Broadband in the Hinterlands

March 18, 2012 by  

I work for a large corporation in the technical publications organization. Our staffers are spread literally all over the world. A fair number of them, due to the nature of their work, and because my company has an excellent virtual private network (VPN) that permits staffers to securely tunnel into the company’s intranet, can work from home with only limited face-to-face interaction required.

One of my co-workers, let’s call her “Jane”, decided to take advantage of this and lower her cost of living markedly. She sold hers and her mother’s South Florida homes and moved initially to Georgia, where broadband service was widely available and reliable. When homebuilding plans fell through, she looked a bit farther afield for new digs, and found a lovely home in Tennessee.

Let’s move back a bit and talk about what “Jane” does for her department. “Jane” is our Production Specialist. In other words, she takes the completed desktop publishing files from our technical writers and graphic designers, ensures the finished PDF file is press-ready, and sends it on to one of several commercial printers with which we do business. Typically, these PDF files are 2-4 megabytes in size, and she may need to move as many as four or five a day through the VPN connection into our “extranet” sites. These extranet sites are a carefully controlled window into my company’s file storage areas–actually just outside those storage areas, so that someone with the correct access account and permissions can gain access to these files without having to punch through the corporate firewall. The supplier gets the files, and the firewall remains secure. Good stuff. Most large companies have similar capabilities to permit internal and external organizations to exchange business-critical information. Once these files are at the printer and have gone through the pre-press process, proofs are sent back to “Jane” via one of the many express courier services out there (UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.). Once the proofs have been approved, “Jane” gives the printer(s) the green light to start the presses. The rest of her process is paperwork and archiving–ensuring the hard work done by the writers is stored in a safe place should it be needed again, either for an up-issue, or as the basis for a new publication. One of my many jobs is that of department librarian/systems administrator. I move the compressed archive of the completed publication to a “read-only” area on the department file server, and I process the PDF file to reduce file size as much as possible, and then move it to the internal department web server for intracompany distribution. A copy of this size-reduced PDF is also provided to the folks that run the external website, so customers can download their own copy of that publication.

Okay. As you can see, “Jane’s” function requires a lot of bandwidth as she moves large archive files (as large as 100 megabytes) here and there. With a broadband connection (DSL, Cable, etc.) using VPN software, it’s as if you were working in an office in one of your company’s buildings.

Another digression is in order. What kind of broadband services are out there? What kind of speeds do they provide? Let’s look at a few:

  1. DSL (digital subscriber line): A DSL connection places a high-frequency radio carrier on your copper telephone, modulated with a digital data stream. Think of it like a private radio station between you and your telephone company’s central office (CO), also known as the “last mile”. It really doesn’t matter who you do business with for DSL services, BellSouth, Qwest, Verizon, Earthlink, SnappyDSL, etc. When it comes right down to it, your local phone company provides rack space for your internet provider’s equipment at their CO, and it is your local telephone company who brings the internet from that CO to your home. Your DSL provider, based upon how far away you are from that CO, can offer various connection speeds–from 256 kilobits per second (about four times faster than a dial-up connection) to 6 megabits per second (about 120 times faster than a dial-up connection). That’s for download speeds, or how fast you can retrieve information (music files, video, pictures, text, etc.) from the internet. Uploading information is an entirely different thing. Most DSL providers throttle back upload speeds to anywhere from 128 to 512 kilobits per second. This discourages home users from using their broadband connection as a server for other folks to get stuff from you. Believe me, the DSL provider wants a piece of that action and has a number of business plans they will insist you accept (for a whole lot more money) to get better service.

My friend “Jane” discovered this problem here in South Florida. Her DSL provider didn’t like the fact that she was uploading lots of files through the secure VPN connection. You see, unlimited internet really isn’t. If the providers believe you are taking advantage of them (like working from your home, and using a home connection to run a business), again, they want a piece of that. In “Jane’s” case, they changed her IP address every 20-30 minutes through their dynamic host controller protocol (DHCP) server. Legal? Yes. Sleazy? YES!!! This caused the VPN software to detect a security breach, and did its job by dropping the connection. This happened so often that “Jane” was having trouble getting her work done. Fortunately, she had extended services with her DSL provider who was also her phone company and satellite TV provider, so for a very small fee, and at my suggestion, they gave her a static IP address (an IP address that never changes), and that problem went away.

This is a pattern you will see repeated quite often among high-bandwidth users–the provider wants to be compensated for you using more than they think you should be using–even though they have advertised unlimited wide open internet connections. Read the fine print!

  1. Cable: In areas where your cable TV company provide broadband internet services, you will see many of the issues just described with DSL services. Unlimited really isn’t. The more bandwidth you use, the more your cable provider is going to want to be compensated. Typical connection speeds are higher, with even basic service running around 3 megabits per second download and 512-768 kilobit upload. Premium services offer 6-8 megabit download speeds and about the same 512-765 kilobit for upload. While I haven’t personally heard about it, technically, cable providers can also discourage extended connection times and high bandwidth use by changing IP addresses on a frequent basis, thereby disrupting secure VPN services. If you see this kind of behavior, contact your cable company’s business office to see if you can either get a static IP address for an additional fee or inquire into a business account.

