Why is my internet sketchy?
November 18, 2020 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Our home internet has not worked for months - it looses connection dozens of times a day (sometimes it's up and down, sometimes it mostly works, and often it's like we don't have internet at all). We have four children doing partial distance learning and the adult who's home with them needs to be working, I am losing my bananas. What do I do next? All the details inside.

We have internet service through Cox in Rhode Island; there are no other ISPs in our area. Our service has never been amazing, but over the last four months it's basically useless. When the internet goes out I do not have a connection if I plug my computer into the modem, so it seems like a true connectivity issue rather than a router issue. The lights on the modem and router suggest that they're working, but they are not. When I call Cox to report the issue sometimes they can "see" the modem and sometimes they can't.

Things I have done:
-Cox has come to our house almost a dozen times and they have replaced all of their hardware, including the connection to the house and the underground line from the pole to the house
-I replaced our Cox provided all-in-one hardware (new hardware is a Motorola MB7621 modem and Synology RT2600ac router - equipment info is updated with Cox)
-I paid an IT company to come verify that our equipment was configured correctly and operational
-Upgraded to a higher internet speed

Random bonus thoughts:
-The techs who came out Monday couldn't find a problem, but said there was a large branch on the line outside that could be causing the issues, is that possible?
-The IT guy said he's seen certain devices cause stability issues, is that possible? We have a couple of old smart TVs, a finicky wifi printer, and a very old Macbook that are all "instability contenders" if that's a thing (they are all unplugged/off right now and the internet is still down, so maybe that's not it)

Is there any additional troubleshooting I can do that might be helpful? How ... do I solve this?
posted by zibra to Technology (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you're using WIFI, that's the next likely culprit.

One of the old devices could be shitting all over the spectrum and keeping things from running smoothly. Or your spectrum may just be jammed.

As sammyo says, try a direct connection.

If that works fine, then start getting rid of non-essential WIFI devices and/or plugging essential connections into a router directly. Cables running around the house may suck, but when you need stable connectivity, WIFI is not your answer, especially with five (five!) clients trying to access streaming sometimes simultaneously.

If the direct connection doesn't work reliably, I'll be shocked, as everything else has been tested, as you say.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:25 AM on November 18

I had a similar problem with my Internet connection (through Time Warner, now called Spectrum), though my issues were not as severe as yours. I'm almost certain that the problems were on their end, not anything inside my network. They sent techs out to do troubleshooting, but the problems were intermittent -- and everything was working fine when the techs were on-site. I "solved" the problem by switching to a different Internet service provider, one that was much more stable than Time Warner. So you might consider doing that.

Upon edit: I see that you have no other ISPs in your area. But you can almost certainly get a hotspot through Verizon or AT&T or whatever. There are USB hotspots that you can plug into an appropriate router (such as Cradlepoint), so that you can have wired connections to devices in your network, in addition to having a WiFi signal.
posted by alex1965 at 7:25 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Do you have a microwave oven? If so, does using it correspond with wifi dropping?

If possible I would suggest Homeplugs. That way you can hardwire most devices so they can have wired as the first, wifi as the second option.
posted by I shot a fox in Skyrim and it made me sad at 7:27 AM on November 18

Also, just in case you haven't checked lately, here is a list of ISPs in Rhode Island. Maybe you can get someone other than Cox now.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:29 AM on November 18

Just jumping in to confirm that I am losing connectivity at the modem itself - if I plug directly into the modem with my computer I do not have a connection.
posted by zibra at 7:29 AM on November 18

First, Cox sucks. (Am also in Rhodey, and switched to FiOS a couple of years ago.)

That said, yes, a branch on the line could be getting blown around in this week's fierce winds and disturbing the physical connection. (Of course they can't remove it: Cox sucks.)

If their phone support people can't see the modem from their side, the issue lies between the back of the modem and their gear -- which they own all of. Don't allow them to blame your hardware: they can't reach the modem, much less what's on the other side. It's a cop-out. (Cox sucks.)

Using an Ethernet cable to plug right into the modem is the best way to eliminate your wifi from the question, so full marks for that.

