Friday, March 08, 2013

Rural writer has trouble keeping connected, finds Windstream may be canceling some rural upgrades

Are rural residents experiencing a downgrade in their Internet capabilities? Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University in Athens, says he has seen a decline in the quality of his Internet connection at his rural home.

Reader, a Windstream Communications customer, is paying for 3 megabits per second, but writes that he has run tests that show he gets service as slow as 0.33 Mbps. Through repeated communication with Windstream he has been left frustrated and unsatisfied with the end result: slow, unreliable Internet service in a rural area.

Company says its rural Internet service is likely 'to get worse before it gets better'

By Bill Reader

Windstream Communications, which hails itself as “the largest communications company focused on rural America,” announced last month in its fourth-quarter earnings report that it vowed to maintain its $1/share dividend rate to stockholders in 2013 (which an analyst writing for SeekingAlpha called "a blockbuster yield"). It also announced it would be reducing capital expenditures in 2013. Based on my recent calls to Windstream customer service, those cuts may include canceling previously scheduled upgrades to its Internet service in some rural areas that have been plagued with congestion and latency problems.

As a Windstream customer living in a rural community with no other landline options for Internet, I have experienced those congestion problems myself over the years, but especially in recent weeks. The worsening problem surprised me, given that last fall, when Windstream sent a technician out to my remote property to resolve a line-noise problem, I was told that my neighborhood’s congested LAN was scheduled for upgrade by Jan. 31 of this year.

I choose to live at the corner of No and Where, so of course I have limited expectations of getting anywhere near the level of service Windstream claims is possible in its marketing materials. I pay for 3 Mbps service, but really only expect service in the 1.5 Mbps area, on average. I expect some dropped packets and latency in unusual circumstances, such as during severe weather, when the pole lines are under considerable stress and line noise is likely. I of course have no hope of ever being able to count on watching a movie on Netflix during prime hours without at least two or three latency interruptions. That’s just something folks living in rural communities have to accept with our inadequate, better-than-nothing Internet infrastructure.

But on March 6, at about 10 a.m., the latency and congestion seemed worse than ever. I ran three tests. Download speed averaged 0.33 Mbps, a far cry from the 3.0 I pay for and even the 1.5 I can live with. Even more worrying was the ping speed, which averaged 433 milliseconds — well above the threshold of 180 ms I was told, in 2009, was the threshold for Windstream to issue a service ticket for latency problems.

When I called Windstream to report the service problems, I was told that Windstream is aware of the problem in my area. The problem was originally scheduled to be addressed by Jan. 31, but it had been removed from the 2013 schedule. Windstream has no plans to fix it this year, I was told. That’s just about a direct quote; the known problems in my area are not even on a schedule for being addressed.

I asked one of the three customer-service people I talked with if a technician could be sent out to at least make sure a squirrel hadn't eaten a wire or something. "We aren't doing that anymore," she said, because they know what the problem is, and that it was not scheduled for repair in 2013. She acknowledged that “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” and that I shouldn’t expect any improvement through 2013. I was in "irate customer" mode, rather than "calm journalist mode," and I will say that all three people I talked to were polite and professional. They clearly WANT to resolve the problems. But their employer, apparently, is less willing.

That afternoon, I emailed and placed a call to Scott Morris, media contact at Windstream headquarters, to ask him whether (and, if so, why) the company has removed scheduled, long-overdue upgrades, and how many rural communities are likely to be affected. Morris returned my call Thursday but was on the road and unable to answer my specific questions at that time; he said he would look into it and get back to me. I did not hear from him as of 7 p.m. Saturday; this post will be updated if Morris responds.

Here are the questions I emailed to Morris on Wednesday:

"-- How many previously scheduled LAN upgrades have been unscheduled in Windstream's service areas (total)?
"-- What criteria were considered when unscheduling those upgrades (I understand that only certain communities will not get the previously scheduled upgrades)?
"-- When, and how, were customers (including me) who had been previously told of the impending upgrades notified that the upgrades were no longer scheduled for 2013?
"-- How much is Windstream expecting to save in 2013 by postponing those previously scheduled upgrades?"

1 comment:

Darla Deen said...

Yep, I feel your pain. I also live in a rural area serviced by Windstream - Bosque County, Texas. Out here they advertise speeds of 12 MBPS. I rarely get that but that is definitely what I pay for every month. If a cable company can claim "theft of service" why can't we claim "theft of promised speed"? I am a full time employee of the Seton Hospitals in Austin, Texas. I QA medical reports and have multiple programs running while I do my job, but once the speed gets below a certain amount I can no longer get the reports to transfer to me. Twice in the last week I was not able to work for periods up to 1-1/2 hours. I call and call but my pleas fall on deaf ears. The last time I called I asked for the address of the CEO of Windstream. The service guy paused and then said "they don't give us that information." Yeah, I bet they don't!