Connection Problems (literal and metaphorical) - Long post

Background: I’ve used my existing broadband cable modem provider (for both Internet & TV cable) for about 18 months; stability & speed of connection have been fine. I run two computers through a router; a laptop is connected 65% of the time. Since mid-January, my connection has been sluggish about twice a week. The slowdown generally occurs from 11 pm - 3 am (EST). Pages or sites take much longer to load – a random set of links just took an average of 14 seconds to pull up the page, versus .5 seconds during the day. 35% of the clicks resulted in “connection was refused”/“page cannot be found” on the first attempt.

When the problem does occur, it manifests across multiple websites and on both desktop computers (laptop is untested). It continues to occur when the router is bypassed by connecting a single computer directly to the cable modem. It occurs across multiple browsers (Explorer, Netscape, & Firefox all tested).

What I’ve tried so far:

  • Deactivating e-mail virus scanner and firewall processes
  • Unplugging/resetting both cable modem and the router
  • Defragging disk drives and cleaning out temporary internet files
  • Full virus scans, Windows Updates, driver updates, and Ad-aware sweeps

Tonight, I bit the bullet and called the provider (service 24 hours/day). The well-intentioned customer service person had me go to a site that monitored bandwidth. After an initial failure to get there because my connection was refused, my average bandwidth was 3000 Kbps. This was normal to high, explained my agent, and suggested problems were likely with my computer, not with them as a provider. She capably walked me through the steps for:

  • Deactivating e-mail virus scanner and firewall processes
  • Unplugging/resetting both cable modem and the router

She suggested I see if the problem resolves (which it will by tomorrow morning, only to return like a haunted fever dream), and to call again to set up a service call after trying everything on her list.

While I’m not disputing the bandwidth, my connection is substantially slower and has many more dropped connections than during the day. The agent was unmoved by the following arguments:

  • I had just cleared temporary files/defragged/etc. last night after seeing the problem. It didn’t help last night. Why will reclearing day-old temporary files fix the problem now? (“because people download all sorts of stuff…,” explained my helper)
  • I observed the same maintenance habits six months ago as I do now. No twice/wk slowdowns were experienced six months ago. Shouldn’t my unhealthy file cleaning habits have caused problems before this?
  • Why does my computer cure itself during the day, only to succumb to problems in the early morning? (she suggested “peak hours”, but agreed it was unlikely most users in my area were peaking at 2 am rather than 2 pm)

After this rant, I have two questions for you folks. I’ve italicized them to make them easy to spot in the midst of my angst.

  1. What are your suggestions for fixing the problem? I suspect it involves the provider, and not my system, although I hate second-guessing people. I’ve had generally good experiences with both customer service people and technical support folks, but those occur when I feel as though I’m engaging with a real person, not someone who simply restates suggestions after being informed said suggestions had been performed in the last 24 hours. Reviews at state that my provider has had trouble with low downstream signal strength in the past. I don’t know what this means, but could it be responsible for the problems I’m seeing?

  2. I know some of you work in customer service and technical support; I used to as well. I know many service people see customers as idiots, and many customers see service people as arrogant and poorly trained. What is the best way to approach my further interactions with these folks that will most likely result in better connectivity? I have a terrible suspicion that my service call is going to look like this.

(3 pm – Tech Person arrives for his 10 am - 12 noon service appointment)
ISP Tech Person: “So you have problems with connection speed?”
Me: “Yea, almost always occurs at night though, so you may not see a slowdown now”
ISP Tech Person: (while typing in bandwidth monitoring site) “Lots of times people download stuff they aren’t even aware of”
Me: “I try to keep up on that with Ad-aware and ZoneAlarm, not clicking on pop-ups…that sort of stuff”
ISP Tech Person: “PPhhtt…I’ve been writing stuff that can get around those programs since I was 13. What you really need is…hmmm, looks like you’re pulling a little more bandwidth than you’d be expected to”
(frowns and makes some mark on his copy of my service agreement)
“your speed is good – seems pretty zippy to me”

Me: “Like I said, it shows up after 11pm, but I know you don’t have service calls then. I noticed the problem last night, even though my bandwidth numbers were good.”
ISP Tech Person: “Well, maybe it cleared up. Why don’t you run a disk defrag and give us a call if it comes back again?”
Me: <sigh>

(cut to 11:40 pm that night)
Me: <strangled noises as my connections to the world around me are refused>

I just want this to get better. To those of you in the support industry, I understand that many people like to believe they are computer experts. I’m a psychologist – 95% of people I tell what I do say “Well, I’m not an expert, but I can read people better than most.” Half of them can, half of them sleep better at night believing they can. I get the overconfidence bias. What could a customer say to you that suggests he or she actually has tried most of the standard answers, and deserves to be listened to, not nodded at in mock agreement?

