Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

DOCSIS 3.0, Ready or Not

July 2010

By Mike Gould

If you happen to be reading this article on or after July 1, 2010, then Comcast, out of the goodness of their corporate heart, will update your home broadband speed to a max of 25 MBps (from your current 5MBps or so) and they won't even charge you extra for it. "Wassup wit' dat?", I hear you ask in your charming streetwise accent.

Fly Like An Eagle, Sting Like A Bee
This is due to the general upgrade program currently rolling out of their corporate tech centers. You bring them your old cable modem, and they give you a shiny new box that uses the new DOCSIS 3.0 protocol which gets you to Google zippy quick to the max. Note that this is still slow compared to the speed we will enjoy if Google graces us with last-mile fiber, but hey, it's free and better, and we like better. We're also talking home use here; Comcast has a more expensive business plan with even greater speed, but I haven't tried it.

The very helpful Patrick Paterno, Director of Communications, Michigan Region of Comcast, told me that everyone in our readership area (except for Whitmore Lake - sorry, Comcast doesn't go there) now has the capability of surfing the web like the wind. I got wind of this from a chance call to Comcast service on an unrelated manner a while ago (April 2010), and as my area was enabled early on, I hustled off few blocks between my house and Comcast central, dusty old cable modem in hand.

I hustled right back, new box in hand, and headed down to my basement office to plug and play. Or not, as it turned out. Ya see, I have a rather complicated network here at Mondo Manor, involving routers, switches, printers, scanners, and wireless access points. And my new cable box didn't want to talk to any of them.

I plugged the modem into my router, my Mac Pro into the router, the 8-port switch into the router, and everything else into the switch. Then I sat back and attempted to connect to the Internet. Nada. Zip. Bupkis. "WTF?" I thought, in my charming on-line accent. After much fussing and cussing, I took the cowards' way out and called Comcast. Now I'm a guy and guys hate to ask for directions, especially us geeky consultant kinda guys, but this was a new box and I instantly suspected Comcast of messing with me.

More Old Stuff vs. New Stuff
And they were, sorta. Turns out this was yet another case of the Heartbreak of Cascading Updates: the newer, faster cable modem turned up its digital nose at my older, slower router and refused to communicate. On the advice of the ever-helpful Comcast support person, I plugged the modem directly into my computer, and bingo, a very, very fast connection and a creeping realization that more upgrades were in the cards for me.

For my fellow geeks out there, my theory is that the DOCSIS 3.0 wants to see a gigabit WAN port, or at least something a bit more modern than what I was offering it. My three year old router only goes up to 100base-T and that simply won't do. In non-geek terms, the new fast thingy wouldn't play nice with the old slow thingy.

Is It Just Me?
Note: In a recent talk with Comcast, they told me that my case was a very isolated incident, and that they have had almost zero complaints about this sort of thing during their nation-wide rollout. Maybe my router was defective in some way, as well as being old (3 is ancient in computer years). This is good news for all of you: go forth and update.

The solution for me was a new router (a refurb Linksys with an N wireless system built in - $70) and a new switch ($80). Now everything is back to normal, only faster. Well, my older Brother laser printer needs to be re-started every day, but I think I can fix it by switching some wires around.

I should clarify that the 25mbs (megabits per second - the amount info that can be transferred in a given time period) I now get from Comcast is also due to the high speed option for which I pay an additional $5 per month. This is a bargain, IMHO, and a necessity if you are in my business (I'm a web monger, among other things).

As with all things online and digital, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary, in geek-speak). There is many a wire twixt you and that online store you're surfing to, and lots of places where things can bog down, but if you are a Comcast customer and you let them do their thing, you will notice that things are a bit peppier in the Internet speed department.

Testing, Testing
To verify all of this, I did a speed test of my connection before and after the upgrade, with interesting results. I went to an online testing service, speedtest.net, and had it measure how long it took my bits and bytes to get to a given server. In this case, I chose one in Southfield, and measured a before-update download speed of around 5Mb/s.

Once I finished the dance of the new router as above, the same test showed a way-zippy 25Mb/s, which it continues to show (I just checked it; yup, 24.65 down and 3.26Mb/s up). To make this work at your computer, go to http://www.speedtest.net/ and click on "Begin Test". You will see a rotating star in the middle of the map of Michigan; if you click on it you can select a server to use in your testing. You can also test connecting to farther servers, but remember that the farther away you are, the more things (bad wires, router problems, etc.) have the potential to slow your testing down.

The disparity in the upload vs download speed is something we've had to live with for some time now. Back in the good ol' days, when Road Runner was running things in Ann Arbor, up and down times were about the same, as I recall. What has happened is that Comcast (along with the rest of the industry) has capped (set a limit) on upload times in order to save bandwidth, that ineffable measurement of how full their pipes are. (OK, OK, how much data is coursing through their wires.) And so it flows.

References for the geekily curious:

http://blog.comcast.com/2009/03/speeding-is-encouraged.html - Comcast on DOCSIS 3.0
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOCSIS - Explanation of the DOCSIS specification
http://www.speedtest.net/ - That speed test

Mike Gould, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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