Cable Internet Woes

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A long time ago (I can’t remember when), we had a stable, reliable connection in the apartment (provided by Time Warner Cable). It was never super fast on the download (when it was stable, it was roughly 3Mpbs downstream). It was always pokey on the upstream (used to be roughly 360Kpbs). Now, it’s typically 7-8Mbps down, and 490Kbps up.

Unfortunately, while both up and down have gotten faster, the experience has deteriorated. I wish I could point the finger directly at Time Warner, but I can’t. Not because it’s not their fault, but because I have no idea, and that’s been hugely frustrating…

I may be slow to fix things at times, but I’m typically pretty good at diagnosing. I’m completely lost at the moment.

It’s been bad for such a long time, that I’ve come to accept it on some levels, and that’s just silly on my part.

Here are the symptoms: regular disconnects from the Internet. Those drops can last between a few seconds to a minute. The most sensitive applications (the early warning systems) are IM clients (Digsby for me, Trillian for Lois, but Pidgin used to behave identically before I switched to Digsby). Email clients hang if they are fetching or sending at the moment of the drop. When the drops last a bit longer, ssh connections are lost, but not on the short drops. The Poker client disconnects every 20-30 minutes.

Here’s my setup. I had (more on that in a moment) a seven year old Toshiba cable modem (provided by Time Warner). I have a Netgear FVS318 ProSafe VPN Firewall that connects to the cable modem. Years ago, I used it in VPN mode to connect to the office, but now it’s just a plain old router. Connected to that are three devices: an Asterisk server, VoIP ATA (Sipura) and a WiFi router.

After working great for years, when the trouble started, I suspected the wireless router (at the time, it was a Linksys WRT54G). I swapped it for a US Robotics spare that I had sitting around. The US Robotics device exhibited different problems. It went for longer periods without drops, but then would drop for longer periods (rebooting it seemed to always work). Since it was a bit older, and only a B router, I bought a Netgear WNR854T (an N router). I bought it re-certified.

It behaves just like the Linksys did, more frequent drops, but of shorter duration, that always auto-correct. I know, it’s re-certified, but still, three WiFi routers in a row? Yesterday, while at the house, enjoying my fantastic Verizon FiOS connection (30Mbps down, 5Mbps up), it occurred to me that the only thing all three WiFi routers have in common is the port they share on the FVS318 router.

I was actually excited to have a theory to test. When we got to the apartment mid-morning, I fired up the laptop, and swapped both the cable and the port that connected the WiFi router to the FVS. No Internet connection at all! What? We were just here on Wednesday, and it was working (albeit with the stated problems).

Rebooting the cable modem indicated that the cable modem just decided to die. I marched to the Time Warner service center. The one thing Time Warner does extremely well (and, unfortunately, I’ve taken advantage of this good service way too many times!), is staff a service center and swap devices quickly, with no questions asked.

I got there at about noon on a Saturday, and there were roughly 15 people working the service desks. It took less than five minutes to have my number called, and less than two minutes to swap the cable modem. 15 minutes later, I was back in the apartment (at least I got a bit of exercise). The new cable modem worked right away (still using the new cable and new port from the WiFi to the FVS).

A quick speed test gave me the sense that all of my problems were done. I got 8Mbps down and 492Kbps up, but with no jerkiness in the numbers. A smooth connection, it seemed. All joy died about 20 minutes later, when I had my first IM drop out.

So, in theory, it could still be the cable modem (or the cable company, at the head end). But, I left out a major detail which makes me believe that this is not the case. All of our phone calls are VoIP, so they use the cable modem as well. Whenever we experience a drop on the IM client, if either of us is on the phone, there is no drop on the call. At least, it’s not discernible (which doesn’t mean that a packet isn’t dropped along the way).

I am at my wits end. I have two things that I can try. One is to bypass the WiFi with a PowerLine connection (the cable modem is not in the room where we work). That will work, but if there are any drops, it won’t be clear that it isn’t the PowerLine adapter. The second thing is more painful. I just did the second one this minute. I reprogrammed the WiFi router to completely replace the FVS318. Since we’re leaving now, I won’t know until the next time we’re back whether this will solve the problem. If it does, then it means that the FVS was flaking out in general, somehow.

While it’s possible that three WiFi routers in a row are all bad, in a similar (if not exact) way, somehow, I doubt it. It is ironic that the cable modem just up and died, but the new one is exhibiting the exact same problem, so I don’t think it’s the problem either. For completeness sake, I should report that we are both using brand new laptops, with built-in N WiFi cards. Before that, we were each using Netgear N Cards. Before that, we used different model B and G USB-based WiFi adapters (with the old Linksys and US Robotics), all with the same drops, so it’s most definitely not the client devices!

If any of you have any suggestions out there for what else I can try, I’m all ears!