Say you just bought a brand-new, state-of-the-art, high-speed N300-class WiFi router.
You and your life partner/significant other each surf the Net separately. You want to catchup on a missed TV show or movie on Netflix and your partner is glued to videos on HGTV.com. You have teens at home who are constantly on YouTube and social media sites.
You may have a hefty 300 megabits flowing between your router and your computer, but how big is that pipe you getting from your Internet provider? For many of us with consumer DSL service, its 6 or 12 megabits per second … max. The cheaper DSL rates are even slower at one or two megabits per second. And if you are far from the switching station, you might only get half the published speed.
What’s a digital native to do?
There are faster classes of DSL service, some designed for small and medium businesses. And AT&T also has something called U-verse, which is faster than standard DSL. There are faster options from our sole Oakland cable operator, Comcast, as well. Let’s explore the options:
First, what do these numbers mean?
Internet service is usually measured in “megabits” per second, or millions of info bits, the ones and zeros of the digital world. More Megabits per second (or Mbps) is usually good, but 1-3 Mbps is fine for reading email or commenting on Facebook. What does change is the time to first download the elements of a web page. Fancy web pages with lots of graphics have several megabits of information and could take a few seconds to fully download. So more speed will make that first download faster and snappier. Also faster will be downloading photos and videos.
To watch YouTube videos also takes 1-3 Mbps because they are compressed and usually not full screen. But streaming movies and TV from Hulu and Netflix may need a little more speed because these are now HD. If you have two or more people at home streaming TV or HD movies, then you will definitely need more bandwidth – maybe 6 or 12 Mbps, more as the number of users go up.
If you are a solitary Internet user at home, then your really don’t need 50 Megabits a second. But if your are a person who produces commercial video in your home office, you probably need a fast commercial service with a high upload speed.
Real world speed
The reason this is not exact is that there is a difference between advertised speed and actual speed. I live less than 1.5 miles from a phone company switching station and thus get a good 85 percent of my advertised DSL speed. More distance means more slow down. There are distance effects with cable and even Xfinity, so most people in the Bay Area get something less than the advertised speed for their class of service.
Take a look at the pink and red dots in picture at the top of this article – most people in the Bay Area get less than the speed they subscribe at. That’s digital life.
On top of this real world adjustment, there are capacity problems and outages further back along your data’s journey from the Internet. Events like the Boston Marathon bombing or the President’s State of the Union address will increase the traffic everywhere.
The best way to determine your real Internet speed is to use a web site like speedtest.net, which uses participating web servers all over the world to test real Internet speeds. All you have to do is pick a server in a nearby city like Berkeley or San Francisco. (I get better results going to Palo Alto.) In a few minutes, speed test will display the real download and upload speeds for your actual equipment. Easy. But don’t be disappointed.
Your speed may vary
It’s likely you may loose 20 percent to 40 percent of the advertised speed you signed up for. If you are consistently getting less than half that speed, you may need a service call. If you are a DSL user, you need DSL filters on all your phone equipment or interference may impact your speed. This includes the phone dialer in your home security system. Cordless phones also may operate on the same channel as your WiFi router. It is best if you check and rule these out before a technician comes because they often blame all DSL speed problems on these issues and may not check further for other problems.
If you visit on-line forums and check Twitter feeds, you will see a lot of dissatisfied customers. Satisfied folks rarely take the time to write glowing recommendations, but you can find a few of those, as well. It also seems there are more complaints for Comcast Xfinity, but AT&T has its share of knocks. Many people complain of needing to reset their routers and modems by cycling the power off and on. That may be true even if its your own equipment at home.
In my case, I was experiencing speed drops of 60 percent to 80 percent randomly, until there was no DSL signal at all. AT&T techs could not find a problem with the modem or the wiring. When I moved my modem and router to a different phone drop, speeds went back to normal and have remained stable.
What are the options?
– T1 or dedicated ethernet
– AT&T U-verse
– Comcast Xfinity
There used to be an option for Internet service by satellite from Dish networks, but that business was sold to Hughes Internet service, which operates satellite feeds for businesses and government agencies at a higher cost than cable or any alternative.
There also are options to use what are called T1 lines or dedicated ethernet connections; but these also are higher priced per Megabit of download speed. On the other hand, these commercial offerings have created stability and less degradation of service.
