Crummy Internet at home? Check your modem…

For the past few months, I’ve been struggling a bit with mysteriously and intermittently crummy Internet connectivity here at home. The symptoms have varied: Having “unstable connection” warnings playing Splatoon 2 on my Nintendo Switch here and there. Spotify music streaming starts having a bunch of gaps, and eventually disconnects altogether. General slowness and fussiness when trying to access web sites. Attending WebEx conference sessions where the audio starts to sound like a really bad cellular connection. You get the idea. Ultimately, the culprit wasn’t what I was expecting.

Diagnosing issues like the ones I described is difficult. The reason is that connectivity issues can really lie just about anywhere, including:

  • Modem problems
  • Router problems
  • WiFi interference
  • WiFi coverage issues
  • DNS issues
  • Congestion on shared connections
  • Provider issues
  • Backbone (general Internet) issues, often caused by DoS attacks and the like
  • Server issues with the sites or services you’re trying to access

For the average home user, and even for people like me who are experienced in networking, it’s often just not clear, or that easy to figure-out. Diagnosis steps can easily provide misleading information, taking you down the wrong path.

As is the case for many home users, my first step in trying to solve the problem was simply to restart the devices that make the network tick here at home, including my cable modem, and my Orbi router and its two satellites. Once everything came back up, things worked, and I chalked it all off to typically crummy firmware of the rebooted devices; there was probably a memory leak left by poor programming and debugging, and it might be fixed the next time an update is issued.

Then it got worse.

Earlier this week, the symptoms I described above started to become more frequent to the point where it was becoming a particular problem given that I work from home, and Internet connectivity is essential. The benefits of rebooting everything didn’t last as long — or have a complete effect.

One diagnostic I used was simply checking an app. Comcast, my provider, has an app that’s actually fairly useful and nicely designed, and strangely, looking at the app, it kept showing that my cable modem was offline even when it wasn’t. While the app didn’t provide any details around that, and perhaps since I own my modem instead of leasing it I shouldn’t expect much help, that fact alone raised an eyebrow.

Proclaiming that enough was enough, and sensing at this point that the cable modem might be the problem, I ended-up picking-up a new one from the local Sam’s Club (it was on sale for $50 even), a Linksys CM3016, and tried replacing the existing one as a diagnostic step. Worst case, I figured, I’d have an affordable spare.

That was two days ago, and I’m happy to report that there hasn’t been a single problem since. Spotify has been seamless. Web sites are working great. WebEx conferences have decent audio quality again. Life seems to be good now.

It’s easy to believe that you buy a device, and it provides good service for an indefinite period. The old cable modem was less than three years old; I didn’t expect to need to replace it until it was obsolete, unable to deliver some higher speed of service that became available in 4 or 5 years. I did not, frankly, expect that it would just stop working well after 30 or so months for no apparent reason.

I am, however, reminded that my in-laws, also Comcast customers but who choose to lease their cable modem, have had Comcast technicians replace theirs not once, but twice in the past three years alone — once because the Comcast rep proclaimed the device obsolete and therefore the cause of whatever issue they were having at the time, and once because the device failed. So if the hardware the cable company itself provides gets replaced on such a short interval, well, I guess the lesson here is don’t expect a cable modem you buy to keep going forever either.

Finally, on the upside, the new modem provides 16 downstream channels, while the old provided 8. While that gains me precisely nothing today (more channels doesn’t provide more speed unless you’re paying for that speed), it does provide a good feeling that I have some capacity to grow should I opt for higher Internet speeds anytime soon. Or at least that’s the story I’m telling myself to make me feel better about spending the $50.