Inspired by my multi-month journey battling my local ISP to finally get reliable internet while working from home
More people than ever are working from home these days. Even if you don't work full time at home, our reliance on consistent internet has only increased in recent years. There are shows to stream, co-operative video games to play, music to listen to, video chats to have with friends or teachers and the list goes on.
What should you do if you have slow or unreliable internet at home? Even if you are a technical person, it can still feel so defeating when trying to deal with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). They are likely a monopoly in your area and not incentivized to have great customer service. Below is my experience and advice on how to navigate the layers of potential internet connectivity issues.
I have been working from home since the pandemic started, and within the first few weeks had an ISP tech come to our house because our internet was not consistent or reliable. He removed an old filter from our pole and made adjustments to our line into the house, and for a year it was working great.
Over the last two and a half months our internet was super unreliable. It would cut out for 30 seconds to a minute at a time, sporadically all throughout the day. It made zoom calls and any live communication super frustrating. It worked "well enough" though that technicians and support calls could not get to the bottom of it. I had 3 techs come out over those two months, and repeated calls to the service department describing the issues, and still faced intermittment packet loss.
Taking matters into my own hand
Since technicians were unable (unwilling?) to properly troubleshoot the issue, I looked at it as a challenge to diagnose using the scientific method. (Also, I was slowly losing my sanity, and it was impacting my ability to do my remote job.)
I had a second router on hand, and since we used Wi-Fi for all things in our house, I also made sure I tried using an ethernet hardwire from our router to my laptop. I wanted to rule out a faulty router or severe interference with our Wi-Fi signal.
I then went to the ISP's store and got their latest, most expensive modem (because of course some of the suggestions on support calls were to upgrade my modem). Pro tip: I leased the modem, versus buying it, so I only paid $12 for one month and then returned it – still annoying since the ISP ended up being at fault, but better than buying a new modem needlessly, since I already had a DOCSIS 3.1 modem. I also upgraded to the most expensive package (again, on my own dime even though we didn't need the additional bandwidth or features).
Being a software engineer, I made sure to only change one thing at a time, and monitor the reliability with each change and ensure I was reproducing the problem. For me this was easy to do with a ping test running in the background. The same intermittent issues persisted.
I used Ping Plotter for a visual & historical view of packet loss (though a simple
ping google.com command in a terminal also showed the packet loss). I took screenshots of various days showing the obvious packet loss. It did not line up with any time of day or day of week patterns, but using that tool made it really easy to check that.
After the 3rd technician on site did not track down or resolve the issue, and having made all the other changes and tests with our home networking, I was convinced the issue was outside our house and either at the pole or beyond. With some research, I read that filing an FCC complaint was an effective way to escalate further.
So, two months into the saga, I filed an FCC complaint with screenshots and details from data I had collected over multiple weeks as well as the lack of resolution from service calls.
Surprisingly, a week later, someone at my ISP reach out to me directly and from that person, I was able to escalate my case. They sent out a "field escalation technician". The technician ran many tests at the end of my cable line and up at the pole. His first tests did not show anything, but this technician was more thorough and willing to stay until he reproduced an intermittment loss of packets. He said it looked like the "tap" (mechanical and electrical junction that ties the cable to your house) was faulty. And the tap nearby was already full (from other houses connecting into it). He was not able to replace the tap, but temporarily split my line with another house, sharing the nearby tap. He then put in a maintenance order to replace the tap. My internet starting working reliably after that! And just 12 hours later, a maintenance person showed up, replaced the faulty tap, put my line into the new tap (no longer shared with another house), and I had no packet loss after that. (I was routinely losing 1 to 4% of packets the two months prior).
- Tracking this issue down took way too much time & persistence on my side, but given the alternatives it was worth it to "be noisy" and keep calling to complain about the service and get technicians out here
- Keep a log of when the internet goes out, and what actions you have taken (this will come in handy if you do file an FCC complaint, and to speed up follow up support calls to your ISP)
- Rule out your home Wi-Fi and modem before getting technicians out, and certainly before filing an FCC complaint
Wi-Fi can be a big source of internet flakiness, so make sure that your home network is working well. Connect your computer directly via ethernet cable to your router and see if the same issues persist. Do this at least for a day (if it's not practical to always be connected that way), to ensure the issue is still present. If it goes away, then you have an issue with your router's Wi-Fi -- signal interference or lack of range etc -- and your ISP can't and won't fix that other than selling you different routers). The Eero or Google Nest Wifi Mesh are good options.
Ensuring your modem is modern is important - an older modem can be unreliable, especially if it's a generation or more behind as far as the DOCSIS version. That said, a modem should last many years and ISPs are quick to blame a modem when it's not the actual issue. If you are unsure whether an upgrade to your modem is needed, I recommend the lease option to try it out.
- If others are in a similar situation where they have ruled out their home network and had an on site technician out but with no resolution, I recommend trying to request a field escalation technician to get to the bottom of it.
- There are many other sources of issues besides a faulty tap (interference on lines, oversubscribed nodes, the wiring from the pole to your house, to name a few). In any case, call to complain when there are outages, track some data, and be persistent! Filing an FCC complaint will help if you have done your due diligence.