Angst over internet speeds

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Oh, internet connection, how do they hate thee?

Let them count the ways.

When The Berkshire Eagle asked readers to test their internet speeds and share results, more than 400 responded.

Their reports, in this anecdotal, unscientific survey, offer a glimpse into the state of internet service in the Berkshires, from veteran cable communities like North Adams and Pittsfield to small towns still waiting for broadband to arrive and heal the "digital divide."

"Satisfied with my internet speed," wrote a reader in Richmond whose test proved better than the federal definition of broadband of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for download and 3 for upload.

Peter Schermerhorn in Hinsdale endured a dial-up connection for 18 years. He reports an impressive download speed now of 65 Mbps, after getting a Time Warner / Spectrum upgrade to fiber a few weeks ago. "I love it," he said.

In West Stockbridge, Alan Thiel also logged a download speed of 65.2 Mbps and said things have "been great" since August, when he got new service from Charter. Another West Stockbridge customer, Dorian Held, reported a nearly identical speed, 66.3 Mbps.

But those sentiments were the exceptions in The Eagle's survey, as report after report included tortured testimony of buffering video and lost connections.

"It is slow and getting slower," wrote Bob Rosen, who pays for Verizon's DSL service in Otis. "Many times it just says, 'not responding.'"

"I have chronically unreliable internet service which varies from minute to minute from erratic to totally unavailable," said Carl Shuster of Stockbridge, a customer of Time Warner/Spectrum.

As they filed their speed reports, many questioned whether they are getting the service they are paying for. Others pleaded for progress in bringing broadband to unserved communities.

"I pay for the 'above average' internet speed and get substandard speeds," one Time Warner / Spectrum customer said.

"Our service has been getting slower, with more interruptions, every year," a cable customer in North Adams said. "But the price keeps inching up."

DSL ANGST

People in towns without cable systems used to count themselves lucky to be within reach of Verizon's DSL service. When the company began offering the service, promising download speeds of 3 Mbps, that was more than 50 times faster than speeds on dial-up connections.

Douglas Mcnally of Windsor, a member of the Select Board whose livelihood as a consultant depends on fast internet access, uses DSL. He ran a speed test and recorded a 2.82 Mbps download. Then he tried it again and found his speed cut to less than one-fourth: 0.64.

"The disappointment and problem," he said in an interview, "is that five years ago we were expecting service within two years and now we are still at least two years from hooking up residents in our town."

From Becket, Barbara Craft-Reiss, another DSL customer who reported a download speed of 0.62, offered an all-caps lament: "HELP!!!! So slow. We'd love to have this fixed."

To understand internet speed, think bandwidth. In other words, the more lanes to the highway, the more cars (or data) can go from point A to B.

Say you want to send a family holiday photo to a relative. For Craft-Reiss in Becket, it would take about 53 seconds to send a 4 megabyte image on the 0.64 Mbps upload speed she recorded, according to file transfer calculators available online.

By comparison, that same photo would hop onto the internet in about six seconds for Thiel, the West Stockbridge resident who reported an upload speed of 5.78 Mbps.

In Pittsfield, one DSL customer reported years of skirmishes with Verizon and a decision to upgrade to a more expensive package.

"For years now we have had constant internet connection and speed issues. I even went out and purchased a brand new computer a year ago because they were sure it was that," the customer told The Eagle. "Just recently I was told it was my wireless card on this new computer and I had to hard wire it to show them that even then I had problems. Even though my speed is better, it's still not what I'm paying for and I frequently get disconnected."

In Dalton, yet another DSL customer reported a download speed of 1.5 Mbps. "I have had several communications with Verizon and they always say not to expect any more. At times it is so slow the web page expires before it comes up. There are many times it does not work at all."

ALL OVER MAP

Connection speeds rise and fall for many reasons, including system capacity whether on a cable line or satellite dish, the quality of routers, the levels of service being purchased and the age of programs and devices people use to obtain internet content.

Given that, the numbers gathered in the survey are not the only measure of how well an Internet Service Provider is living up to its delivery promises.

