Offering Home LTE: Time for Telcos to Grow Up

WARNING: This is a bit of rant. I am frustrated with residential offerings for Internet service. This is an effort to explain how LTE should be a viable and equal cost option to existing DSL service that is out there.

I need reliable Internet service, bottom line.  I have limited offerings available to me where I live, like everyone else.  My options are Comcast and CenturyLink.  Comcast has been on my list of least liked companies for a long time (the leader since 2002), but they are my only “viable” option, because I do need something that is actually high-speed (CenturyLink advertises speeds up to 10Mbps for me, but when I have called them, they say that they can only provide me with 3Mbps and 6Mbps, most recently).  For the most part, I only really need faster service for streaming purposes, otherwise, 3Mbps would actually be sufficient.

At my previous home, I had AT&T U-Verse.  It wasn’t without its issues, but it was generally reliable.  I paid for 18Mbps service and consistently received about 24Mbps.  Infrequently, one of the bonded DSL lines that comprised the connection would drop (likely because of the archaic rat’s nest of wiring that the copper PSTN infrastructure is accustomed gets bumped when a new line is being turned up and the circuit is broken).  However, outside of these issues, it worked.  I was able to connect to what I needed to use and my connection remained intact for the duration of the day (namely, VPN).

At my current home, I signed up for Comcast’s 75Mbps service prior to moving in.  In general, it offered more bandwidth than I required at a reasonable monthly fee.  We can stream just fine in high quality (even 4K from Netflix).  However, communications that are more sensitive (don’t offer buffering, like streaming does) get disconnected no less than 4 times a day, but usually 20-30 times a day.  It is pretty frustrating.  Note, I am doing the same things with this service that were extremely reliable with AT&T U-Verse’s far slower speeds.  I bought a cable modem that was on the supported list and offered speeds of over 300Mbps (Arris Surfboard SB6141).  I kept my old router (Netgear RangeMax WNR834Bv2).

I started noticing issues right away and had a service technician out.  He said everything looked fine (SNR, signal to noise ratio, was right at the edge of “acceptable”, and still is today).  I replaced my router with a much more substantial offering and my speed improved, but reliability did not.  I have all of the critical systems hard wired via ethernet, so that isn’t an issue.  So, I decided, why not upgrade my service to the 150Mbps service as it was only $10/month more.  Things didn’t improve, but Comcast kept indicating that my modem was not supported, but it was still on the supported list.

Several months and numerous service technicians later, I upgraded to the 300Mbps service and even bought a new modem (Arris Surfboard SB6190) that has 32 channels and up to 1.4Gpbs capabilities.  Things improved marginally (maybe 5%, I estimate).  I had a new line run to the house.  Still issues.  The real reason for that was the line was cut and I tethered to my mobile phone with only two bars of signal strength and had a far superior experience to my 300Mbps wired cable services from Comcast.

Within a week, Comcast contacted me about gigabit services.  I was immediately dismissive because they wanted me to sign up for a contract, but the price would be the same as my current 300Mbps service and with the contract I would have no data cap.  It had a 30-days window to cancel the contract, so I took the bait.  The very next day was very unreliable, so I just canceled the appointment and decided to keep my service.  It isn’t worth my time to deal with the potential headache of canceling the service down the line.  I also received a mailer from CenturyLink where they offered their service for $25/month.  So I signed up for that.

SIDE NOTE: I find it extremely odd that CenturyLink offers essentially a “fixed fee, whatever speed we can get to you” service.  If they can get you the 10Mbps, you pay $40/month, if they can only get you 3Mbps, you still pay $40/month.  Anyhow, the $25/month offer was compelling enough for me to give it a try.

So, I signed up for CenturyLink with the plan being to use it for the hopefully reliable service and requirements that I have while maintaining service with Comcast for the more bandwidth intensive requirements that I have.  This wouldn’t be the first time I went down this road… prior to having AT&T U-Verse, I had traditional AT&T DSL service and had two lines and I manually “load balanced” between them by altering the default route of different systems to use one or the other.

Yesterday, CenturyLink was a “no call, no show.”

