Fighting with Your ISP!

March 20th, 2014

Consider this problem. You have a very fast Internet connection, but on some sites, download speeds are glacial, in the same range as dial-up. So you call your ISP and they claim each of their tests show there’s nothing wrong with their network.

But the performance problem persists. Is there a solution?

That’s something I’m still trying to find out as I continue to look for a better way to access files from one of my web servers via my CenturyLink residential DSL account. I’ve had a technician visit my home, switch out wiring, replace connectors and even swap out the DSL router. I’ve called support more than a dozen times, sometimes waiting over an hour on the phone, but the situation hasn’t changed.

Alas, communicating the nature of the issue with CenturyLink has been very difficult. I expect anyone would encounter a similar obstacle.

Here’s what I mean.

I got a really cheap package with CenturyLink to handle my intensive data requirements. I’m paying a little over $41 per month for 40 megabit downloads, 20 megabit uploads, but the download speed is typically closer to 50. I also have a static IP number, which is important for my needs.

For the most part, download speeds of streaming videos, Apple software updates, and so on and so forth are fast enough to demonstrate I’m getting the performance for which I’m paying. Standard broadband benchmarks are stellar.

Unfortunately, when I attempt to download files from my primary web server, performance drops down severely. It’s a consistent problem, day and night, and it started on or about March 8th, when I did a test download of the latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. It took over 50 minutes to transfer a 115MB file, which was profoundly absurd. I thought it was perhaps due to a network hiccup, and tried again the very next day. Nothing changed.

Tests of other file downloads from other servers proceeded at the normal pace.

Well, the web server in question uses solid state drives, and is located on a gigabit network switch in a huge, high performance, datacenter. The datacenter’s customer support people ran a battery of diagnostics to see where the hangup was, and they said it was CenturyLink’s fault.

But conveying that message to CenturyLink was no easy process, and I can’t say I succeeded. You see, a residential customer gets a very basic level of support, and the techs on that first level of support are located in the Philippines. You have to specially request American support to get someone with a proper grasp of English.

If there’s a general performance problem, they will make some effort to help you. Usually it’s confined to suggesting you restart the router and your computer. But if it involves only some sites, and not all, they will blame the people running those sites. Even when you present them with detailed diagnostics showing where the bottleneck lies, they will pretend not to understand what you are talking about.

All so very frustrating.

At the end of the day, I traced my particular problem to congestion at the “peering” point between CenturyLink and another ISP, Cogent Communications, which provides traffic to and from ISPs and other services. Peering is the point at which data is exchanged, and if one of the services isn’t providing a big enough pipe, slowdowns will occur, which is precisely what happened to me.

Now Cogent doesn’t have a squeaky clean reputation for being fair about delivering Internet traffic. There are reports through the years of data throttling, particularly with such video streaming services as Netflix and even YouTube. In my case, though, I actually got someone on the phone from Cogent, and the tech not only assured me it was CenturyLink’s problem, but they gave me a the actual ticket number they used to make requests to reduce peering congestion.

The tech also blamed the problem on the recent loss by the FCC of the ability to enforce net neutrality, implying that CenturyLink was doing a little traffic shaping, perhaps in the hope of exacting a higher fee to open the pipes.

So what about CenturyLink? Good question. Even the company’s American team seems barely capable of understanding the nature of the problem, let alone telling me or if it’ll be resolved. I have even made a complaint to the office of the president of CenturyLink, Glen F. Post, III, to resolve a problem that has made it impossible for me to use that server. I also left a phone message via the company’s corporate office to a department that’s supposedly set up to handle customer escalation issues.

3/24 Update: CenturyLink has issued a written response from their legal team about problems of the sort I’m having. Their conclusion is to essentially blame Cogent for the congestion-related slowdowns. So we have the all-too-typical situation where two companies blame each other for a problem, but nothing ever gets resolved.

In the meantime, I’ve moved all of our sites to a backup server, where there is absolutely no performance bottleneck whatever. Its traffic doesn’t pass through Cogent.

Yes, I suppose I could switch service to CenturyLink’s main competitor in Arizona, Cox Communications, but I won’t be getting a sweetheart deal for high-speed service. Besides, that wouldn’t prevent other CenturyLink customers from facing similar download hurdles whenever they access traffic that passes from Cogent to CenturyLink.

Other than getting the word out, and complaining to anyone and everyone who might listen, I don’t see an immediate solution to dilemmas of this sort. Many of you might be stuck with an ISP because it’s the only one in your city, or the price is just too attractive to ignore. But when the problems go a step or two beyond basic issues of whether the service is on or off, you can see where you may end up spinning in circles.

Update: And whether fixing the net neutrality problem will resolve problems of this sort is anyone’s guess. A story in Ars Technica reports that traffic slowdowns of the sort I’ve encountered may be the result of attempts by ISPs to exact higher “toll” fees from such carriers as Cogent and Level 3.

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6 Responses to “Fighting with Your ISP!”

  1. Ron Hockman says:

    I am not certain my problem is the same as yours, but up until around November last year, I got 1080P Netflix through CenturyLink 10 mbp DSL. Around Jan this year it suddenly dropped to 384P during prime time, same with Amazon prime. Then later at night it would go back up again. For some reason last night it was back to 1080P, I hope it continues that way. ron

    • @Ron Hockman, Sounds like traffic shaping, that the resolution went down because your broadband speed had decreased. When it goes down again, stop the playback and run some speed tests to see what you’re actually getting.

      My problem is more complicated, since only certain sites deliver those dial-up type download rates.


  2. dfs says:

    Gene, if you are experiencing a bad case of the slows on some sites only, has it occurred to you that the problem might not be on your end or the fault of your ISP? There’s another factor in the equation, the speed of the server you are accessing.

    • @dfs, I’ve updated this story with a link to an article in Ars Technica that clearly indicates what may be responsible for slowdowns of the type I’ve confronted. The ISPs want more money from certain carriers to open the floodgates.

      The long and short of it is that I have at hand diagnostics that indicate where the slowdown is, and it appears to lie at the junction of CenturyLink and Cogent. CenturyLink also has a Customer Advocacy rep from their executive team working to find a resolution. We’ll see what happens next.


  3. Barbara Larsen says:

    After another complaint to Centurylink, the tech said our problems were traffic jams and said they were going to upgrade equipment in February (this is November), do I dare believe them? I am ready to dump Centurylink for better service. What do I choose? Are the other providers having the same traffic issues? I live in Benton County in Eastern Washington.

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