But The Eagle's survey nonetheless captures the reality of sluggish internet connections that hundreds measured in their own households, at one point in time.

The data shows wide variations in connection speeds even among customers of the same company, in the same community, in part due to varying payment levels.

In North Adams, for example, customers of Time Warner/Spectrum ranged from lows of 1.6 and 2.34 Mbps (for low-budget service) to a high of 140 Mbps for downloads. That happy customer explained: "I believe I pay for 50/5 [download and upload speeds], and in the past I have received 60-70 Mbps. No idea why it's suddenly so fast."

In the 90 responses received from North Adams, the median speed was 17 Mbps, a number brought down by the presence of slower Verizon DSL speeds, which ranged from a low of 0.04 Mbps to a high of 13.89 Mbps.

Andrew Russell, a spokesman for Time Warner/Spectrum, said there is a range of speeds in North Adams — and elsewhere in the network — because of different plans.

The company offers six options, ranging from 2 Mbps of download to up to 50 Mbps. The choices are designed to "meet customers' needs and budget, whether they are gaming or streaming video, or browsing the web and using email," Russell said. Most people purchase plans providing speeds in the 15 to 20 Mbps range, he said.

Customers may think they are buying 50 Mbps downloads, when in fact the fine print says that may be the best that they'll get.

Russell said the company advertises speeds "as 'up to' recognizing that there are many variables outside our control that can affect an individual customer's internet performance."

MOVING TARGET

Customer satisfaction is a moving target. Being happy with your internet connection has a lot to do with what you are trying to do with it — and what you've grown accustomed to.

From Williamstown, The Eagle heard from two customers of Time Warner/Spectrum who reported nearly identical download speeds — 35.1 and 35.9 Mbps. But they take different views of the quality of service.

"My internet seems interminably slow most of the time," wrote Bernice Lewis.

"Very satisfied," wrote Eb Altmann.

But a lot of customers who reported download speeds in the teens are as full of grumbling as Goldilocks before the bowl of porridge.

In Dalton, William Litz, a Time Warner/Spectrum customer, reported a download speed of 17.7 Mbps. "Should be a lot faster," he said.

In Alford, Thomas Roy, who teaches at Monument Mountain Regional High School, has gotten used to a slow connection speed on Verizon DSL. He reported a download speed of 2.24 Mbps. That's at home; during the day, he and his wife, who also teaches, have a better connection at work.

"Sadly, I think our connection is better than most in Alford," Roy said.

It is better compared to the one other Alford household that took the speed test and notched a download speed of 1.27 Mbps. "Terrible internet speed and service in Alford," that reader offered, "but great improvements appear to be on the horizon in 2018."

That optimism stems from a $288,775 grant that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute board awarded Alford in early December to help construct fiber-optic lines to homes and businesses in the town. "We will limp along until then," Roy said of the planned Alford upgrade.

In the same allocation, MBI awarded $1,145,975 to Otis.

That's good news to Robert Rosen, who has relied on a Verizon DSL connection since the 1990s at his home in the Otis Woodlands community.

"I am one of the fortunate ones who has DSL," he told The Eagle. "Some homes are too far away in distance to have DSL and rely on dial-up or a smartphone to access the internet."

Over time, Rosen believes his DSL has been flagging.

"In the beginning, the signal was very strong. Every six months I would call Verizon and see if I could get a stronger signal. Sometimes it was boosted however in the past several years I have been told by Verizon I am at max strength," Rosen said.

Before signing on with Time Warner/Spectrum in Hinsdale, and getting a 66.5 Mbps downland that pleases him to no end, Bob Johnson relied on DSL, getting downloads at about 2 Mbps, he said.

Johnson questioned whether Verizon wanted to maintain the system.

"I was told that if I cancelled the previous owner's account, I would not be able to get an account at all."

John H. Johnson, a Verizon spokesman based in New Jersey, said that DSL remains available, providing that customers pass a "loop qualification" test. He said that one former service known as ISDN has been phased out in places and is not always able to be carried over to a new account.

VARIABLE SPEEDS

The speed tests were run at times the readers chose. Some offered two or more test results to illustrate how dramatically speeds change.

