Northwestel Internet Service Problem Revisited: Upload Throttles Download

I wrote about this problem with Northwestel’s internet service earlier this year (Internet in the North is Broken), but it deserves addressing again since it so significantly impacts the quality of service we get from our monopoly internet provider.

To keep it simple, let’s say there are two “roads” included with Northwestel’s internet service. On one road you can drive data out of the Yukon, on the other you can drive data in. Each road has a different speed limit on it. The road in has a speed limit of 50 km/h. The road out has a speed limit of 2 km/h.

In other words, you can drive data into the Yukon at a reasonably fast rate, but if you want to drive data out, it’ll take you a while.

The road in to the Yukon is used to “download” information from the internet. That could include anything from a web page you’re viewing, to a Netflix movie you’re watching. The road out of the Yukon is used to “upload” data. That might be anything from sending an email message, to uploading photos to a web service.

The unreasonably slow speed limit on the road out of the Yukon is bad enough. What makes it worse, however, is this: if you take full advantage of it, it will impact the speed limit on the road into the Yukon.

Say, for example, you drive some data out of the Yukon at a speed of 1 km/h, half of the maximum speed rate on that road. That will effectively also reduce the speed limit of the road in by half, from 50 km/h to 25 km/h.

That’s bad enough, but here’s where it gets even worse: if you take full advantage of the road out’s speed limit and drive your data out of the Yukon at 2 km/h, or 100% of that road’s speed limit, the road in will be completely shut down. You won’t be able to drive any data into the Yukon until you’re finished driving your data out.

Here’s a chart to demonstrate this visually:

Northwestel Upload Throttling Effect Chart

The chart on the left illustrates the “potential” use of Northwestel’s $110 Internet 50 package. It offers a “download” rate – the road into the Yukon – of 50 Mbps (which I’ve previously referred to as 50 km/h). For the road out of the Yukon, it offers an “upload” rate of 2 Mbps. I’ve referred to these combined rates as the service’s “potential.”

The second chart illustrates what happens when you use the upload portion of the service at a rate of 50% of its potential, or 1 Mbps. The download portion of the service is effectively cut in half. Finally, the third chart shows you what happens when you maximize your upload potential – it effectively kills the download portion of the service.

When you consider Northwestel’s Internet 50 service, you would imagine that it offers two things at the same time: a download rate of 50 Mbps AND an upload rate of 2 Mbps. Reality is much different however – those two aspects of the service never occur simultaneously. So with Northwestel’s Internet 50 package, you get EITHER a 50 Mbps download rate OR a 2 Mbps upload rate. You never get the two aspects of the service fully at the same time.

There is one further problem with Northwestel’s internet service: if you drive data out of the Yukon at top speed for an extended period of time, both roads will break. In other words, if you drive data out of the Yukon consistently at 2 km/h for what I’ve generally found to be any longer than 5 minutes, the speed limit on both roads drops to 0 km/h. (On my modem this is often represented by a blinking orange light.)

Fixing the roads is relatively easy – you just have to reset your modem by unplugging the power cable, counting to 10, and plugging it back in. But when you’re consistently uploading data throughout the day and the roads repeatedly break, it can become a hassle. (Plus there’s the fact that my modem can often take upwards of 10 minutes to properly reset.)

(I’ve sort of worked around this by plugging my cable modem into a timer plug that automatically cycles the power to my modem every 30 minutes. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s cut down on how much I have to run up and down stairs to reset the modem.)

You may not have experienced this problem to the extreme that I have. I’m a heavy user of cloud services like Apple’s PhotoStream, Dropbox, Google Drive and online photo services like ThisLife and Google Picasa. Each month I drive about the same amount of data out of the Yukon as I drive in.

So I frequently maximize my use of that road out, and I frequently have to reset my modem. (In fact, as I wrote this blog post I had to reset my modem 3 times.)

The way the average user may have experienced the problem, however, is with a general sense of service degradation.

For example, someone may be upstairs watching a movie on Netflix on Apple TV or XBox, as someone else arrives home after taking a lot of pictures with an iPhone. As the iPhone accesses the home network, it will begin to take over the outbound road by uploading those photos to PhotoStream. And that action will effectively cut off the road into the house and kill the Netflix movie stream.

The average user is unable to recognize the cause and effect of the situation because the online services are largely invisible. It’s at this point most people grumble and say something like, “The internet connection into the Yukon sucks!” When, in fact, it’s how the internet connection is being used locally that is causing the problem.

There’s irony in this: Northwestel gets cursed for a large problem, when the issue is actually much smaller and more local.

And easy to fix. Here’s how: Northwestel could remove the upload rate limit from all accounts. That 2 km/h speed limit is completely artificial. It’s placed there as a “behavioural modifier” (the same mind game some parents play on their young children) to deter customers from “misusing” their internet connection.

Redundantly, Northwestel already has a better, arguably more effective, behavioural modifier in place: the data cap and its associated overuse penalties.

Northwestel internet accounts include a set amount of data volume each month. With the Internet 50 plan it’s 150 GB. It really doesn’t matter if that data is driven into the Yukon or driven out. Either way, it’s all the same.

Should a customer exceed that monthly cap, Northwestel has the weighty hammer of the overuse penalty to knock us with. Again, it doesn’t matter if the extra data is uploaded or downloaded, we get charged $5 per GB all the same.

Unfortunately, Northwestel is disinclined to entertain improving service quality in the interests of customers (believe me, I’ve raised this issue with its marketing team), and instead remains steadfastly committed to its obtuse, illogical marketing plan. So in the absence of competition, that leaves us forced to develop our own workarounds to the shortcomings of Northwestel’s internet service, of which I’ll write about another day.

For now, suffice to say in closing that the internet in the North remains broken and is likely to stay broken for some time to come.