About two weeks ago, shortly after we returned from our trip to Michigan, disaster struck. Our Internet connection started going down every morning, sometimes for more than an hour, and suffering from flaky speeds on a seemingly random basis.
Now, I realize that this is a pretty generous definition of “disaster” when you get right down to it. You’re probably thinking that I must live a pretty cushioned life for this to even register on my “holy shit” meter. And to be frank, you’d be right. I’d be lying if I said that I’ve spent much of my life enduring hardship of great or small import. But given that I work from home in an IT position that requires frequent (if not constant) use of the Internet, and that in today’s economy you don’t want to give your boss any excuse to discontinue your services as an employee, perhaps that will help put this in perspective.
I’ve spoken to Comcast support four or five times already, each on different mornings in the last week as I’ve tried to get some resolution to this problem. Every time, they ask me to reboot my modem while they send it a reset signal, and usually if we do that once, twice or three times, it will start working, the Tier 1 support person will say “Whew, glad that’s settled” and that will be that. Until the next morning, when the entire cycle would always repeat itself.
Eventually I got them to send me a technician, and on Sunday morning no less, right at the time when the connection is always going out. Except, as if to spite me, it didn’t go out that morning. A rather surly tech showed up, watched video news stories on my computer for a while and then swapped out my modem just in case that might have had anything at all to do with it. It didn’t, because an hour after he left, our connection went to shit — barely more than dialup speed again — and didn’t fully recover for the rest of the day.
In the course of my work, naturally, the situation has been even more untenable. I’ve already endured one embarrassing VoIP meeting, during which my Internet connection spent the entire call making it nigh-impossible to hear the other parties before finally going out right when my boss asked me to present a report. This morning I got up early to prepare for the Monday morning ops meeting and discovered as soon as I walked into my room that the Internet was out again. The cable modem’s network sync light was blinking in its usual, brain-dead manner, endlessly searching for a connection and finding none.
I had 45 minutes until the meeting, so rather than eat breakfast, I spent it doing diagnostics, fiddling around with possible remedies (none of which worked) and waiting on hold at the Comcast support center (which I eventually abandoned when it became clear that no one was going to pick up before the meeting started). Thanking my lucky stars for my iPhone 3GS and AT&T’s reliable 3G network here in south Florida — which I’m convinced is the only AT&T market in the country which can actually be called “reliable,” or at least I have yet to find another — I sent an email to my boss and asked if they could conference me in on my cell number instead of through Skype.
Long story short, I made it to the meeting. But come 11:00 our Internet was still out, and I was getting annoyed.
“You’re getting better at this,” said my wife as I dialed Comcast’s support number once more. “A few years ago you would have been cursing and bitching up a storm.” She’s right, I suppose. Throughout all of this, I may have grumbled a few times, but I refrained from the invariable flip-out that used to be the cornerstone of my handling of stress. Instead, however, I had all the cheer and optimism of a man who’s resigned to being cosmically screwed for all eternity, so I’m not sure if that’s the best possible improvement. But it is better than my usual animatronic arm-waving and stentorian maledictions, at least.
This time, vindication: The Comcast phone rep was unable to bring me back online, despite her vigorous attempts to reboot my modem into conformity. Additionally, I informed her, our TV picture is looking really awful on certain channels, so there could be a whole-house signal problem afoot. So, with all of this information in hand, an emergency tech visit was scheduled for that very afternoon. In the meantime I dealt with some email by phone, and then worked on some offline stuff until lunch time.
When the technician showed up — an amiable young World of Warcraft player who was much brighter than the dour dude who graced my doorstep on Sunday — I thought I was screwed. Why? Because our connection had come back up by itself, naturally, just half an hour before his arrival. And so it goes, I thought. He won’t be able to find a problem, he’ll leave, and I’ll start this whole song and dance over again in the morning.
Blissfully, I was wrong. Despite the apparent lack of presentable problems, the technician started running the kinds of multi-point diagnostics that I’d only dreamed of being able to convince a tech to run. He actually followed a logical process of elimination, testing the signal strength at various points between my modem and the cable tap down the street. It was exactly the sort of thing I would have done myself weeks ago, if I’d had the training and the equipment these guys use.
And it paid off, too. After all of this investigation was done, the tech reported that he had found the source of the problem: The subterranean cable drop between the tap and our house. That’s about 175 feet of underground cable laid beneath the street — and it’s got to be pulled out and replaced. He put in the repair request, and told me that Comcast actually has to pull road permits and other stuff for this kind of work, so it would be at least a couple of weeks before a crew would be sent out to start doing the job.
In the meantime, though, he diligently went through the attic and replaced every splitter and fitting with the highest quality stuff he had available, gaining me back a few more lost dB of signal. “I’m not saying life is going to be peachy between now and the drop replacement,” he said, “but at least you’ll know why — and this new stuff I just installed will help make it bearable.”
He wasn’t bullshitting. My modem’s status page now shows a 15 dB improvement in signal strength, which translated into a near-perfect quality connection for the rest of the afternoon and evening. While the speeds are still fluctuating, they’re doing so in the 6-14 megabit range instead of the 200-500 kilobit range, so that’s certainly an improvement. TV channels are still fuzzy, but that’s going to be solved by the cable replacement.
Looking back, these problems with the underground cable must have started quite a while ago. For some time now, I’ve experienced intermittent connectivity losses during the hottest parts of the afternoon, or during rain events. Our cable TV picture quality inexplicably started to get so bad a couple years back that we had to have a powered amp installed in our attic, otherwise our digital channels simply failed to render and our analogs were like watching TV through a blizzard. There’s probably a crack (or worse) in the cable somewhere and elemental intrusion is taking its toll.
Anyway, I’m really happy to have finally gotten a tech who took the time to do a thorough job and get to the bottom of the issue, and who didn’t stop there, but instead proceeded to do what he could to mitigate my immediate problems until the real fix is done. Mega kudos to this guy.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to see what awaits me tomorrow morning when I walk into my home office. Hopefully it won’t be a blinking network sync light. But at least if it is, I won’t have to wonder if the damn thing’s possessed by a demon with a cruel sense of humor.