Several readers reported that they alert their internet providers to this, among them Anthony Morris of Adams. He is a customer of Time Warner/Spectrum and reported a download speed of 24 Mbps.

"My speed varies day to day and at times falls below a 5 Mbps download," Morris told The Eagle. "When I call to seek resolution it is always the same answer: there must be an issue with your wiring and we need to send someone out. I complained for almost two years before they examined and found an issue on the street. I pay for a consistent product and it is just not there."

Verizon DSL customers also report fluctuations in connection speeds.

Rosen, the resident of Otis, said the service slows down after 5 p.m. "Fortunately, I don't need the computer for work, so the interruptions, though annoying at times, I can deal with since I am now in the 'slow lane."

It's common knowledge that if you need a modern and fast internet connection in the Berkshires, you must live in a community with a cable provider. While that will eventually change, with progress through the state's MBI project, speeds remain a factor in real estate decisions.

Rob Scrimger says that when he and his wife were looking for homes in Berkshire County, a solid internet connection was at the top of the list.

Scrimger said his wife works from home as an insurance agent and her company's IT department requires that employees have access to 15 Mbps for download and 5 Mbps for upload. "This pretty much eliminated houses we liked in Egremont, Sandisfield, New Marlborough and Tryingham," he said.

The couple gave up a 200 Mbps download connection through Comcast. "While the 50/5 connection in Lee is satisfactory, it is a noticeable downgrade," Scrimger said.

When David Myer's family computer slows in Monterey, it's often because the household has hit its monthly data allotment of 15 gigabytes from a satellite internet provider, WildBlue. That's a problem particularly for his teenage daughter, who is required to submit homework online.

"That means we monitor our usage and restrict heavy usage until after 12 midnight and before 5 a.m. not the most ideal time for a young person to be awake doing homework," Myers said, in response to questions from The Eagle.

Monterey, like Alford and Otis, is moving forward on plans to provide faster and better broadband.

But satellite internet customers aren't the only ones to endure slowdowns.

Many of those responding to The Eagle's speed test invitation described regular times when their internet experience bogs down.

One of them, Richard Needelman of Great Barrington, provided two evening test results — 12.5 Mbps and 26.6 Mbps. The slowdowns come at night, he said in a follow-up exchange with The Eagle.

"Not only are downloads slower after 10 p.m., but watching Netflix becomes more difficult as well," he said.

To cope, he now sets the Netflix to stream lower-quality images that are, he said, "not much better than watching a movie on a VCR tape, all while paying for the maximum residential speed."

Because his connection speeds improve in the morning, up to 36 Mbps, he suspects the problem is a lack of capacity on the Time Warner/Spectrum system. He said he has complained to the company and it sent a crew to his house to add amplifiers. "The next time they removed them," he said of the devices. "They change the cable to the house from the box on the block, other times they don't."

Needelman said one technician told him that cold temperatures slow connections.

Russell, the cable company spokesman, said many factors affect speed online.

"This includes their modem, devices, wiring in the home and WiFi signal strength, to name just a few," he said. "Also, it's important to note that wired speeds are usually faster than wireless speeds."

Other factors include where devices are positioned in homes and the software they use. "All of these can be out of the provider's control," he said.

Russell encouraged customers to contact their cable provider to adjust their internet plans or solve problems. "If it's a question of internet performance, we can help them troubleshoot the issue or work with them directly in the home to resolve the issue."

Linda Kelley of Pittsfield, who uses Time Warner/Spectrum to go online, ran two speed tests, both just after 10 p.m. The first showed a download speed of 20.2 Mbps. The second dropped to a tenth of that speed, 2.2 Mbps. "This has been a bane for me for five years now," she wrote on the form when she submitted her results.

In Great Barrington, one Time Warner/Spectrum customer opted for the offer of "extreme" service but found through the speed test that the household was downloading content at 19.6 Mbps. "Always drops from 37 to as low as 12 after 10 p.m.," the customer noted, when filing results with The Eagle.

The result: extreme disappointment.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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