Saturday, July 8, 2017

Just the ugly

The good the bad… no… just the ugly: 

A cautionary tale


I have been writing about music, creativity, and magic, along with odds and ends of living outback, for over 5 years. I also maintain social media accounts for clients, which means that I'm connected to those sites all day every day. Before that I was a researcher and non-fiction writer-for-hire, and thank the gods for internet and its research resources.

I work from home. I live out in an area so remote, so unpopulated by humans, that some federal agencies call it "frontier". Suits me just fine. Except... when you live in truly rural America you discover they are out to get you.

I don't mean the feds or aliens. This is not that kind of a tale.

This is a story of taking advantage. It's about internet satellite. This is a typical story about what happens to those who have no alternatives. You don't have to be poor or homeless, you just have to be an outlier, a demographic that contains few enough members that Big Business sees a great opportunity to suck victims dry.

I've been on satellite internet for fifteen or more years now. Before that – dialup. Really. It was horrible. I was always calling the phone company to complain, but as it turned out, the phone company was for sale and they weren't interested in upgrading their outmoded equipment. I still cringe when I hear that dialup sound when someone uses the FAX machine at the library.

Thus, as soon as I learned about satellite internet I lusted for it. A couple years after Starband began offering services in the US I signed up. I stayed with them, no matter how crappy their service (and it got truly crappy at the end) until they turned off the signal in September 2015.

September 2015. OMG!

If I had thought Starband was bad, that's only because I had never used HughesNet.

Let me explain. DSL doesn't reach me here in my part of New Mexico. I don't get a cell signal on my property because I'm in a valley.  The nearest cell tower is far enough away anyway that neighbors who do get a signal have their own problems because of the distance.

Cable? Bwahahahaha! Is there even cable anywhere in New Mexico? Heck if I know.

Satellite internet is all there is for folks like me. I don't think a person could even access email using dialup anymore. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but I don't want to find out.  When Starband announced that they were going out of the ISP business, HughesNet was about all I could get if I didn't want DIRECTV, and believe me, I did not want DIRECTV.  I don't do TV.


Enter, HughesNet

HughesNet offered their Gen4 service at a cost of about twice as much as other people with "real" internet had to pay for equivalent service (for the record, I was paying just under $100/month). For that, I got a metered allowance of 9MB per month of data, beyond which they'd FAP me (no, not what you think! FAP = Fair Access Policy, i.e. being throttled back or, as we victims put it, "molasses mode": adequate for email but forget accessing the web). Think dialup without the modem noise.

To avoid the FAP fate I could monitor and constrain my use or I could pay for outrageously expensive "tokens" that gave me more bandwidth. HughesNet's "fair access" clearly meant I could have as much bandwidth as I wanted, as long as I was willing to pay for it through the nose. How that is "fair" to everyone stuck with satellite internet is beyond me, but in any case I paid for tokens and kept them in reserve, pretty much getting along just fine on 9GB per month. I couldn't stream movies or TV, had to wait for YouTube videos to buffer (though that didn't always work, and let me tell you, start-stop-start-stop of YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and other videos is absolutely maddening). I couldn't stream music. Skype was out of the question. Most web pages loaded slowly and some not at all, but oh well. I had internet.

But right away I started having problems. The first sign was service disruptions, always at the same time of day, for days or weeks in a row, and then it would stop. In the beginning I called HughesNet. (Ironically, both internet provider companies I've used provide no way to reach them digitally). I had to constantly ask "Bob" or "Terry" in India to repeat themselves, as I couldn't understand them. To their credit, most of the techs I talked with were polite, but they weren't actually helpful. I dreaded the ordeal. I hated that somehow it was always a problem on my end, never on HughesNet's.  Funny, but when I learned to simply call HughesNet, let their automated answer do the "system check" and hang up, that would often fix the problem. Temporarily.

Then, in April of this year I started having not just service interruptions but also slow-loading or no-loading pages, to the point where I just couldn't work.  Coincidentally (or not), HughesNet's Gen5 came out in April and suddenly the fix for my problem was an upgrade to Gen5. "5X faster internet, Built-In Wi-Fi, and more Data" (copied and pasted directly from an email they sent me).


