Internet on the fritz? Rob Hopkins has an idea why.
Northwestel may be intentionally crashing your connection.
The company, which enjoys a monopoly in offering high-speed internet in the territory, restricts the number of internet connections any DSL customer can open at once. Northwestel doesn’t advertise this restriction, but if you run too many internet-dependent applications at once, your connection will be cut.
Hopkins calls this practice “throttling.” Jason Bilsky, the company’s vice-president of corporate services, calls it “flow control.”
The two had it out Wednesday evening, during the annual meeting of the Utility Consumers Group at the Whitehorse Public Library. The debate was perhaps best summed up by Hopkins, who chairs the group’s telecommunications committee.
“You’re saying everything’s great,” he told Bilsky. “We’re saying everything’s crappy.”
Every web page opened triggers a flurry of tiny packets of information exchanged between your computer and Northwestel’s servers. A typical page may result in 30 connections.
Hit 500 concurrent connections and Northwestel will pull the plug on residential DSL customers. Commercial customers have a limit of 1,000 connections.
Cable internet customers don’t appear to face any such restrictions.
The purpose of this restriction is to prevent a small number of data-hogs from eating up most of the territory’s bandwidth, said Bilsky.
But Hopkins says it’s akin to counting the number of grains of sand blowing through a pipe that remains largely empty. He’s talking about capacity of the fibre-optic pipelines that connect the territory to Outside.
Bilsky counters this analogy is misleading: the territory may have unused capacity in datapipes connected to Outside, but the company’s own network still backs up during peak hours.
And he notes that “throttling” commonly refers to the practice of restricting certain internet activities, such as voice-over internet programs like Skype, or peer-to-peer file sharing applications like Bittorrent. Northwestel doesn’t do this, said Bilsky.
Whatever it’s called, Hopkins suspects the practice is behind the many complaints he hears from Yukoners about dropped internet connections.
Bilsky warns against drawing quick conclusions: internet service crashes can be caused by any number of problems, from ill-configured wireless routers to subscription to computer viruses.
And, he acknowledged, sometimes his company’s network is to blame.
Hopkins asked why the company doesn’t advertise its policy to limit internet connections for DSL customers. “You’re not telling them about flow control. You’re keeping it secret,” said Hopkins.
“We’re finalizing our terms of service,” said Dallas Yeulett, manager of regulatory affairs. “As soon as it’s done, you’ll get a copy.”
Neither Bilsky nor Yeulett could say how long the company has been restricting the flow of data to its DSL customers.
Singling out DSL customers seems unfair to Bob Miller. He’s a rural resident who lives beyond the reach of Northwestel’s cable service.
“I spent $80 per month on something I can’t use,” he said. “I’m that close to going back to dial-up.”
And if bandwidth-hogging is a concern, flow control may not be the answer. The number of connections has little to do with the volume of data consumed by a customer, Miller noted.
“If I can send at 10 kilobits per second and knock down my network, that’s throttling,” he said.
Bilsky replied that 500 connections is “quite a few pages open at one time… it prevents what I’d consider to be excess.
“By anyone’s standards, 500 is a lot.”
“Not mine,” shot back Hopkins and Miller.
This makes them “extreme” users, Bilsky replied.
But others in the room who lacked technological savvy also frequently experienced internet problems. Calls to the technical assistance line hadn’t helped.
One was Gerard Bocahut. He wanted to know why his cable internet connection was “crawling like a snail” during certain times of day. That’s likely because of congestion during peak hours, Bilsky replied.
The meeting grew more testy as time wore on. Hopkins wondered aloud whether the company’s technicians had properly set up the switches used to limit internet connections.
The factory settings for one particular switch used by Northwestel is far lower than the company’s stated limit, he said.
Miller, meanwhile, questioned the accuracy of the company’s measurements used to cut-off users. His connection crashes well below 500 connections, according to his own measurements.
Others wanted to know why cable internet subscribers received a usage cap three times as large as DSL subscribers for the same price. Bilsky explained that the cable network is much less expensive to maintain, so the company is trying to persuade customers to switch, “but we’re not forcing it to happen.”
He also claimed it was difficult for the company to forecast how quickly internet consumption would have grown three years ago, prior to wild popularity of bandwidth-sucking websites such as Youtube.
“It’s going exponential,” said Bilsky. “It’s awful hard when you don’t have a crystal ball.”
Hopkins proposed a solution. “Get some smart people who know what’s going on,” he said.
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