5 Dysfunctions of Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
If you have ever suffered through the hell of getting support from your internet service provider, you have probably asked yourself, “Do they really even care?” I think they do, but not always about the same things that you care about. As a former co-owner of an internet service provider, I find it remarkable how the business has changed. When the internet first became available to consumers it was a specialty service. Access was limited and providers had to really cater to their customers’ support needs for hardware, software, phone line quality, etc. That isn’t the case anymore. The internet is everywhere. Hardware from computers, laptops, phones, and even light bulbs now have the hardware and software built-in to get connected, often with little to no effort. The internet is now a commodity. And with any commodity, those who provide it have to “play the numbers.” They know that they will gain customers here, and lose them over there, but what is important is the net score at the end of the day. Do they care that you specifically are a customer… probably not. They do care that someone (preferably multiple someones) steps up to take your place when you leave, but it might be easier to recruit a new customer than change your mind about their service.
“The internet is now a commodity. And with any commodity, those who provide it have to ‘play the numbers.‘”
This “replaceable” viewpoint by ISPs has led them to adopt solutions (ok, Band-Aids) that just don’t serve customers. Here are my Top Five Dysfunctions of ISPs:
Dysfunction 1: SPEED TESTS (They don’t tell you what you think they do.)
By now we have all run a speed test to see if we are getting the speed of internet that our ISP told us we were buying. Some people distrust speed tests because they think that internet providers prioritize traffic from these tools to make them perform better than web browsers. Others distrust them because they are often offered from their internet provider’s website and they suspect that it is just telling them what they paid for and not what they are getting in real life. I hope that neither of those answers are true, but honestly that’s not really the problem with speed tests. The real problem is that speed tests are designed to measure the “width of the highway” from your computer to a specific test point on the internet, only at that very moment. Well, anyone who has ever experienced rush hour traffic compared to the same road in the middle of the night can tell you that’s not the full picture.
“The real problem is that speed tests are designed to measure the ‘width of the highway’ from your computer to a specific test point on the internet, only at that very moment.”
Six lanes might seem generous at 3:00 am but by 5:00 pm it seems like the road just wasn’t designed for the traffic. You can’t take one picture of your internet connection (or the freeway) at one point in time and know how well the route works. Additionally, you may have noticed that speed tests are testing from your computer to their speed test server. Not the site you are trying to reach. So now you just have a misleading picture of a stretch of road that you aren’t even going to drive?
Dysfunction 2: REBOOT YOUR MODEM (They have more delay tactics than solutions.)
Let’s be honest — when you hear them insist on this being the first step of the troubleshooting process, you want to scream. You knew calling support would be an endless time suck that would frustrate and disappoint you, so you have already rebooted your computer, the modem, hell maybe even the main power to your house. Anything to avoid having to call their “Press 1 for billing, 2 to buy more lame services, 3 to discuss sock puppets, and 4 for all other issues including technical support calls that we really don’t want to hear.” After decades in the tech field, I get it — rebooting often helps. The problem is users are asked to reboot even when the call centers can connect and see the modem is up and working.
“Press 1 for billing, 2 to buy more lame services, 3 to discuss sock puppets, and 4 for all other issues including technical support calls that we really don’t want to hear.”
They have a scripted process, and dammit, they are going to follow it. What, you already went through the usual steps? Have a master’s degree in computer science? Too bad, your knowledge is worthless here. I have been hired to take you through a list of the 173 most agonizing steps in tedium that you will ever experience. Now, can you unplug your modem from the wall? This is ridiculous. We could all be spared hours of wasted time if internet providers would allow us to share data we have already collected and use it in the process. Or maybe we will all get tired of jumping through hoops and live with poor service until we can switch providers (again).
Dysfunction 3: YOUR CONNECTION WORKS; IT MUST BE… (They don’t think you can see where the problem is happening.)
