netneutralityThis week the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) releases its proposed new rules for Internet Service Provider (ISP) network neutrality.  I have written many times about Network Neutrality and once I have a look at the FCC proposal I am sure I’ll have comments to make here.  In general I’m in favor of rules that allow me, as a consumer, more digital freedom. It would be great to run Skype over my iPhone, for example, just as I can already run it over the cellular connection on my notebook. But right now I’m talking about a different kind of network neutrality, the kind I’m struggling to achieve in my own home.

I live in Charleston, South Carolina where my primary ISP is Comcast. I have a 16 megabit-per-second (mbps) business Internet service with five static IPs and an upstream speed that I think is supposed to be 2.0 mbps but actually measures around 2.5. On the Speakeasy Speed Test I have no problem clocking the full 16 mbps to Atlanta, either.  It’s not Verizon’s FIOS, it costs three times as much as FIOS, but my connection more than does the job.  Compared to some other places in the world of course my speeds are laughable.

So why is it that when I surf the net while speaking on my Voice-over-IP (VOIP) telephone, it breaks up?  It’s not like I don’t have enough bandwidth, both up and down. And the network in my house is 100 mbps wired Ethernet using Cat5 cable throughout.  Ah, but I’m using the hated Vonage telephone service you say, not Comcast’s VOIP offering.  That explains it: net neutrality violation!!!

Except it isn’t. Comcast and Vonage have been pretending to be friends for a while now. It’s all part of the “We don’t really need that old Net Neutrality” song Comcast and the other big ISPs have been singing, including the verse that says Vonage is okay by them.

Then why does my Vonage-connected fax machine not function reliably, either?

Maybe I need traffic shaping, you say. Let’s just adjust my router to give priority to those VOIP packets, as I am sure Comcast would do if I were using their service.

Except I already do traffic shaping. I run a rather robust firewall as a sort of Internet gateway that includes local DNS and Squid (proxy) service. VOIP Packets get first dibs on my cable modem and always have.

This problem has been driving me crazy for some time now, but I believe I know what’s happening and it has nothing to do with Comcast or net neutrality.

I’m pretty sure the problem is in the Vonage boxes that connect my phone and fax machine to the network, called Analog Telephony Adapters or ATAs. First, I don’t use my ATA’s as Vonage suggests. Vonage envisions a single-ATA network generally with a single PC, or at least they did when I got these puppies. They want me to plug my ATA into the cable modem and my PC into the ATA so the ATA automatically takes precedence. I can’t do that for three reasons: 1) my office is three floors above my cable modem; 2) my fax machine is not in the same room as my PC, and; 3) I’m pretty sure the Vonage Ethernet ports are limited to 10 mbps so hooking-in there would limit the bandwidth available to my PC. If I’m paying for 16 mbps, dag nabbit I want to use 16 mbps!

Given that I’m already doing traffic shaping in the router and have a huge excess of bandwidth for VOIP anyway, what’s the big deal using the ATA’s as I do, simply plugged into a 10/100 Ethernet switch? It shouldn’t matter.

Then I spoke with my friend Paul and came to a sudden realization. I’ve been messing with my Internet gateway, trying to convert it to a trio of $99 SheevaPlug computers that I’ll run as a tiny cluster just to see if I can do it. Paul said his testing showed each 1.2 GHz Sheeva was the equivalent of about a 10th of his four-core AMD box. “But even that’s plenty to saturate an Ethernet connection,” he said.

The Sheeva installation isn’t even ready to go yet, but what came to me is that the poor Vonage ATAs just can’t keep up. I got them when I signed up for Vonage service in 2002!  Back then my computer had a single core and ran at 400 MHz. Today I have four cores and run at 3.0 GHz. While it technically isn’t supposed to work that way I’m guessing my PC is just so darned fast at grabbing and releasing bandwidth those little seven year-old Motorola ATAs from Vonage are having trouble getting a packet in edgewise. Yes, the switch should compensate for that but you know I think that switch is about seven years old, too.

That explains why VOIP clients like Skype and Gizmo that run entirely on my PC (no ATA) don’t have any problems.

Most of my hardware is replaced every three years, but these network components have been running undisturbed since they were first installed. And being digital they probably run as well as ever. They just weren’t built with the idea that one day there would be a bully in the house.