Internet speed tests lately have been in the news, including in these pages. (See "Reality Check" in the October issue of Communications Technology and the feature article "Internet Speed Testers" in the November issue.) Here’s a follow-up discussion on how best to troubleshoot subscriber "speed issues."

Truck rolls are expensive, even more so in these days of rising fuel costs. Now, take an irate subscriber who calls in multiple times because his Internet service is "slow," and that subscriber becomes a revenue drain rather than a revenue generator.

Many "speed" problems are field RF issues. Subscriber computer issues, however, cause a large number of "slow speed" events. Ideally, the call center identifies this situation on the initial call. But all too often, a field tech is dispatched to go onsite and troubleshoot the issue. The field tech will then "check the signals" and, if no problem is found, leave.

The subscriber is unhappy and has the vague feeling that this is a cable problem. A repeat trouble call is put in, and the scenario is repeated until: (A) the subscriber gets a computer savvy tech to prove the issue; (B) the subscriber finds an outside party to fix the problem; or (C) in a worst case, the subscriber finds another provider.

How can we make this a single truck roll and make the subscriber satisfied that everything possible was done to address the issue?
Attitude Even with all the technology and tools at the technician’s disposal, a positive attitude remains critically important. Greeting the subscriber and explaining everything in layman’s terms can transform a subscriber from being unhappy with slow speeds to being aware that the tech wants to fix the problem.

Consider this role-playing scenario.

"Hello, I am a field technician from Super Fast Cable Company. I am here to help you with the slow speeds you are experiencing. The first thing I am going to do is hook my meter up to your cable line. I want to check the signal behind your modem as well as at the house block. This will allow me to make sure you have a good signal coming to the house as well as check the line coming inside the house."

No need to discuss quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) constellations, quadrature phase shift keying (QPSK), noise, suckouts, levels, etc., although these parameters should be evaluated if the test equipment supports it. The human element is what is needed. Now assuming that RF signals are within spec, you may be able to explain to the subscriber that this is most likely a PC issue and continue on to the next call. However, we all know it is not that easy. Next step The next step to work on is advanced troubleshooting. An inexperienced field tech should be able to perform most of these steps and leave the subscriber happy. Again, most of this will be related to the human element.

"Sir/Ma’am, I have checked all the signals coming into the house and all is within our specifications. The issue is most likely related to your computer or other equipment. There are a couple of simple troubleshooting steps I can perform. We are not equipped to fix computer issues, but I think we can at least make sure that is where the problems lie."

Most new meters today have built-in Internet speed checkers. The test typically is very simple to use, and the results are pretty accurate. The first step to having an accurate result is to eliminate all subscriber hardware.

Show the subscriber what you are doing and how it works. The advanced subscriber will probably be satisfied with the results from the meter. A non-techie may need a little explaining.

"Sir/Ma’am, what this meter is doing is pretending to be a computer. It is downloading a file from our headend. This eliminates any problem with our gear in our headend and also eliminates issues going on with the public Internet. You will be able to see on the meter what speeds this line is capable of. My meter is set to 20 Megs, so you should see right around 85-90 percent of that. If my meter can reach 20 Megs, then your modem provisioned at 10 Megs will have no trouble."

Did we hit a home run? Is the subscriber satisfied this is not a cable operator issue? Assuming you have been sympathetic to the subscriber’s needs the whole time, you may get to leave. No? The subscriber is not satisfied? Well, then, it is now time to look at the subscriber’s computer. The sub’s PC Let’s look at some of the different problems we can find. What operating system (OS) is on the computer? Does it have all the latest updates and service packs? Does it have a firewall? Does it have anti-virus software running? Does it have a virus? Does it have spyware? Is the subscriber using a P2P application to download movies or music? Has the machine been compromised? Is there a wireless router involved? Has that wireless been compromised? Is a neighbor running a P2P application on the wireless? Does the computer have enough RAM to run the OS and all the applications?

This is just the start. When you only have 15 minutes to work on the issue and go on to your next job, time is precious. Let’s not get into the legal issues of pawing around on a subscriber’s computer. The fact is, our field technicians do not have the time-and in many cases, the experience-to work on a subscriber’s PC. Nor should they have to.

The cable operator is responsible for bringing in a quality signal, not working on a PC. Our field techs are not responsible for opening the back of plasma TV to troubleshoot bad color, nor should they play around with a PC. The nagging issue, however, is how to prove to the subscriber that his equipment (PC, router, etc.) is the issue. CPE troubles For the time being, let’s assume that you have set up a quality speed test site in the headend. Now, let’s go from there.

"Sir/Ma’am, could you show me on your computer how you are testing your speed? Yes, I see how going to this testing site is slow. Let’s rule out issues with the remote speed site. The remote speed site is somewhere on the Internet, and we cannot control speed across the hundreds of miles of the public Internet. Please go to this site. It is on our network. Here is the site. http://www …."