Now for the ugly

More data turned out to be 1GB more per month than I was already getting, but for less money/month and hey, "5X faster". That sounds pretty good, right? The tech I talked to told me that if I was getting along on 9GB before, 10GB would probably be fine, and besides, I could just upgrade if I needed to. He assured me that my pre-paid tokens would carry over.

Uh huh. I should know by now that those conversations need to be recorded. I upgraded. Bye-bye tokens.

Since "upgrading" to Gen5 my bandwidth use has mysteriously become much higher – extraordinarily higher - than with Gen4 even though I have not increased what I do on the internet. This billing period I looked at my HughesNet data meter a few days into the billing cycle and was shocked to discover how much bandwidth was already gone. I would clearly use up the allotted 10GB before I was even halfway through the cycle. I thought I had some kind of malware sucking the bandwidth. I ran scans, found nothing. I turned all my devices to airplane or powered them off. I always turned off the modem at night, now I did it whenever I went out of the house. I cut back on YouTube videos (which has put quite a cramp on my writing about music), made sure my ad blockers were working, made sure auto-play, auto-download, auto-anything was turned off.


Surprise! Nothing made any difference

Then I started researching and found out something I should have seen right at the beginning. I didn't pay attention to where HughesNet says that if I was on social media sites one hour a day I would use up all my bandwidth for the month with 10GB of Gen5.  That means no other use: no email, no browsing, no movies, no nothing.  Just ONE hour of Facebook a day.

ARE YOU KIDDING? It takes 10GB for Gen5 to deal with 30 hours of Facebook a month? What is HughesNet's Gen5 really doing? Why is Gen5 so data consumptive that what before used 9GB/month suddenly now requires double or triple that amount?


Customer = victim

HughesNet's solution to my problem? Cut back on my usage or upgrade. I have cut back. It doesn't make any difference except to make it harder to work and to make going online an unpleasant experience. And realistically, how could cutting back work if only an hour a day of social media consumes10GB of bandwidth a month? Why would I even consider upgrading, when all it would do would be to reward Hughesnet for creating a data sucking monster like Gen5?

From the user end it sure appears that HughesNet has set it up so that everything Gen5 customers do costs multiple times as much bandwidth as it did before. It is NOT helpful to say that because Gen5 is faster more data can be used in the same time period and that's where the bandwidth is going. Usage shouldn't suck up two, three, or more times as much bandwidth with Gen5 as it did with Gen4 if what people are doing on the internet is the same. If a person gets 100 emails a day with Gen4, then just because Gen5 serves up the 100 emails a day faster shouldn't mean multiple increases of bandwidth consumption.  If a person goes to a school or a government website or, for that matter, HughesNet's own website, it shouldn't cost more bandwidth to do that with Gen5 than Gen4.  If a person turns on the computer it shouldn't cost more bandwidth to do that with Gen5 than Gen4.

But it does.

So that got me to wondering. Why is "fair access" only a one-way street? How is it fair for HughesNet to run the meter faster for their Gen5 data use compared to GEn4, or to other ISPs for that matter, and why is it fair to avoid clear disclosure of the greater consumption of bandwidth by blaming the consumer for the consumption? How is it fair that we can't just dump HughesNet for their unfair business practices and go with a competitor because we're locked into big-penalty contracts and no one will listen to reason?

What I see here is HughesNet taking advantage of consumers that can't do a thing about it. Fair access, indeed.


Victims can fight back

I've tried getting answers on HughesNet's community forum, but all there is there is how we all are flagrantly using bandwidth and we need to cut back or upgrade. Perhaps it is time for each of us to consider filing FCC Consumer Complaints*.  At the very least, we can contact elected officials. They should care about this because our jobs depend on internet access, our kids need to get online for school, we need internet access just as much as people who live in cities. And hey, we may be few but we are voters.

Also, every state has enacted consumer protection statutes, which are modeled after the Federal Trade Commission Act. This allows state attorneys, along with general and private consumers, to commence law suits over false or deceptive advertisements, or other unfair and injurious consumer practices.

I don't think anyone out here in the frontier would grumble that much about having to pay more for satellite internet. After all, everything is pretty much more expensive here. But Fair Access should go both ways. HughesNet, don't make us get ugly about this.


* Note that HughesNet does not allow the use of "FCC" on its community forum -- a bot won't allow you to post if you try to provide a link to the federal agency that has oversight for internet.  That alone is food for thought.