[UPDATE: See PS and PPS for evidence that customer service isn't dead, it's just moving a little slowly. I think the lesson remains that should you be deciding between DSL and cable internet, make sure to get a guaranteed speed for your exact location before you commit.]
In April 2011, CenturyLink finalized its merger with Qwest, which had the potential to be an improvement for some customers. As Washington Technology reported:
The company also had to agree to significantly increase the capacity of the Qwest network, bringing broadband with actual download speeds of at least 4 Mbps to at least four million more homes and businesses, and at least 20,000 more anchor institutions, such as schools, libraries, and community centers.
Source: Washington Technology (http://s.tt/1acwO)
At the time, 4 Mbps was far from my mind, as for a few years, Qwest had been sending me postcards announcing their new fiber optic DSL, where speeds of “up to 20 Mbps” were promised. “Up to” because Qwest was generally employing fiber-to-neighborhoods, and the data then had to be passed through copper to get to homes, with the usual degradation in speeds depending on your distance from your DSL provider’s office.
Just 37 Mbps short. Sigh.
Crawling along at 1.5 Mbps, I yearned to breathe free, as did a lot of other Seattle DSL customers, equally annoyed by announcements of upgrades untethered to mundane things like timeline and location. Finally, the great day arrived. I got 3 Mbps. Actually, I got a promise of 80 percent of 3 Mbps, which is 2.4 Mbps, and in fact the true speed hovers right around 2.5 Mbps…unless it doesn’t. This is on Capitol Hill, one of the densest areas in Seattle.
The postcards–now announcing “up to 40 Mbps”–still arrive from CenturyLink. I asked Meg Andrews, CenturyLink’s media relations spokesperson for Seattle, if there were an overlay map of CenturyLink’s varying broadband speeds for Seattle, not necessarily expecting there to be one (there wasn’t), because infrastructure varies block to block. The best way to check is still to visit CenturyLink and either put in your address or, if you have a landline, that phone number. (There’s also the Washington State Broadband Office’s map, but it’s not granular enough to be that useful.)
I also asked about anecdotal reports, including my own, of DSL speeds dropping at different times of the day. In theory, this shouldn’t happen on a dedicated DSL line, but there’s a big, big internet out there, and all that data has to pass through CenturyLink before it gets to CenturyLink’s customers’ homes. This is I think Andrews’ point when she writes back:
Providers of content like YouTube, Netflix, CNN and Internet Service Providers like CenturyLink are constantly challenged to add additional capacity to meet burgeoning demand. At CenturyLink, we monitor demand in each neighborhood and proactively add capacity to with the goal of meeting peak demand some safety margin.
In short, “burgeoning demand” is probably why my Netflix is fuzzy, night after night. The solution for increased speed is obvious: Comcast. A few blocks away, in the luxuriously appointed office suite that is home to The SunBreak, Comcast delivers over 20 Mbps. (I’ve been critical of Comcast’s marketing of “business class” in the past, but it’s undeniable that they’re a leader on price for broadband speed. The only reason I don’t have them at home is because of a thick concrete wall I’ve been hesitant to drill a hole into.)
It makes me wonder, though, if CenturyLink’s “over promise, under deliver” postcard strategy hasn’t worked perfectly on me. For years now, they’ve been dangling the carrot of just-around-the-corner high speeds, and as of July 2012, there is still no indication that those speeds are on the way. (To Capitol Hill: Andrews did tell me that “[c]urrently we are working with the community group UPTUN to work on bringing additional services into the Beacon Hill and Central District.”) I may have been an unsatisfied customer, but my checks cashed the same as a satisfied one. I leave it to you to decide if this is a brilliant rearguard marketing move or not.
PS: Andrews was kind enough to check to see if I was really stuck at 3 Mbps, and emailed me to say that it looked like my address had 7 Mbps capability. Heartened, I called customer service, only to have Lucy yank the ball away again. As the representative explained it to me, while I am in an “up to 7 Mbps” service area, what I in fact can get is 3 Mbps.
PPS: Out of nowhere, just over a month later, I got a call from an area manager bearing some great news. They’d been looking into why my service was so slow, and found it wasn’t because of my distance from the circuit, but because of particularities in wiring at residence. CenturyLink sent a technician out ready to get his or her hands dirty and from one day to the next, speeds jumped to 7 Mbps. That’s not 20 or 40 Mbps, but it’s a more than 100-percent improvement, so I’ll gladly take it. Another win in the “Squeaky Wheel” column.