2008
10.09

Two internet marketing mantras examined. Neither are quite what they seem.

If you’ve been at The Oredigger‘s website before you probably know I talk a lot about internet services, continually ragging on Comcast for their caps and, to a lesser extent, on Qwest for the ineptitude of their service. In the interest of full disclosure, I currently use Comcast for my internet, paying them a juicy $53 per month for their higher tier of residential service. The price will rise to $63 in a few months. I also have access to Qwest DSL through my apartment building, and even had the service for a little under twenty-four hours. I use Comcast now because it has lower latency (internet travel time) between me and both Mines’ network and the networks of most websites I visit. It’s also faster on downloads and uploads by a factor of two or three versus Qwest’s highest end plan. In short, I know from experience what I’m talking about…

…and the topic today is advertising. On the one hand Qwest promises lightning-fast speeds on their “Fiber Optic” network. Comcast says they’ll deliver a similar animal via their PowerBoost-branded technology. So what’s beyond all this hype from these companies? Glad you asked.

First, PowerBoost. Despite my disdain for Comcast, I have to acknowledge that this is a real technology. with real benefits, though the service isn’t without its gimmicks. In short, Comcast says that PowerBoost effectively doubles the throughput of your internet connection for a little while at the beginning of a download or upload. This is incorrect; in practice the result is much better, at least for downloads. Effectively, for the first 40 MB of a download Comcast allows your cable modem to download data using all the spare capacity of the cable node you’re on. Uploads also get PowerBoost, allowing what seems to be 3 Mbps top speeds (6-7 Mbps have been resitered in some places, but nowhere around here) for the first 20 MB or so of a transfer. In practice, I have seen PowerBoost provide between 20 and 31 Mbps of bandwidth on their own speed test (http://speedtest.comcast.net) due to PowerBoost on the download side and about 2.8 Mbps on uploads.

There are several caveats to this quick burst of speed, which ends up giving you “regular” web browsing as fast as the modem can pull down data. First, your average wireless router can’t handle the speed, nor can your cable modem if it’s hooked to your computer via USB (as opposed to Ethernet). As an example, my high-end N-wireless router (a Linksys WRT310N to be exact) broke last night after giving subpar speeds all day, so I’m back on an older router (a Linksys WRT54G v8). Speeds on the former spiked to the aorementioned 31 Mbps, as fast as if I had been connected directly to the cable modem. The older router only manages 10-14 Mbps on downloads, though I can still take full advantage of Comcast’s upload PowerBoost.

The other caveats of PowerBoost deal with equipment that’s not your own. First, PowerBoost serves as a nice mask to disguise speeds that, after you get beyond 40MB of a download, aren’t quite what you paid for, though Comcast seems to be better about this than Qwest (more on that in a minute). Second, if you’re in a congested area, you likely won’t see much, if any, benefit from PowerBoost, and you’ll have to deal with Comcast’s network managment policies pretty soon as well. Last, the servers at the other end of your internet connection may not be able to push out information as ast as you can download it. Servers can generally allow users to download at 10 or 15 Mbps, but above that speeds are hit-or-miss unless you’re grabbing data off of Amazon, Google, Microsoft or other such big-name systems. That’s because the vast majority of web servers run on 100 Mbps connections that, when shared between everyone visiting a site, can get spread quite thin. The secret to Microsoft et al is that their servers are connected at much higher rates and\or they have multiple servers pushing content onto the internet.

Hopefully this sheds some light onto what just might make up for Comcast’s internet speeds, which on the download side seem rather lacking compared with some other cable companies. A quick tip: PowerBoost has been licensed by Comcast to Time Warner Cable (RoadRunner) and Cox Communications, so if you see mention of PowerBoost in those companies’ literature it’s the same animal, albeit with possibly different speed constraints (Cox, for example, has been recorded as having upload speeds in excess o 4 Mbps during the PowerBoost period).

