly connected to the cable modem?”. If you own your own WiFi router, Comcast doesn’t want to spend tech time debugging issues with your hardware. They will suggest you connect directly to the cable modem to cut out the middle-man. You should humor them as ultimately you want to show the problem of poor internet performance is repeatable when you are directly connected to the cable modem and therefore the root cause of the problem isn’t your WiFi router. As you progress through the scripted questions, where you want to end up is “We will schedule a technician to visit your residence.”

Step 1a: Repeat calls or Power issues

Don’t laugh. I literally had to have repeat calls with Comcast to investigate the issue. They would attempt to “flash” my modem or “send a signal” to my modem to correct the problem. I have no idea what they did in these situations but it generally meant you had to end the call and monitor performance for a few days and call back if there was a repeat. On one call I got a tech who asked me if I had a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) connected to my Cable Modem and my WiFi router. I replied no which was the honest truth; I’d always had been thinking of getting one but I hadn’t yet. The tech explained that power fluctuations can result in cable modem issues and recommend I install a UPS. I did as was told and purchased an APC Back-UPS NS 1250 (used) from Goodwill for like $30 USD. The batteries were of course spent on the unit I received so I purchased new batteries online for approx $45 USD. The unit has a nice LCD display and it “cleans” the power signal to your sensitive electronics as well as providing a short term battery backup in case of power issues. This did not resolve my issue and I had to call back after the UPS was installed and the issue reoccurred. Keep pushing for a tech to visit your house…

Step 2: Tech Visit – Part 1

Comcast techs are in a separate division from the customer support team and therefore can only see details that are documented in problem tickets or cases. It’s important to have the customer support representative and/or the Comcast technician to document the issue thoroughly in the ticket for improved hand off between teams. The first Comcast tech arrived in the early Summer and after some quick checks in my backyard, he diagnosed that my cable line from my access point on my house to the demarcation point in my back yard had to be redone. I suppose my dogs had dug a portion of the cable up and compromised the copper wire and shielding. He reran the cable in less than an hour but the cable was laying on top of the grass in the backyard. He explained that another person would contact me in a few days to come and dig a trench for the cable and shield it in protective PVC. This was hot, sweaty work in the middle of Summer and I’m thankful for their service. Now that the wire was safely in the ground, I was sure this would resolve my poor Internet performance issues. It did not… I mean I’m sure it resolved some issues but it didn’t resolve “the” issue.