Sunday, May 29, 2011

Carrier shenanigans

I'm writing this post while visiting my in-laws in southern Missouri. They live in a rural area on a 100+ acre farm abutting the National Forest. It's a beautiful part of the state, but because they're over 10 miles from the nearest town with "real" Internet options, the only options they have is dial-up, spotty cellular and HughesNet residential satellite. It's true that they could "pony up" (big time) and pay for infrastructure to get cable or T.1—DSL is just plain not an option—so they're pretty much stuck with three bad choices for today's media-rich Internet.

After doing much research, they went with HughesNet. On the surface, it looks like a pretty good option: near-T.1 speeds for some capital (dish & receiver aren't included) and $40/mo.

If you check out their website yourself, you'll note, however, that they have an item called a "download allowance" that is even worse than the bandwidth caps being instituted by the "terrestrial" carriers. For my in-law's plan, it's 200MB per day. That's right: per day. On average, that's over 5GB per month, but on a daily basis, it's punitive.

It's supposed to work on a rolling 24-hour basis, but in my experience, it always expires at ~10am Central; if you exceed it by more than 10%, they start throttling your access. And by "throttle", I really mean "choke it off to the point you'll give up and go do something else." I ran a couple of tests from while in this state, and downloads averaged 60kbps. By comparison, non-throttled (on a clear day) runs about 450kbps. It's true that they don't come close to meeting their advertised maximums, but the throttling is unreal.

I run into this every time we visit. I'm the go-to computer guy in the family, and my mother-in-law always has lots of stuff for me to fix: patches, service packs, upgrades, etc. I blow through the 200MB in a couple hour's work in the morning, and pretty much can't get anything done the rest of the day.

Initially, I was unaware of the root cause; it just seemed like the satellite service sucked. But this visit I replaced their bad router with a new one and discovered that they had the previous router (that I didn't install) mis-configured: the satellite receiver is already a NAT router, so we originally had a double-NAT setup. This isn't always a problem, but it did "hide" the administrative "control center" for the satellite service. Once I put the new router into bridge mode, it exposed the other router and I discovered why the service seemed like such a wreck.

We knew that going with satellite service would result in high latency levels; even at the speed of light, you have to expect a packet that has to travel over 44,000 miles (ground-to-orbit and back) to take some time. In general, you can expect a round-trip data exchange to take on the order of 0.5 seconds; however, once you have a stream in progress (i.e., Netflix), you'd expect the advertised 1Mbps to be acceptable.

And it is.

Just barely.

As long as you don't blow past that 200MB...

Which can happen in an hour's time with standard definition, and as quick as 15 minutes with high def (which you really can't get because of the latency & lack of actual throughput).

To be fair, Hughes tries to be straightforward with its customers. Their marketing website gives the definition: "The Download Allowance is the amount of data which can be downloaded without restriction within a rolling 24-hour period". On the other hand, the control center has a little different spin on the issue; it's called the "fair access policy". Among other things, the Fair Access Policy "...may occur if there is a high amount of data download by computers connecting via your terminal, over a long period of time. Certain viruses can cause such activity... Right. Most viruses I know of send a lot of data (like spam or DDoS bots) if they do anything, not download bunches.

The HughesNet FAP FAQ says it more plainly; I'll paraphrase: the stuff you want to do using the Internet that involve rich media--like watching Netflix & Youtube--isn't something we want running on our network. Don't expect to spend the day listening to Pandora. Have your kids send DVDs or thumbdrives with pictures of the grandkids through the mail rather than posting them to flickr or shutterfly. If you mess with that stuff, you'll wish you were back on dialup.

Luckily, they do have a "relaxed period" where things like Windows Update can do it's thing; it's from 2am to 7am Eastern. But if you're the visiting IT guy, you're screwed. Don't ever try to install a new machine on this network; you won't get all the Windows Update patches installed before the pipes close down on you.

As with other carrier shenanigans, this penalizes customers in an arbitrary fashion. If the network isn't being utilized, let the bytes flow. The only time the policies should be implemented is when the network is actually saturated. Applying special handling policies for behavior that has no actual impact on the network performance is just rotten.