Now to Qwest, to deconstruct their “Fiber Optic” marketing, known by technophiles the world over as “Fiber To The Press Release”…

You heard me right. There isn’t any more fiber in Qwest’s network than in Comcast’s. Actually, there’s probabbly less. For example, Golden doesn’t have any internet speeds higher than 5 Mbps because there’s no Qwest fiber here to speak of. In fact, Qwest doesn’t have fiber anywhere reasonably close to your DSL modem, even if you’re on their ridiculously expensive 20 Mbps package. Giving everyone fiber would be much too expensive (though Verizon is doing it in several of their serviced areas)…

Instead, Qwest relies on a souped-up copper-fed tech called ADSL2+ for their “last mile”, between you and either the nearest Qwest central office or its smaller equivalent. The advantage of ADSL2+ is that it can deliver more than 20 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds (24 and 1/4 to be exact) in optimal conditions over short distances (less tan 5000 feet). However, those are the limits of ADSL2+, and as you get farther from the central office, line quality issues dictate lower maximum speeds (12 Mbps or 7 Mbps for example) on the line. A bigger problem: upload speeds flat-out suck; Comcast runs circles around Qwest’s 896 kbps speeds, particularly with PowerBoost running.

But until Qwest switches to something other than ADSL2+ (AT&T has shorter-range, higher-speed VDSL, Verizon has fiber to the home or FTTH) they’re stuck with these onstraints. Even if you’re in a “fiber optic” area (more apropriately called an FTTN, or Fiber To The Node, system) the last mile of your connection is plain old copper DSL. Here in Golden, it’s worse: there’s no ADSL2+ yet, so 5 Mbps ADSL is the extent of Qwest’s offering. To add insult to injury, the speeds advertised on Qwest’s website, both for uploads and downloads, don’t account for the overhead that takes a 15-20% chunk out of the actual speeds you’ll see on a DSL connection (Comcast, on the other hand, accounts for this overhead and gives you 10% more “rated” speed to compensate). So, in reality, expect around 17 Mbps from a 20Mbps connection (Comcast offers a $89 business-class tier that actually gives 16 Mbps down and 2 up, with PowerBoost on top of those speeds), 10.2 Mbps on a 12 Mbps connection, 6 Mbps on a 7 Mbps connection and 4.3 Mbps on the 5 Mbps service sold here in Golden. Uploads? Try 700-750 kbps, even on Qwest’s own speed test site (http://speedtest.qwest.net). Funny how other DSL providers, such as Windstream and Embarq, at least give you the speed that’s advertised, and Qwest flat-out doesn’t, using the same types of equipment. Sorry guys, until y’all run fiber another few thousand feet, go ahead and stick your “Fiber Optic” press kits where the fiber ultimately goes…and the sun don’t shine.

There you have it: the biggest marketing gimmicks of the telephone and cable companies, exposed. Now you know what PowerBoost does and what Qwest’s all-net fiber architecture…well…doesn’t. I’ve even heard that people with those fancy Qwest plans can’t get even close to full speeds on their connections sometimes during the day. Pitiful, but that’s the sort of thing that people need to know about when choosing between two evils. If you have any questions about this, or any, of my articles, drop a comment or e-mail me at ilittman@mines.edu. To those of you reading it at the appropriate time, happy fall break!

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2 comments so far

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  1. Thanks for this info – I just had the roaming salesman come by last night to sell me the Qwest Fiber-Optic internet access b/c they had just run the new lines in my neighborhood (in Denver near DU)… is this actually true or does your assessment remain true? That they have Fiber Optics that get close, but not actually to my house?

  2. Go to Qwest’s site and put your address into their prequalification system. I can guarantee that you’re not on actual fiber to the home, however a fiber-fed remote terminal might be within a mile and a half of you (speeds above 7 Mbps on downloads available) or even within a half-mile of you (speeds above 896 kbps on uploads available). Post back with what speeds Qwest says you can get and I’ll tell yu just how close the fiber is. But, rest assured, it’s not al the way to your house. You would’ve seen Qwest technical trucks around in large numbers if that were the case.

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