I had a problem very similar to this, and had to build a case using Ping Plotter reports to prove to the provider where the problem was. Once I had that, they admitted that the connection between our cable network and the rest of the Internet had to go through a 10 MBit wireless connection - the ENTIRE network. When everyone was home in the evening surfing the web and downloading porn/MP3s, the connection got overloaded and started dropping 80% of its packets.

It was nice knowing, but they still didn’t do anything to fix it. Time Warner had recently purchased the system, and they finally replaced the wireless connection with a fiber optic one. That solved the problem, but it took several months to come about, and it wasn’t really in response to any complaints.

Good luck!

What are your suggestions for fixing the problem?

First of all, to do all you can do absolve your end of the network of problems. Minimize bandwidth usage during tests to connect one PC directly to the cable modem, disable all your virus scanner and firewall software and anything else that would hamper your connection.

Do extensive tests. Yahoo is a kind soul that still allows ICMP traffic to hit its servers and routers.

Do some traceroutes with the tracert command in the Command Console. This will give you a clear map of where the problem lies. It’ll tell you exactly at what router your connections are being dropped. If its at the second or third hop, its most likely on the provider’s end. Depending on the provider’s configuration, the first ISP router you hit will have a DNS resolution, the first hop will probably be your cable modem (it won’t may not have a DNS entry listed in the traceroute results).

This will show if there are any service bottlenecks. It sounds like its around or just after peak usage hours for most ISPs. The consistency is a very big indicator of bottlenecks in the link back to the provider.

Second, do pings. Some sites allow you to send ping packets larger than the default 32 bytes of data. The -l flag is important to allow you to test various buffer sizes. I had an issue with my old cable modem that would get disconnected when sending lots of data. I was able to test this by sending larger ping packets. It doesn’t sound like your issue, but it never hurts to test it anyway.

Its not necessarily going to fix your problem, but it will go a long way to clearing up where the problem lies. I had some great help with Road Runner’s tier 1 tech support. If all else fails, you can always ask to be forwarded to a tier 2/cable provider technician (Time Warner/Road Runner have their own tech support entities that work together).

Hope this helps.

While I suspect your problem is in fact related to your provider doing something odd upstream (the time of day thing gives it away really) - I had a similar problem that mysteriously went away when I replaced my router. After a certain amount of time the old one would start to warm up, and then I got a lot more malformed packets and drops - thus it was always better to use the internet in the morning. I was pissed, because it started almost exactly to the day after the warrenty expired.

Hawking Routers - don’t do 'em kids. Very poor build quality.

Thanks so far for all the support; the PingPlotter product that Supertanker used seems to make the ping and tracert commands a little more user-friendly (with graphs and color codings). I’ve downloaded the freeware version and run some baseline tests at 12:30 am with the simple system suggested by Duality (bypassing router, firewalls, anti-virus stuff). Although this is the time of night I’ve been seeing the problems, my connection seems solid today.

I’ll continue to gather data over the next few days and see if any trends emerge. Thank you all again, and I’m happy to take additional suggestions in the thread as I collect data.

Since I seem to be bringing threads in other forums back from the dead, figure I’ll do a follow-up on this one.

I scheduled a service tech visit after the next round of intermittent losses occurred (about 2 weeks following my last postings in late March). The technician verified that, due in part to other subscribers on my block complaining, a fellow technician had found line levels way out of whack at the local substation the day previous to my service call. He had rebalanced the levels, and I haven’t had problems with my connection since that time. The substation used to belong to a telephone provider, and I guess there are tighter restrictions on levels for reliable broadband internet performance, relative to levels used for phone transmission.

Happy to say I was wrong in my imagined scenario with the service tech that I described in my first post; the guy who came out was very knowledgeable, agreed with my assessment of the suggestions of the customer service people, and gave me his direct work number so I could set up a faster service call in the future, should I need one.

I’m pretty sure my provider (WOW! Cable/Internet) is only in a few states, but if you have the option, their service folks are great.

That’s, more often than not, the experience with dealing with techs that come to your home.

Unlike the drone on the phone who’s only capable of answering a few specific questions or are limited with what they can do to troubleshoot, the service techs are more likely to understand what sort of tests you’ve run and see, exactly, what the problem is.

Glad to hear it was nothing you did. :)