AT&T DSL: Getting What I Pay For?

Gibbs discovered that his DSL service can start at a lower line speed than he signed up for and he's not happy

So, here in Gearhead last week I discussed the problems AT&T has been having in providing me with a reliable DSL service and it seems a significant number of you feel my pain.

Reader David Gipe had a tale replete with the kind of frustration that comes from dealing with a service behemoth. In 2007 David called to make changes to his company's DSL service which had static IP addresses. He was told his IP addresses might change and, if they did change, the new IP addresses wouldn't be available until the order had been processed. Chicken, meet egg.

To find out if new IP addresses had been assigned, he'd have to call when the order had been processed or just wait for his Internet service to stop working. David wrote to the Customer Relations Manager in the AT&T Internet Services Executive Offices: "In the Internet Age, I find this 'reactive' approach very disturbing, as DNS changes can take up to three days to fully ripple through the Internet. In my opinion, your current reactive approach to this configuration change issue is the best advertisement you can use *AGAINST* yourself. " His letter worked, and he got satisfaction.

Reader Alan Aber commented, "As a Sys Admin for a midsized company supporting remote users and executives as well as regular stuff, I also had problems with a consistent DSL connection -- a real bear when I had a slow link to mills in Mexico. So I ran a continuous ping to a ATT DNS server and wrote the results to a file with times. Then I used that info to call and complain."

Alan ultimately threatened AT&T that he would switch to cable and his service was promptly improved. That, Alan notes, was eight years ago and it has been “working OK since, but an 'improvement' two years ago slightly slowed downloads."

And it's that last issue -- slowdowns -- that has really irked me.

In the last column I discussed how my first hop into AT&T's network was apparently throwing away packets, how my service came and went repeatedly, and how technicians had been dispatched to sort out my problems. I've now had, I believe, three techs (they sort of blur after the first one or two) come and do their magic and my connection goes from bad to good. Then it goes back to fair then bad, then an engineer comes and it goes back to good ... the excitement never seems to end.

What really annoyed me was that AT&T's Web site offers all the combinations you can think of for TV, telephone and Internet but out here in the boonies of Ventura (an enormous five miles from the town center),  the only thing AT&T can deliver is Internet service at, theoretically, a maximum data rate of 6Mbps.

I write "theoretically" because 6Mbps is the service I started out with but, it turned out, not what my line could support. Before this was figured out, AT&T swapped out my linecard; the card that my DSL service attaches to at the central office (CO).  All was fine for a few days but then I started to see random outages of a few hours for no obvious reason (usually just before I wanted to get on Netflix to watch "Downton Abbey").

When my connection returned I noticed poor performance and, on checking the DSL modem, discovered the line speed wasn't 6Mbps, it was only about 750kbps, roughly the same as the upload speed. Rebooting the DSL modem fixed this and the line speed went back to 6Mbps.

Now, I know enough to look at the status page from my DSL modem, but what of the average consumer? If they had an outage and then recovered with a working service at one-fourth the data rate they wouldn't know it.  They would just think their connection was kind of slow and be disappointed. Eventually they might call AT&T and, when the level 1 customer service droid follows the support script they'll go through the reboot your PC, power down your modem, turn around three times and click your heels routine and the problem will be fixed without either the consumer or customer service droid having a clue about what was really wrong.

Now most of these modems (I have a Motorola NVG510) have some kind of status page so creating a process to access the data and parse it so that logs can be kept and alerts raised shouldn't be hard. The first step is grabbing the status data using something like cURL:

curl http://10.0.0.1/cgi-bin/dslstatstics.ha > stats.txt

The lines we want in stats.txt look like this:

<tr><td class="col1">Downstream Sync Rate (kbps)</td>

<td class="col2">6016</td>

</tr>

<tr><td class="col1">Upstream Sync Rate (kbps)</td>

<td class="col2">765</td>

The numbers 6016 and 765 are the variables we want to extract, add a time stamp to, then compare to target values. We then want to notify the user if the status values change. I think a small Perl program may be in order. Or maybe a Sed script. Or maybe you have a better solution ...

In two weeks time, I'll return to this topic with some solutions and, if you want a shot at fame and fortune (well, actually just fame), send your solution to gearhead@gibbs.com.

As for my DSL service, problems reappeared and after a ridiculous amount of running around in circles by both AT&T and myself, it was determined that I was over the limit for distance (I'm at something around 10,500 feet) from the central office for a 6Mbps IP DSL service. A lineman came out and switched my connection over to another circuit as well as to another "tray" at the CO and pronounced the line now capable of reliably supporting 3Mbps.

The sad thing is that AT&T's sales people will apparently sell you any service without a clue as to whether the service can actually be delivered and, when it doesn't work properly, it is you who'll go through contortions and hard labor to get to the bottom of the problem. If you're a "techie" you'll be able to sort it out, but if you're not, you may never get to the bottom of the problem and you'll wind up just living with a poor connection while AT&T happily takes your money.

An interesting side issue is why there's no fiber-based AT&T U-Verse service in Ventura ... the lineman told me that Ventura City council insisted that the fiber distribution boxes (which are apparently about the size of one of those street transformers) would have to be underground. This apparently raises the deployment costs considerably so AT&T (and, presumably, Verizon) decided to pass on fiber for now. Pah!

My only other real choice for Internet connectivity would be cable, but once you've started with AT&T you're locked in for two years. Anyone who thinks there's anything approximating competition in this market is just kidding themselves.

Gibbs is  digitally locked in in Ventura, Calif. Send your status monitoring solutions to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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