What I have wanted for some time was some reasonably priced LTE service to use at home.  This is my attempt to reach out to the telephone companies.  You can do this for the same price as DSL service.  Simply put, the reason LTE data costs so much is because you can be basically anywhere.  One moment, you’re at home, then you drive to work, school, vacation, or whatever.  Along the way, you pass between numerous cell towers that need to be able to support a peak capacity that is higher than what would be expected for wired services.  Simply put: it’s rather unpredictable (at least unreliably or timely unpredictable).

However, offering a “Fixed LTE” service wouldn’t suffer from these issues.  When I say fixed LTE, I mean that they could offer you service that is tied to a location.  Perhaps your signal quality is such that you bounce between two or three towers at your house, this is fine.  They just restrict your service via the associated SIM card to those towers after they do a signal study.  They let you “roam” within your postal code for a day or two with the idea that they learn how the signal works best for you.  Then, they lock you down.  If you want to move for a week, a month, or permanently, you just give them a call and maybe they charge a $25 fee to move, especially if it is just temporarily.  But, this sort of service should be doable for a cost comparable with DSL service.  Why?  Because we are only talking about differing the “last mile” of connectivity, at worst.  They could offer the same path once you connect to the cell tower and go through the same central office that your DSL service would go through, or they could have dedicated backhaul.  These are all options for them to work through.

Below is a diagram that illustrates this point:

(A) simply illustrates the “last mile” difference between DSL and LTE service.  The cell tower may be adjacent or co-located with your local central office, or not, which brings up (B).  (B) illustrates the infrastructure options available to the telco.  They could have it follow the data services that they already have provisioned for traditional LTE services, or they could offer separate backhaul that either goes to the local central office or is sent up to an upstream central office.

More to the point, this should be less costly to telcos because they won’t have to worry about maintaining copper in the ground, sending service technicians out to punch/twist wires to complete your circuit when activated or a service interruption happens, and they already maintain the infrastructure for the LTE service.  There is no need to charge a premium for this and it doesn’t need the restrictive data caps that LTE service has (where even the “unlimited” service is throttled).  They could offer their service with similar cost and data caps to DSL and it would cost them similar or less to the infrastructure that is in place for DSL.

Verizon has an option like this that they have offered in the past, and both AT&T and Verizon have offerings catered to residential Internet service, but they are not priced appropriately.  Further, if your signal strength leaves something to be desired, you could even establish a stronger antenna indoors, or mount a dedicated antenna outside, like a satellite dish (but less noticeable).

It’s time for the Telcos to grow up.  They are missing an opportunity to improve their offerings to customers that have a laundry list of bad experiences.  Instead of waiting on a service technician, customers could order their own equipment from a retailer of their choosing and install this at their own convenience, or they could schedule a technician to come out and assist (and install a dedicated fixed antenna, if necessary/desired).  Get on the ball and make this happen.

UPDATE: August 2, 2017 – CenturyLink has been installed for about a month and it has been extremely stable both in terms of the link being active and a stable routing path with low latency.  The bandwidth leave much to be desired but it is sufficient for work purposes including screen sharing, voice, and other work tasks.

UPDATE: June 3, 2017 – I called CenturyLink again and they informed me that they are seriously behind and since I have no phone line physically in existence at my home, they will need a technician equipped with that capability (which are fewer in supply).  Also, I tested just tethering my work computer over wifi all day long and estimated that I will need about 3GB of data per month, as long a I don’t let it do sofware updates over the LTE data.  Instead of using my iPhone for tethering, however, I am going to switch to my iPad Mini (which also has LTE and is on the same shared data plan); I have it mounted above my monitor on a gooseneck stand.  This will allow me to pick up my phone and walk around.  Further, since I can only get about two bars of signal, when I was on a call and doing screen sharing simultaneously, the call would break up a bit more.  On a side note, I am looking to get an “air booster” (not an affiliate link) as the signal strength goes up to 3-4 bars outside.

UPDATE: June 1, 2017 – The saga continues… still no show by CenturyLink, “no call, no show” for the third day in a row (I call a couple times per day).  I am monitoring the bandwidth of my work machine just to see how much data usage it has in a day as I have no real idea.  The household consumes ~900GB of data per month, but a significant amount of that is streaming traffic.  I will use this to determine if tethering or other LTE options would be viable.

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