29 Sep 2016

Internet in the Canadian Near-City

I love living in the country. But one of the few downsides is Internet connectivity: fewer choices, and poor quality for what few choices exist.

I don't have Fibre To The Home (FTTH) and never will. I'd be happy with Fibre To The Neighbourhood or Distribution Point, but that's probably never going to happen either. I don't even have cable as a choice. My only choices are: satellite, aDSL, and LTE/cell; and they're not great choices.

Satellites are a shared commodity and are over-provisioned to the point of uselessness. I had someone come and give me satellite because of the promised 10Mbps. It was free for the first month; after about 20 days I called and asked them to remove it. It wasn't even worth finishing off the full free first month! Maybe at around 3am in the morning you might get something approaching 10Mbps. That'll last until about 6am. By 8am you're lucky to be getting 1-2Mbps, and from 10am until 3am the next morning you'd do better with a 2400 baud modem and a regular phone line!

With satellite the usage caps are pretty low, the costs are high (considering the low caps), and the performance is "good" if you only use the Internet through the night and don't need it during the day. Oh, and there's no option of simply paying to increase your cap; once you hit your cap, they throttle you down to speeds from the Internet pliocene age until your next billing cycle!

For the last 2 years (since I moved to my current address) I've been muddling along with aDSL. At best I get, maybe, 2Mbps (if I'm lucky) down, and about 600Kbps up. Unlike satellite (or cable, if that were an option) it's not shared, so it's a pretty constant 1.5-2Mbps throughout the entire day. But here's the funny thing: every once in a while the performance plummets and I'm forced to contact my ISP for a remedy. DSL lines can be set to one of a couple "profiles": there's a "go as fast as you can and ignore dropped packets" profile, a "minimize packet drops by going slower" profile, and a "make them pine for the days of dialup" profile. The annoying thing is, the carrier's network equipment is able to switch the profile without any human intervention! So every once in a while the network analyzes my line, decides my dropped packet rate is too high, and switches me to a slower profile. Once I notice, I'm forced to log a performance ticket with my ISP, whose response is to log a ticket with the carrier, who (eventually) changes me back to the hi-speed performance profile and everything is fine again (if you call 2Mbps "fine"). But, of course, that doesn't happen too quickly, so I usually have to go a couple days with very slow lines before I'm boosted back up. That happens roughly 5 times a year.

With DSL it's easy and relatively cheap to get unlimited (or virtually unlimited) download caps, the cost is low-ish, but the performance isn't great. However, the speed is consistently not great, so you get used to it (until their equipment sets you to a lower profile). When I say the cost is low I'm not implying it's cheap by any stretch of the imagination. I'm speaking relative to the other Canadian choices; certainly not relative to what people in other countries pay.

Most providers offer different DSL packages. For a lot of money a person can get really fast DSL, but if someone wanted to save a bit of cash they can opt for slower DSL speeds. The slowest package I can find is a 5/0.8Mbps package for $53 with a 50GB cap. Nobody offers a 2Mbps package, so even if I took this 5Mbps package, I would already be paying for >50% bandwidth I'm never going to realize because the equipment on my street simply can't go that fast. As it turns out I needed a static IP and I wanted a plan with no cap so the cheapest plan I could find to fit that criteria is a 10Mbps plan. So I'm paying for a 10Mbps connection, but by living in the country I'm not getting everything for which I'm paying.

Even though DSL isn't that great an option, ironically I'm "lucky" to have it. I'm the last person on my street to which the DSL lines extend. My neighbour, a couple houses down, doesn't have the option of DSL since these lines end at the junction box outside my home. My home is about 2.5 km from the neighbourhood junction, and that junction is about 4-5 km from the CO. So it's actually amazing that I even get DSL at all!

My final option is LTE (Internet over modern cell towers).  Internet via cell towers has been around for many years (decades?) but it's an option I've never taken seriously due to the ridiculously low caps, the (traditionally) low speeds, and how we're gouged on cell data prices here in Canada. A recent conversation with a fellow country-living friend, however, had me reconsider. We've finally gotten to the point where LTE is, at least, worth considering. LTE offers much better speed than had been available via cell towers, so the data rate is now good. Again, everything's relative. For $60/month I can get roughly 16Mbps and a 5GB cap. How is this worth considering? If I put in a second DSL line and bonded them, I'd be paying over $140/month and my speed would only be roughly 4-5Mbps (but I'd have no cap). Spending $110/month on an LTE plan would give me up to 50GB (cap) at 16Mbps. Before LTE, doing Internet over cell towers would give you speeds in the low Mbps or high Kbps, have caps in the 100's of MBs, and I won't even bother mentioning the price.

Another major consideration is reliability, and it's not something you should ignore. The reliability of satellite is abysmal; the laws of physics simply dictate that weather is going to interfere. DSL is better since it's not as dependent on weather, but as a long-time DSL user I can attest to the fact that downtime will happen. Looking back through the tickets I've opened with my ISP over the years (I've been using DSL since the late 90's) I'd say that roughly 8-10 times a year you'll find yourself without Internet for at least a day if not the entire weekend. I'm new to LTE so I can't give any feedback on its reliability. However, in theory, cell towers tend to have excellent up-time, so, in theory, LTE should have fantastic up-times as well.

I like to think of myself as someone who lives in the country but I refer to myself as living near-city since I have the advantage of being close enough to a major city such that there are cell towers in my area and that they've been upgraded to LTE. If I lived in even a largish town there might exist the possibility of fibre, or at the very least I could get fast DSL or cable (and at least get everything for which I was paying). But since I do live close to cell towers with LTE I have to categorize myself as a near-city country-living Canadian, as distinct from other country-living Canadians who don't live within cell-tower range, for whom the only options would be dial-up or satellite.

What is my solution? Currently I've kept my DSL line for any large downloads, and Netflix (it's more than adequate for standard definition streaming using a Roku 3). But I also have an LTE device for those situations where speed is essential but the download amount isn't going to be too high.