Bottom line, you just want them to leave you alone so you can conduct your business from your place of residence.

  1. FiOS: Fiber-Optic Service (FiOS) is broadband internet over a fiber-optic line going directly into your home. As described in a recent feature report on this website, if this service is available in your area (currently, only for Verizon customers in specific parts of the US), you will see incredible speeds, such as those reported by Russ Walkowich–about 15 megabits download and 1.5 megabits upload. Whew! Takes your breath away! Expect similar issues as described above regarding use of VPN software and heavy uploading/downloading on your FiOS service.

Just thought I’d mention that in parts of Europe, broadband internet customers are getting download speeds as high as 100 megabits for the equivalent of $20 a month! Don’t hold your breath…

Let’s get back to “Jane” and the reason for this meandering blog… I think I mentioned that “Jane” moved to a lovely home in Tennessee. She contacted the telephone company that serviced that area, and they reassured her that DSL service is alive and well, and she would have no problems getting high speed service to her new home. After she moved in and called the local service number to get that “no problem” DSL service, they told her “My goodness no! You are too far away from our central office and it could be years before DSL service is made available where you live.” The sweating started. She called Verizon to see if EVDO broadband cellular service or FiOS was available in her area. No dice… She called the local cable TV company who advised they do not offer broadband services and have no plans to do so for the immediate future. They direct all of their customers to HughesNet, a satellite broadband provider. This looked like the answer for a rural customer with no local broadband available. She called HughesNet and made the appropriate arrangements. A few days later, a technican came to her home, installed the dish and terminal equipment, set it up, and left. Two days later, the service began dropping off. The tech came back about a week later stating that the antenna had to be repositioned due to “settling”. This began a round of good service/bad service that plagued her for over a month. Service would start off fine, but as the day went on, it got worse and worse–especially if she used the VPN software. She called me one day in desperation, asking if there was anything I could do to improve performance on the corporate side. I told her there was nothing I could do, but while we were chatting, I went to the HughesNet site and found the “smoking guns” (yes, there were several of them) in small footnotes on the “Plans” page.

“Jane” had chosen the “ProPlus” plan that gave her 1.5 megabit download and 200 kilobit upload. Then I began looking at the spec sheet and saw some notations for things like Download Threshold and Recovery Rate (with teeny-tiny footnotes). It seems like HughesNet has something called the Fair Access Policy. This policy outlines what they deem to be “abusive consumption”. The end result is that if, as a ProPlus customer, you download more than 400 MB of content in one sitting, your download speed will be automatically throttled back to 50 kBPS (dial-up speed), also known as the “Recovery Rate” for a predetermined period of time. Another footnote stated that if VPN connections are made, the data speeds will be reduced as much as 50-75%.

Hughes’ rationale for this is that the satellite has limited bandwidth and large users of bandwidth (VPN connections produce a constant data flow, whether you are moving any data or not) make things slower for the rest of their customers. Business users who need to use VPN software are not really welcome here, or so it seems. Unless, of course, you want to pay much higher rates–then, apparently, it’s OK to be a bandwidth hog. Oh, and at no time when she called with complaints about service/performance did they ask any questions that might have directed them to explain their policies. Nope, I had to find it on their website and explain HughesNet policy to “Jane.”

I have given “Jane” some advice that has helped things at least somewhat (and may help you if you have similar issues):

  1. If you have to upload large blocks of data, do them in 300-350 MB chunks, then log off for 30 minutes or so.
  2. If your company has an extranet site (or sites) and you can gain access to them from the outside, connect to the external extranet connection without using the VPN software, and follow the instructions above (upload no more than 300 or so megabytes at one time).
  3. If you have to use VPN software, try to only connect when you are actively reading and sending email or exchanging files. Disconnect for 30-45 minutes, then reconnect.

I am also looking into a new type of secure connection that my employer is rolling out, that uses SSL security. If it doesn’t have as large a footprint as traditional VPN tunneling software, it might not invoke the “throttle of death” (or may at least delay its evil behavior). If that doesn’t work, I’ve also advised “Jane” to look into setting up a small office in an in-town storage warehouse. I’ve seen many people run small offices in these facilities. They are a whole lot cheaper than a regular office building, and if DSL services are available in-town, this might be a viable option.

So, for the moment, “Jane” and HughesNet are at an impasse. She has to jump through some additional hoops to get her job done, but at least she can get her job done without having to resort to dial-up (can you imagine trying to move a 100 MB file over dial-up?). This is also an object lesson to anyone who aspires to be a distance worker–a very rapidly-growing option for office workers. Do your homework!!! Check and double check what kinds (if any) of broadband services are available in a given area. If you are looking at a specific house, get the street address and zip code and go to your phone company’s DSL request page to see if service really is available. Don’t trust the national call centers. Always check locally. Likewise, check the local cable TV company to see if they have broadband internet services available. Check the DSL Reports website. It can often help you identify if services are available. Like “Jane” is finding out, your job might just depend upon it.

Author’s Note: Just a month or two after I wrote this back in 2007, “Jane’s” local cable TV company put her on the beta test list of cable internet customers. Problem solved. Unfortunately, Jane, like so many (myself included), didn’t make the cut as our employer continually shrunk the employee roster, and was laid off in late 2008. They got me in January, 2009.