Another option would be to buy a device that uses cell phone broadband to provide your own WiFi hotspot. These devices require a monthly data plan at monthly rates usually higher than those included with your cell phone. The WiFi zone they create usually does not cover a large house or even an apartment. But if you happen to have a cell phone plan without data caps and extra data charges, and your phone can link in your laptop by WiFi, this would be an option to consider. In that case, your cell phone bill would cover your WiFi access.
So that leaves us common citizens with DSL service, AT&T’s U-verse and Comcast’s Xfinity Internet service. Both of these service providers have low customer satisfaction ratings.
The 2011 MSN-Zogby survey of customer satisfaction listed gave AT&T a 13.3 percent Excellent rating and 32.5 percent Good rating, while Comcast received a 12 percent Excellent and 22.9 percent Good rating. To learn more, see this article.
U-verse tiers compared:
AT&T has a 150 Gigabytes monthly max with its U-verse service and charges a $10 fee for going over this – after a warning letter. New subscribers using current promotions will actually get a larger cap of 250 GB monthly.
Comcast also has a similar cap, but they are only providing warnings to customers currently. But Comcast will terminate users who show “excessive usage” or force them to move to a business Internet package. Older DSL services do not seem to have data caps or overage fees, but this may vary by contract.
Getting started offers and pricing
There are promotions from both Comcast and AT&T, but the special pricing lasts only six-12 months. For example, Comcast offers its “Performance” tier of Xfinity Internet service for an introductory $29.99 for six months. The everyday pricing for that 15 Mbps service is currently $48.99/mo. – plus $7/mo. for its cable modem. Plus $40 for installation charges.
AT&T will waive the cost of equipment in certain cases, like if you are upgrading from DSL with an older modem. Comcast has a partner website that offers a full rebate on Zyxel modems and routers after a 10-16 week wait for processing, but you have to buy the equipment upfront – for about $170 – before May 15.
After your promotional period, your rates will go up about $20/mo. and you still pay the monthly equipment fee, unless you buy the equipment. You can try out Xfnity for a month for free, but you still have to pay the installation charge.
If you like Digital TV with your Internet service, Comcast has a $49.99/mo. offer that adds in a minimal 65 channel TV package to its 15 Mpbs tier. That includes your HGTV, but not BBC America (sorry, no “Doctor Who”) or premium movie channels. After six months, your bill goes up to $79.99/mo.
There are similar offers from AT&T for its mixed fiber and copper U-verse service, which include their wireless TV receivers. Its introductory rates also go up $15-$30 a month after the trial period. But U-verse has a modem with the WiFi router function built in. It costs $100 and has the functionality of a separate $50-60 WiFi router. So if you plan to install U-verse, save some cash by not upgrading your home WiFi before you change over.
UPDATE: For several years, AT&T has been providing “2Wire” modem/routers with WiFi speeds of only 54 Mbps. This is faster than the highest service tier, but much less than the 150 to 600 Mbps speeds of the “N” Wifi standard. These higher speeds would matter a lot if you attached a storage device to the router in your house and support of N600 would be up to 12 times faster reading and writing files. AT&T does have such a faster modem/router if you strongly request it. The Zyxel WiFi router that is used in Xfinity service supports the N150 speed, or only 150 Mbps.
Since I recently upgraded my old 54 Mbps USR WiFi router with a higher speed and higher power 300 Mbps unit, I elected to stay on DSL service, but did increase my speed to the next tier.
Here’s a word of warning: AT&T is trying hard to move its DSL customers to its U-verse service and they will make excuses for not allowing you to upgrade your DSL service.
At first they said “there weren’t enough DSL ports available” in my area, although I have been a DSL customer for years. Then they said they could not increase my modest speed without moving to U-verse. But they were still advertising pure DSL service at 12 and 24 Mbps. Finally, when I threatened to terminate my AT&T DSL contract and go to Xfinity, they relented and did increase my speed – for the slightly higher advertised monthly rate.
Since my existing DSL modem is working fine and I’d just bought a new router, I didn’t want to pay the $100 for the U-verse equipment. Then they offered to give me the equipment for free and waive installation charges with a one-year U-verse contract at a low rate. That was very tempting.
But I am very happy to keep my existing setup intact and not having technicians rewiring my house. I also won’t get pitched about U-verse TV packages, which is the real goal of the U-verse trojan horse strategy. I personally do not need a blistering 50 or 100 Megabit per second download speed for anything my household is currently doing. So for me its cheaper and less hassle to stay with DSL and only up the speed.