What have we done here? We are teaching subscribers to troubleshoot their own issues as well as making them go through all the steps. This makes it harder for them to say nothing was done. If testing to the local headend site is good, then you can simply explain to the subscriber about the public Internet and how remote speed sites work. I am assuming at this point that speeds will still be slow. This is not necessarily a problem, though.

"Sir/Ma’am, your speeds to our speed site are slow, just as you described. We know that the line is good as shown on the meter. This is most likely an issue with your equipment. I can help you troubleshoot a little further, but I am afraid I am not qualified to work on your equipment."

Well, maybe this time we got lucky and the subscriber is satisfied. Up to this point, we have not done anything to the subscriber’s computer or hardware. Depending on the policies of the cable operator, this may be the most we can do. But let’s take troubleshooting down to its conclusion.
Final steps "Sir/Ma’am, the next thing we need to do is eliminate any extra hardware. If you are running a router, we need to bypass that and hook the computer directly to the cable modem. If we are testing via wireless, we need to hook up the computer directly with a wire, preferably Ethernet. Lastly, if this is a wireless cable modem, we should shut down the wireless port so that we can make sure that no one is using that when we test."

"Remember, we are trying not only to prevent a repeat trouble call by an irate subscriber, but also to teach the sub how to troubleshoot his own gear prior to having a truck rolled. Our hope is that the call center can perform many of these steps prior to sending a tech out there.

If we have gotten this far, we have eliminated everything but the computer itself. As mentioned before, I recommend staying away from the subscriber’s computer. I have "bought and paid for" quite a few computers that were damaged by techs trying to fix them. The other issue is time. Most issues related to computers will take a couple of hours unless you have a very experienced computer tech and happen to be lucky. Geek Squad and Firedog have made computer issues their domain.

At this point, we should walk away. Most often, by the time the call gets to my office, we have had three or four truck rolls, and the issue has been escalated to our corporate office. What is the last step to prove this is a subscriber issue and close the job? The last resort This solution is recommended for PCs running Windows XP or even Vista. As long as the PC has a bootable CD-ROM/DVD, this solution will work well. It will not work with computers running Macintosh OSs, although I have never been to a speed-related issue with a Macintosh.

There are several bootable LiveCD versions of Linux. These LiveCDs will run completely from the CD-ROM. I like these CDs for several reasons. First and foremost, you completely rule out every bit of software on the subscriber’s PC. You do not have to worry about viruses, firewall settings, anti-virus software, none of it.

"Sir/Ma’am, this CD-ROM is running a completely stand-alone operating system. No software on your computer is being used. We will run the speed test from this CD-ROM. As you can see, the speed tests are running normally when we bypass your software. This means that there is nothing wrong with the hardware on your computer. The software on your computer has an issue, though. You will need to have a computer specialist look at your software because the cable company does not work on subscriber PCs."

The second reason I like the LiveCDs is because nothing is touched on the subscriber’s PC. Shut the computer off, pop out the CD, and reboot. The sub’s PC will be just as it was when you got there. There is a Latin phrase associated with the medical profession, primum non nocere ("first, do no harm") that is relevant here. As a field tech, we wish to do no harm. We want the computer to be the way it was when we got there. Only subscribers themselves should make the changes.

There is one last reason I like the LiveCD. You can leave it with the subscriber. Most of the LiveCDs I have used are based on open source software. So you can leave the CD with the subscriber to use as a test later. Who knows, they may install it permanently and no longer have speed issues.

There are a couple of sites offering Windows-based LiveCDs. Because of copyright and licensing issues, I do not recommend using these Windows LiveCDs in a corporate environment. These Windows-based LiveCDs are questionable to use for personal reasons and definitely not something you would leave with a subscriber. That being said, let’s look at two open source options. Options The first is the Ubuntu OS. It has a very clean user interface, and I was able to boot my laptop and run wireless all from the CD-ROM. So far, I have not found any network drivers that did not work out of the box.

The second one I like is Knoppix. This is the original Linux LiveCD in my opinion. I did have some issues with early Dell machines, but it seems to have cleared up quite a bit.

There are plenty of other LiveCDs based on Linux. Almost all of them will do the same thing. Boot from the CD, load an OS independent of the hard drive, load up an Internet browser, and surf to speed sites for testing.

John Alcock is a network engineer with Charter Communications. Reach him at [email protected]. Sidebar: Slow Surfing Checklist 1. Demonstrate a helpful attitude.
2. Check signal levels.
3. Bypass subscriber hardware.
4. Bypass the public Internet.
5. Check for obvious computer problems.
6. Try a stand-alone OS.
7. Refer the sub to a computer specialist.

The Daily


Short Takes

Commentary by Steve Effros There was a fleeting moment when I thought that maybe I could cut down on the number of columns I write each month as we approach the new year. What the heck, so many of the issues I

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