Broadband customer, heal thyself: To get better internet speeds, sniff out bottlenecks within business or residence

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PITTSFIELD — At work, Jason Kruczkowski was a happy camper when it came to internet download times, getting multiples of what the government defines as broadband.

But at home in Pittsfield, webpages weren't loading as fast through the same provider. That puzzled Kruczkowski, chief operating officer of a local tech company, PC Guys.

Thanks to an assertive housemate, they got to the bottom of the problem, after Spectrum sent first one technician, then another.

"She's a stern person on the phone," Kruczkowski said of his housemate, admitting that he's kind of a pushover. "The tougher you are, the better."

That second technician discovered an unneeded splice in the coaxial cable feeding the dwelling and replaced the connection. Speeds improved right away.

"That helped out," Kruczkowski said. "There's all kind of variables to it."

For years, headlines in Berkshire County have charted progress by the commonwealth of Massachusetts in getting broadband internet to unserved communities, funding the expansion of commercial vendors like Spectrum and Comcast and a slew of public fiber-optic networks in rural towns.

But once that service reaches a home or business, the speed of data can be hobbled by shoddy or out-of-date equipment owned and controlled by customers, local experts caution.

"Most people blame the provider, but most of the time, they're using subpar equipment, or the equipment hasn't been configured properly," said Scott Kirchner, president and co-owner of Mad Macs in Pittsfield. "If you're not willing to upgrade your equipment, then why is it their fault?"

Chokepoints for data include older devices unable to handle data speeds, bad wiring, competing Wi-Fi signals and, for some, the perils of buying on the cheap, particularly with the routers that create wireless connections inside homes or workplaces.

"They buy an off-the-shelf device that just isn't capable of providing a signal throughout the establishment," Kirchner said. "People are driven by price, unfortunately."

David Hall, a co-owner of CompuWorks in Pittsfield, said his company went to help a client who wasn't getting expected download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second — a rate more than three times the broadband standard set by the Federal Communications Commission.

An old router appeared to be topping out well short of that speed.

"The router was just not able to handle it," Hall said.

That isn't the only potential problem.

Beyond aging or misconfigured devices, speeds can be slowed due to download demands by the same customer or by customers in the neighborhood all craving data through the same internet pipe.

"There are peaks and valleys that can significantly affect your speed — even dramatically," Hall said.

Test time

Local experts interviewed agree that the first step, though, is to verify the download speed that's reaching the home or business.

If an expected connection speed is just not there, they say customers should take it up with their internet service providers.

Hall says customers should run a "fair" test of speeds — and that means connecting directly to the device that brings the broadband connection into a home or business, using an ethernet cable. If customers connect through Wi-Fi, it might not be a fair test, he said, because the router providing the wireless connection might be part of the problem.

If people aren't getting what they pay for, depending on the type of package bought, it's time to raise a stink.

"I would call their technical support. If you're persistent, they'll do what they can to determine what the issue is," Hall said. "It can take a while."

Andrew Russell, the Northeast spokesman for Charter Communications, said Spectrum stands ready to help.

"Any time our customers have a question about the speed or performance of their internet service, they should contact us so we can work with them to resolve the issue," he said.

Russell echoes the local tech experts in pointing to conditions inside customers' homes or offices.

"A lot of factors can affect an individual customer's internet performance — type of devices, wiring inside the home, Wi-Fi signal strength," he said.

Hall said that CompuWorks clients who get in touch with a provider's tech support often see improvements. He recommends customers stick with it, advocating for their interests. Hall noted that a company's trouble-shooting department is likely not the same as the unit that handles installations.

"You have to get a guy [on the phone] who's willing to call the people in the other department," Hall said.

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When The Eagle invited readers this month to test their internet speeds, the nearly 100 responses received showed a wide range of download rates, even from customers of the dominant commercial provider in the region, Spectrum.

That is likely because not all Spectrum customers signed up for 100 Mbps download speeds. Charter Communications, which runs Spectrum, took over operations in parts of Berkshire County from Time Warner Cable. The older company's service topped out at downloads of 50 Mbps. Some customers settled for service at "tiers" even shy of that speed.

