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The Fine Print | Consumer Advocate

When it comes to Internet service, being passive does not pay

Comcast says technicians will come to your home at no cost if there’s a performance gap.

Jeff Fusco/AP Images for Comcast, file

Comcast says technicians will come to your home at no cost if there’s a performance gap.

You pay top dollar for lightning-fast Internet speed, and you get it in the family room.

But there are half a dozen other rooms where you and your family need Internet service. And the speed in those rooms is nothing close to the family room. In the upstairs office, the Internet is 10 times slower. This is a problem because the office is where you earn a living and the constant spinning of websites loading slows productivity and leaves you cranky.

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It wasn’t that long ago that we got on the Internet at home by plugging desktop computers the size of small refrigerators into a modem (which connected to the Internet). Today, we still use modems, but mostly in tandem with routers, the hardware that sends a wireless signal around the house. Our home laptops (and many other devices) connect to the Internet over that signal, creating an almost indispensable home wireless network.

I recently faced up to the fact that I had no idea how any of this worked. All I knew is that rapid-fire technological breakthroughs in recent years had greatly boosted bandwidth — or speed. Residential customers could now do more things on more devices more quickly, wirelessly.

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But not necessarily fast enough everywhere in your house.

Fuming in my office, I thought maybe I needed to bulk up the bandwidth. More is always better, right?

No, said Steve Bauer, an MIT researcher who specializes in Internet speed. Too many people focus on bandwidth when they should be thinking about tweaking their home wireless networks, he said.

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“The bottlenecks are most likely in your home,” he said.

You can begin improving your home network by finding out what bandwidth you are paying for, which involves actually reading your monthly bill. Mine showed I’m buying an Internet connection called Blast! from Comcast. (News to me.) Its advertised speed is 150 megabits per second. That’s extremely fast. Netflix says for its ultra high-definition video a mere 25 mbps is required.

Comcast charges $75 a month for 25 mbps. But it’s hard to resist buying six times more bandwidth (150 mbps) for another $13.

Next, test your speed. I used speedtest.xfinity.com. It looks like an old-time automobile speedometer — a needle bending around a dial.

If you discover a discrepancy between what you’re paying for and what you’re getting, as I did, do something. Passivity does not pay when it comes to Internet service.

Comcast says technicians will come to your home at no cost if there’s a performance gap. They did for me — twice. In February, a technician climbed a utility pole and came down with a 2-inch piece of cable so chewed up that it no doubt leaked bandwidth.

“Squirrels,” the technician said.

The technician also set me up with a new dual-band router/modem, which I rent from Comcast for $10 a month (same as the old one). The old one emitted a single wireless signal. The new one emits two. And because the newly added signal is available to fewer people (for now), it is less crowded and runs faster. It’s also better engineered for speed.

The trouble is that the Comcast technician left my house without realizing none of my devices upstairs were picking up the new signal. And I didn’t have the knowledge to check my home network (simply click on the Wi-Fi icon and look for a network ending in 5).

Recently, I became the Globe’s consumer advocate, a newly created position. Internet service seemed like a perfect subject. I called Comcast, and the company sent another technician to my house. (Comcast said it was treating me like it would any other customer.) By the time the technician finished, the needle on the speedometer dial swung past 100 mbps in my office, still below the advertised 150, but I’m perfectly satisfied.

What did the technician do?

 He replaced the 30 feet of cable strung from the utility pole to my house. Sure, the previous technician had cut out the damaged piece, but he then spliced the two pieces together, leaving a kink allowing rain to slow the signal.

 He found and removed a splitter in my interior cable. Splitters and kinks are by definition compromises in the flow of signal; the fewer, the better.

 Most importantly, he moved my modem/router from the media closet in the family room to the wide-open living room. There’s a 4-foot-thick chimney in the middle of my house, which I had apparently overlooked when setting up my router. It was blocking the signal from the family room to just about everywhere else in the house.

Routers want to be in the open. Liberate yours.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at sean.murphy@globe.com and 617-929-7849. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.
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