Passing the buck. It is so easy to look for the easiest path around the problem. In the internet industry they call it MTTI, or “Mean Time to Innocence.” Don’t get me wrong, I like to achieve a quick MTTI as much as the next person, but it helps to have a strong argument. When I was a child and blamed my sister for the mess in the living room, I had an incredibly fast MTTI and an equally expedient MTTP (mean time to punishment) when my mom found out I was part of the problem too. Sadly, internet providers seem too eager to stop at the water’s edge. Their attitude seems to be “well, you have a connection, if it performs poorly it must be your problem or the server you are trying to use.” That is such an easy answer. I always worry about easy answers. To me it is like the water company saying there are pipes running to my house so the lack of water must be that my glass doesn’t work or the mountain snow isn’t melting. Pretty easy way to avoid talking about their busted pipes, but not very good customer service. Internet providers need to take responsibility for showing their users with convincing data where things are going wrong.
“well, you have a connection, if it performs poorly it must be your problem or the server you are trying to use.”
Dysfunction 4: LIMITED CAPACITY (They know where their network is weak, and hope you don’t.)
Thank you for buying the “Super Ultra Mega Big” internet package. You can now have our fastest connection ever — except when you can’t… and that will be often. For example, at 9 in the morning, yeah everyone just got to work so it is pretty slow. Oh and at noon when people take their breaks, at the end of the work day… oh and did we mention prime time streaming limits? Let’s face it: that phrase “up to XX speed” doesn’t guarantee anything. A four lane road can have “up to” 4 lanes open, but of course sometimes there are flaggers only letting 1 car go through at a time. Tired of getting flagged off the road? Me too. But internet service providers frequently present users with slowdowns because they just didn’t build a wide enough highway. And in some places they have built massive capacity (think 70 lane freeway) but it empties into neighborhoods with old equipment that can’t handle the traffic (think 1 way dirt road). Sadly, ISPs often know where their network is weak (or at least the network engineering team does), but often don’t share that with you, even if they’re actively working to improve it. Having front line support tell you about this (or know about it) might drive you to another provider, but having you do the reboot/not-our-fault dance might make you stick around till they do get it fixed. Their hope is that they will have the most profitable (hope this is your neighborhood) sections upgraded before too many customers cancel and walk away.
“Sadly, ISPs often know where their network is weak (or at least the network engineering team does), but often don’t share that with you, even if they’re actively working to improve it.”
If you have an internet connection that goes from awesome to absolute crap in a matter of seconds, it’s often not tech support you need but a switch to a competing provider who values your neighborhood more.
Dysfunction 5: SHAME ON YOU (For using the data we said we could provide)
Internet service providers are so proud of the speed of their connections. Go to your ISP’s website and I can almost guarantee that there will be a number in large print telling you how fast their fastest or their most popular service can deliver. I can also guarantee that you will not see a number saying how long you can use that speed before they get upset and slow your network down. They are called data caps, and whether you get internet from your cable company, telephone company, or cellular provider, they exist. My service provider’s most popular package is 100Mbps and (found on another page is much smaller print) it lists a data cap at 300GB. Now, for using Facebook or watching some shows on Netflix, that is pretty damn good. But if you are a serious gamer or have “cut the cord” on cable TV, get ready for a ride. If you do the math you will find out that if you used all that wonderful bandwidth (the part in big print) continuously then you will hit the cap in 7 Hours 9 Minutes 29.8 Seconds. Wait… isn’t that a monthly plan, you say? Yep. You see, ISP’s are gamblers. They play the odds that you won’t use all of the speed they advertise and, if you do, it will be in short bursts that won’t add up before the month is over.
“You see, ISP’s are gamblers. They play the odds that you won’t use all of the speed they advertise”
This works for them most of the time, but when it doesn’t they have some tricks to hide the problem. Their favorite is to slow down your connection (think poor streaming video or the dreaded ‘buffering’ video), a practice they call throttling. Imagine if your power or water worked this way. Suddenly our TVs and lights would dim and faucets would drip until our next billing cycle. I think we can agree that we don’t need punitive utilities that reduce in quality as a result of using what we paid to receive.
Dealing with Dysfunctional ISP’s (Yes, you can achieve ‘Network Nirvana’)
Psychology teaches that after becoming aware of dysfunctional behavior, we need to seek understanding and take action to prevent it from continuing. This is a much higher road than I often feel like taking with my ISP, but who am I to argue with “the experts”? My recommendation? Choose an ISP with a good reputation, read the fine print on what they provide, and when your service doesn’t live up to the promises, arm yourself the right kind of data. If you need help diagnosing what is wrong and want to achieve “network nirvana” check out this step-by-step guide for winning the fight for great internet service.