Do any neighbors have Cox that you can talk to, to see whther they have trouble, too? The street across from mine was full of Cox customers who had bad service for a long time, and they finally went to the local paper. Cox just didn't want to put in a new buried line. When news broke, and they mayor got involved, Cox finally sent multiple trucks out for days to put in a new line to every house! Problem solved.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:29 AM on November 18 [5 favorites]

Can you put the modem and wifi AP on an uninterrupted power supply (UPS), and see if that improves things? They can be sensitive to marginal power.
posted by nickggully at 7:41 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

You might keep a log of drop outs, or see if the modem has a history. Then you can try to match it with local events, like wind that might push the cables around outside?
posted by nickggully at 7:52 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Has the line inside your house/walls (from outside to whatever outlet it comes out of, and then to your modem) been replaced/checked? I had terrible issues like that once until I lucked into a really competent and diligent Comcast tech who removed every single wall plate between where the line came in and the outlet we used to connect to the modem, and found a blank wall plate that was hiding a splitter and a short run of cable with a barely-hanging-on coax connector in the wall. He properly closed off that run of cable and I never again had a problem. It was magical. Good luck, this sounds infuriating and I would have completely lost my shit by now.
posted by misskaz at 7:53 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

Many cable modems have a status page at (if that doesn't work, google for the actual IP address for your make/model).

There should be a 'connection levels' or 'signal levels' page showing Power, SNR, correctables and Uncorrectables for each frequency the modem uses.

Power closer to zero is better, and higher SNR (well above 30 dB) is better.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 9:52 AM on November 18

In the spirit of checking the obvious...
When your internet is up, and you plug your computer directly into the modem, it does work, right? Unless we know that it works sometimes, it's useless to know that it doesn't work other times. You should probably also disable the wifi on the computer you're testing with, so you know that it's using the wired connection. I have run into an issue with a particular modem where the modem will bind to the first device that's connected after bootup, and hold on to that device forever. The only way to allow a different device to connect to the modem was to power cycle the modem every time you swapped the ethernet cable. I'd expect your new modem to be better behaved than the one I had, but if you haven't confirmed that the swap works in normal circumstances, it's worth doing just for confidence in your test procedures.

Can you log in to the modem and look at the various status details on the web interface? There may be some obvious ones that report issues, or you may need to dig a bit further into signal levels. Is there anything you can find that is different between the times things are working and the times things are not?

It really does sound like the complete loss of connectivity is is between your modem and the world. If Cox can't "see" a modem, and a reboot of the modem doesn't fix it, then either the modem is misconfigured (which you've ruled out) or the problem is upstream of the modem. The suggestion to check the wiring between where the cable enters the building and where the modem is located is a good one. Do you have a bunch of splitters in a utility closet/basement that go to outlets in other parts of the house? Could you temporarily relocate the modem to the first place the cable enters the building and see if eliminating some of the cable in your walls makes things better? (If you aren't already familiar with how your house is wired, take note of how things are connected before you start moving things, so you don't increase the troubleshooting needed later...)

Do you (and your neighbors) have a MoCA filter installed between your house and the incoming cable? (Ignore the panic about the DVR recording, but if there's signals escaping from one of your neighbors, it could be causing interference at your house.) That question probably has to be answered by a Cox Tech.
posted by yuwtze at 9:53 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Hi, I've been managing commercial networks and internal systems for some time and there are a few things I'd check. Sorry for the kinda long post. I haven't had Cox since the early 2000s so I won't allow what I thought of them then to color my responses now... :)

What internet speeds are you supposed to have? Have you asked your neighbors on the same block if they've had issues, or can you? Speed (if it's too low to accommodate your usage) could be a problem obviously but wouldn't just kill it entirely. Capacity could be a problem in your area if a lot of people around you are also at home using the internet, and that could cause problems like the ones you're having. If this is the issue (which is hard to definitively test without coordination between you and your neighbors) there's nothing to be done but get another ISP, which is not really an option from what you say.

Do you all have problems at the same time, or are you just having random issues at different times? I have pretty much the same online situation at my house, two kids doing eLearning and a working adult using a 150mb connection (download speed, Comcast). There are hiccups sometimes but all but one small issue we've had has not been on our end, though I address every one as though it could be. Sadly there's nothing you can do for internet issues they're having at school or work. If your schools are anything like ours, they are having a huge amount of bandwidth usage that could be affecting their connectivity. The first two weeks of eLearning this year were an exercise in frustration for me as I watched them struggle to work out problems. I couldn't do anything!

From what you describe, it's probably not a wifi issue. You can open a terminal window while still on wifi and ping your router's internal IP (which should show up as your gateway IP in your network connection info, likely something like to see if there's an internal issue when this happens. The response times should be less than 3ms (really less than 1 but give it a break). If you ping an outside IP at the same time, you'll likely get no response or a response with a huge latency, like hundreds or thousands of ms. If you DO have an issue with wifi, you'll get either no responses or huge latency of hundreds or thousands of ms from your router.

