Monday, September 24, 2007

Friends don't let friends use First Step Internet

A long time ago, in a dream, really a nightmare, I had this terrible ISP - and then I realized that it wasn't a dream at all. It was real.

The ISP was First Step Internet. When I was in college, I used to live in this apartment complex that bundled Internet with their lease agreement. It was really a good idea, because it puts your Internet bill into your rent, so you have more predictable monthly expenses. It also forced your roommates to help pay for Internet. For some reason I always had roommates that didn't want to pay because they didn't need the Internet. And at $15 a month, you really couldn't beat it since most other offerings were at least $25 per month. When you're in college, $10 per month is a lot of money.

But the service from First Step Internet was terrible.

In the beginning, I was actually pretty excited. They came and wired all the rooms in the apartment complex with CAT5 cables, and we were eventually given the OK to plug in and use the Internet. There was no proprietary setup with a lot of ISPs like Verizon - just get an IP address from the DHCP server and you were connected.

It was initially opened up a week or two before the school year started. When I was first testing the line, I was happy with it since I was getting about 3 megs down and 1 meg up. While not the best, I definitely couldn't complain for $15/3 roommates = $5 per month.

But as soon as everyone came back for the school year and plugged into their computers, the service came to a screeching halt. Here is one of the results I got from their speed test results:

Slow First Step Internet

Can you imagine only getting 85kbps to your ISP, and trying to share that among 3 people? Just think about the speed you would get to basically any site on the Internet. Now magnify that by about 10 times and you will get an idea for the pain that we felt while using their service. This screenshot was taken about 1am, so its not like their lines were busy. This was a good speed test. I've seen them 35kbps and below on their broadband lines.

There were many problems with their service, and I am going to list some of those that I experienced.

  • Very slow link speeds (as seen above)

  • Very high latency (150ms+ ping to was common)

  • We were not given a public IP address. Instead I had a non-routable IP in the 192.168.x.y range. I talked with their technical support and they absolutely would not give me a public IP address or even forward a single port to my machine for SSH.

  • They used default/weak passwords or vulnerable switches/routers. Someone from our apartment complex was obviously as frustrated as I was and hacked their equipment. Unfortunately they weren't too smart and when First Step tracked them down they had their network privileges revoked.

  • They subjectively blacklisted certain apartments for using too much bandwidth. When I sent them the screenshot above the tech confirmed my apartment was blacklisted, and that is why I was getting slow speeds. He then later told me that when they put in the bandwidth rules, they put them in backwards so that I had 85kbps down and something like 300kbps up. Not only did they severely limit the speed, they put the rules in backwards to make the service even more unbearable? What kind of ISP is this?

  • Their switches limited bandwidth by switch port and NOT by throttling the connection to the remote site you were connecting to. So, if I wanted to share a file with my roommate or play a LAN game, I was still limited by the 85/300kbps rule.

  • Even though First Step has a dedicated wireless link to my university, I still could not get under 200ms pings to the CS department Solaris servers. WTF?

  • First Step was at their worst when I contacted them about a problem I knew at least a dozen people in the apartment complex were having. For some reason they couldn't access Hotmail through Internet Explorer. It worked fine with Firefox - but Internet Explorer would simply stop loading the page after the initial log in. Since I run Linux I never experienced the problem myself, but I tried for weeks to get them to understand that many people that I knew were having this issue. I even considered starting a petition, having people sign it and sending it to them. Finally I sent them a packet dump detailing all of the problem frame numbers and showing the difference in behavior between IE and Firefox. They came back a few days later saying that their MikroTik router had a bug in its firmware.

  • My entire apartment complex (200+ people) was served Internet by a single DSL line. This was a direct quote from one of their techs after a long conversation about why my service was so slow.

At the end of the day the worst part of everything was that their service was consistently bad. Their techs were about the skill level I would expect - able to help most home users with general Internet problems. But sometimes I did feel like they were trying to fool me by telling me that the Internet was fine and 200ms pings were normal.

Man, I'm glad I don't even live within range of First Step Internet anymore. They are hazardous to your health.

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