In April, AT&T is marketing to “U-verse green areas” in Oakland with the same free installation, free equipment deal. Expect AT&T letters in your mailboxes in the near future. They really want everyone to go to fiber-based U-verse service.
Get a cheaper DSL provider
There are cheaper DSL services than those provided by AT&T and that may be an escape route if the company refuses to upgrade Internet speeds for existing DSL customers.
AT&T has recently raised its DSL rates to match its U-verse pricing. That means also some competing DSL providers have not raised their rates so far and are $5-$15 a month cheaper than AT&T. Take a look at Extreme DSL: 6 Mbps for $39.95/mo. with an introductory rate of $19.95.
Even better, Sonic.net provides 8-20 Mbps for download speeds AND land line phone service for a regular monthly rate of $39.95. That’s not a promotion! Sonic has their own switching equipment at about 130 of phone company central offices in California, including in Oakland. It has no speed tiers, no premium packages and offer high ADSL2 speeds and full phone service for that single rate, without a data cap. Most customers seem happy with the service and the support when problems occur.
That rate also includes Call Waiting, Caller ID and long distance service with up to eight hours of international calling each month. The sales rep I spoke with said that the phone service used the land line and not the DSL Modem, so it would work even in the event of a power outage.
“We don’t hold anything back because it doesn’t cost us any more to provide all these services,” added the sales rep. He also claimed that Sonic has a 70 percent “excellent” customer satisfaction rating, which is at least five times higher than the ratings for Comcast and AT&T.
Adding taxes and a $6.50/mo. equipment rental charge brings the Sonic total monthly bill to about $59. For me, that compares to almost $100/month for AT&T DSL at a slower speed and regular phone service without extras like long distance and international calling. I am seriously considering switching, maybe in May.
Visit Sonic.net for more information.
Xfinity: Comcast’s new cable service
Xfinity is a rebranding of Comcast cable, based on using fiber optic connections for higher speed connections. If you have older cable service, you will need to upgrade your modem to the newer Dxxx standard, especially if you want the 50 Mbps and 105 Mbps Internet speeds.
There is also a commercial grade 305 Mbps service available, which requires a special modem with a $20/mo. equipment charge. This service cost 299.99/mo.
Comcast has been running TV ads and other marketing campaigns to boast that it doubled its highest two-speed tiers and modestly increased the speed of other speed tiers. Now you can get 105 Mbps down for about $100/mo. They also offer TV and movie packages and Voice over IP (VoIP) options.
Comcast also has raised the speed of its “Performance” tier from 15 Mbps to 25 Mbps. But that speed isn’t guaranteed. The teaser rate for this tier is $29.99 a month, which goes to $44.99 after six months and then goes up further to the prevailing rate after the first year. Be sure to read the fine print.
Xfinity Internet service are definitely higher speeds than any other residential option. This is because Xfinity, and even U-verse, use individual fiber optic connections. However, both systems have shared nodes in your neighborhood and network congestion can happen at these nodes.
In visiting online forums and viewing Twitter posts, it seems that Xfinity users complain more frequently about not getting the high speeds they pay for. Sometimes they get less than 25 percent of the advertised speed. The colorful picture below was posted on Twitter recently and shows download speeds of just over half a Megabit per second. That is very slow for cable-based internet service.
Xfinity Essentials Program
Xfinity has a special program for low income residents: Just $9.95/mo., but with strings attached. The program provides rather minimal 1.5 Mbps home Internet service and waives the $7 monthly equipment. It also offers the option to buy a netbook computer for only $149.99 plus tax. This is not a teaser rate and does not increase, but it is only available while there are school age children at home.
But there are also complaints on-line that this program is too restrictive. You have to have a child who is in school and qualifies for the free school lunch program, and also not have a history of problems paying Comcast bills. Since this is a program for low income families, there probably will be a history of problems paying bills and Comcast would likely be the biller to get the short straw. Consequently, only a small number low income families actually qualify and receive the Xfinity Essentials service.
So what conclusions can we draw? Comcast Xfinity is the speed champ, but at a higher cost for the service and the support. AT&T U-verse can be a close second.
But the best value for money would be the Internet and phone service offered by Sonic. It nets out below $60/mo. with taxes for a decent download connection, at a cost that compares well with lifeline phone service and the most minimal DSL speeds. And its available to anyone in Oakland and many other California cities.
Check out all these offers and tell us what you decide for yourself. And run Speedtest.net to confirm your download speed.