It's possible there's a device causing issues on your network, but that's usually easy to test by unplugging the router ethernet from the modem and plugging your Macbook into the ethernet port on the modem. You might even power cycle the modem just to be sure it's not still freaking out. After the router is unplugged, the network would settle down and you'd be back to surfing on that Mac. I HAVE seen this happen a decent amount but I still don't really think it's your issue.

Is your printer a laser printer? Is it plugged into the same outlet or circuit that the internet devices are plugged into? Is it plugged into a battery backup (uninterruptible power supply) along with any internet devices? Laser printers use a huge amount of electricity, particularly when they are getting ready to print, and I've seen them blow fuses and completely overload batteries. If any of these printer answers is yes, I would try a print and see what happens to the internet.

OK, so if, when you have issues, you unplug the router and plug your laptop/whatever directly to the modem with an ethernet cable and still have problems, that is generally a problem that is the ISPs responsibility to fix (though they will likely blame it on your third party modem, which is almost never the problem in my experience).

As for the branch, you can go outside and see if the branch is moving in the wind or something, which could theoretically cause tension on the line and produce connection issues, but that's still on the ISP to have evaluated the situation and advised you to trim the branch. If it's a small branch or an easy trim, I would just trim it to remove excuses they can use to kick it down the road. Maybe it actually is the issue, but I would expect more problems after the branch is trimmed because the line or it's connection has likely been damaged if so.

In the years I've been dealing with ISPs, there is a huge variance in the quality of technicians that will come out. It's very likely that the people that have been sent up to this point are third party vendors that are, well, not that great. Most are cable installers with a bullet list of troubleshooting tips but very little working knowledge of the technology (nothing against cable installers, it's simply not what they've been trained for). I suggest trying to have them send out actual Cox technicians by escalating this up the chain, which may be more difficult than it sounds.

Years ago I had a problem with Brighthouse (now Spectrum) and it took me 6 months of extensive documentation, talking the talk, and the threat of public shaming to get resolved. They sent out vendor after vendor who did cosmetic fixes that I told them wasn't the issue, but they would just replace a patch cable or whatever and tell me to keep an eye on it. I was driven to the point of madness until I recorded a video and posted it to YouTube with bandwidth tests showing obvious problems with the connection, a detailed walk through of every step we had gone through, and results from a number of different networking tests in and out of our home that pretty well showed it had to be outside the house. I emailed the link to them and they finally sent out a true Brighthouse network admin that took 25 mins to determine that our neighbor's Brighthouse connection had been improperly installed and was throwing garbage on the line at frequent random intervals. So he carefully fixed the issue with the neighbors connection and we had great internet after that. HAHA just joking, they just completely cut my neighbors internet connection with a pair of snips. He said the neighbor would complain about not having internet and they would send out a technician that SHOULD install it right, then he left. My neighbor was without internet for 6 days. The connection definitely improved at that point but damn.
posted by dozo at 10:31 AM on November 18 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I'm also suspicious of just plugging the laptop into the modem and having it work. The ISP is probably only going to hand out one DHCP address per port (going to the usual router) and may or may not tie that lease specifically to that MAC address. Otherwise you could just plug a switch into your modem and have four or five machines with real IP addresses.

I would throw up a simple network monitoring application and have that intermittently check the connection to the router, to the ISP's gateway, the ISP nameservers, a few other addresses out in the internet wilds and have it log those for however long it takes. Then when something's broke, you can look and diagnose things. I can get to the nameservers but not out to google. I can hit the ISP router but not the nameservers.

And then as dozo mentioned, you have to navigate customer service and escalate with details and logs until you get to an actual network engineer.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:56 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

dozo's advice is all good, and seems to respond to the actual conditions you mention in your post.

dozo: So he carefully fixed the issue with the neighbors connection and we had great internet after that. HAHA just joking, they just completely cut my neighbors internet connection with a pair of snips.

Yeah, a lot of RI broadband technicians are old phone company guys and not computer networking guys, and it shows. They can't crimp on jacks, they run cable taut as guitar strings and stapled down hard, they leave great hanks of untwisted Cat5 cable sprawled all over, they just... GAH.

What part of Rhodey do you live in? I am up in Cumberland. Out in "No School F****-G*****" you're pretty much stuck; in other areas with more people you might get a different tech on a future call -- but yeah, Cox is probably bullshitting you about their gear being fine. If you're plugged into the router and it's plugged into the wall and the signal isn't reliable, IT'S 99% THEIR STUFF. (Once in a blue moon, as suggested above, there's a mystery connection somewhere in your walls -- which you could eliminate by tracing any visible cables.)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:04 PM on November 18

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