Kruczkowski, the chief operating officer at PC Guys, said people who buy service at a lower tier and then try to run three "smart" TVs off it should not be surprised that they encounter problems.

"It's never going to work. The more you have hooked up to the Wi-Fi, the slower it's going to work. That's a big factor, too," he said.

Toss a gamer into the domestic mix and the results could be, well, rated MA (that's Mature Adults for the uninitiated).

Local speed tests

Timothy Eustis, a Spectrum customer in Great Barrington who pays for download speeds of 100 Mbps, ran a test using fast.com and found that he was getting almost that exactly — 99 Mbps in one check.

The Eagle was not able to independently verify the results provided by readers, though in email follow-ups with more than 30 respondents, many provided screen shots of their test findings.

Jefferson Strait, a Spectrum customer in Williamstown, reported speeds of 116 Mbps and declared himself satisfied — at least on that score.

"I am happy with my internet speed, but I think that the price I am paying is exorbitant. My cable bill [including TV and internet] has increased by 45 percent over the past year. I would love to have some competition," he said.

A bill introduced to the state House of Representatives this fall by state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, seeks to lower the costs of entry for competing publicly owned internet service providers in Massachusetts. The measure would do that by sparing municipalities the "make ready" costs levied by the utilities that own poles and provide space for telecom lines.

"Charter is not providing the necessary speeds," Barrett told The Eagle. "I'm going to find competition for Charter. Some way, I'm going to find it."

In response, Russell, the Charter spokesman, said Spectrum's starting speed of 100 Mbps is double what Time Warner Cable offered. And he said gigabit connections are available for customers who want that level of service, which is 10 times the 100 Mbps speed; installation requires an in-home visit from a Spectrum technician.

[The Eagle would like to hear from readers using Spectrum's gigabit service. See the email address below.]

One Spectrum customer in North Adams charted an impressive download speed of 402 Mbps. "Never had an issue," the resident said.

Matthew Baya, a Williamstown resident, produced a download test result of 114.5 Mbps — at the high end of speeds reported to The Eagle. Still, Baya embraced Barrett's call for a more competitive market for broadband. Officials in his town are exploring creation of a municipal network. That project would benefit from not having to pay "make ready" costs.

"Wish there were choices," Baya wrote. "I'd be willing to pay more for faster speeds. Wish we had municipal or community-provided internet. I'd love to work towards that."

Perils of old gear

One speed test result shared with The Eagle appears to illustrate the effect of older equipment.

David King, of Lee, ran tests of three devices using his home Wi-Fi. While an iPad 6 recorded a download speed of 115 Mbps, his cellphone was slower, at 73.6 Mbps, and what he termed an "older unit with some upgrades" — a desktop computer — clocked in at a tortoiselike 6.3 Mbps.

Bob Desrosiers, a Spectrum customer in Pittsfield, reported download speeds of 118 Mbps and pointed to a likely reason for what he termed "good" speeds. "I bought and use my own high-end Netgear cable modem."

The Eagle's survey found many customers who appear to be good candidates both to call their providers and to see if they can make improvements inside their homes.

A Great Barrington customer of Spectrum reported a download speed of 22.3 Mbps at about noon on a Sunday. "Have gotten similar speeds from previous providers — all poor in my opinion," the resident said.

Andrea Sholler, of Great Barrington, logged in with a speed test result of 62.2 Mbps.

"It is slow compared to the N.Y. metro area," she wrote with a tone of resignation. "OK for the Berkshires."

A few towns north, Susan Wolf relayed a comparable test result of 69.1 Mbps at her home in Lenox Dale, but flagged that speeds seem to vary.

"Spectrum service is very unreliable in my neighborhood. Wish there was competition," she wrote. "Would prefer Verizon FIOS but it isn't offered here."

Further north, in Lanesborough, an upbeat Lyndon Moors reported Spectrum downloads of 114 Mbps. "These are comparably good numbers for us. Speeds are slower at times when local demand is high. We added phone to our service — all over cable — for the best quality I've ever experienced."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com or at 413-588-8341.


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