By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
I’ve been in WildBlue hell since last week, which is why you haven’t heard from me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stay online, but for now I’m using our tiny town’s broadband internet system (more about that in a minute.) My WildBlue story is, I think, emblematic of why rural communities must have broadband, as quickly as possible.
WildBlue is one of three statellite Internet providers. The others are Hughesnet and Starband. I’m not putting any of their links here because I can’t recommend any of them. If you want to find them, any search engine will help.
Satellite providers have what they call a Fair Access Policy, which sets the amount of uploading and downloading you can do in a given period. If you exceed that amount, you get punished. WildBlue sends you an email when you’re approaching the limit. If you hit the limit, they cut you down to dialup speed until you get your usage down below 70% of the allowance.
I got my warning Saturday. It said I was about to go over my allotment for uploading (sending stuff). If they’d said I was downloading too much, I wouldn’t have been surprised. A few days earlier I’d downloaded a bunch of podcasts of Bill Moyers Journals from NPR. We can’t get NPR on our satellite TV system (another story, but not for now) and I miss Bill Moyers’ wisdom and evenhanded comment greatly.
But this notice said I was sending too much. When I went into my account, I found I was at 83% of my allowance. I knew something was wrong. I send out maybe a dozen emails a day. One or two may have a Word document attached. I rarely send photos and never send videos. Normally, before Saturday, my uploading was about 35% of maximum, my downloading usually less than that.
I had to go out for the day. Not only did I turn off my computer, but I also unplugged the cable from the WildBlue modem. When I got home Saturday night, my usage registered at 87% — and I hadn’t been online all day.
On Sunday I was online long enough to download a few emails. I got offline, answered what I had to, and got back online. My usage now registered 93%.
I have an excellent security system — ZoneAlarm Extreme Security. It protects me from viruses, spyware, and web browser intrusions. It updates itself every day, sometimes more than once, as new threats get identified. I run a complete scan of my computer every Saturday. How much safer can you be?
By Monday morning WildBlue said my upload usage was at 97% of maximum. At the advice of a friend, who chairs our tiny town’s broadband committee, I downloaded the free version of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware software. Malware is short for “malicious software.” It can do all kinds of nasty things to you, including using your computer to send spam that you’re not aware of. If you don’t know about malware, read about it here, and make sure you’re protected.
Malwarebytes found a little piece of junk that it deleted, but it wasn’t anything that could have accounted for my alleged overuse of uploads. Between ZoneAlarm and Malwarebytes, I was confident my computer was clean, so I called WildBlue’s technical support.
The company’s telephone menu system is designed to keep you from reaching a human being. On most such systems, if you just keep pressing zero you finally here a human voice, but not this one. I finally chose to contact billing, because I was pretty sure they’d care enough about getting my money to have someone answer that phone. It worked, and eventually I got myself into technical support.
I must say that the first two people in tech support that I talked with were perfectly polite. Dense, but polite. Neither could grasp what I was telling them about how WildBlue said I was uploading too much and that I thought there was no way I could be. Finally, I told the second person that if WildBlue cut me down to dialup speed, I’d suspend my service, fire up my telephone modem, and subscribe to a dialup service. “I’m not about to pay WildBlue $50 a month for speeds I can get for $9.95,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the woman I was talking with. Nothing else. So I said, “I don’t mean to insult you, but it’s clear you don’t have the authority to help me. if you have anyone there who cares about keeping customers, please put me in touch with that person.” That’s how I got to Alex.
Alex listened, looked up my record, and told me the dates and times I was sending a lot of stuff. Most days things were getting underway at 6:45 a.m. and lasting until 8 or 9 p.m. Now, I’m a creature who wakes with the sun, so this time of year I’m awake around 5, but that doesn’t mean I’m out of bed. I do my best thinking first thing in the morning. By six I’m on my way to the hen house, by 6:30 I’m doing my daily workout, which takes me about an hour. In no way am I on my computer at 6:45. And, as industrious as I am, I’m offline and my computer is almost always shut down by 6 or 7 p.m. Furthermore, one of the days of heavy usage was Saturday, when I was out of the house and the computer shut off except for about 15 minutes.
Alex listened to all of this and didn’t doubt me. He said he’d put a $20 credit on my account, which would increase the amount of uploading I was allowed to do, thus cutting my usage down to 80% of maximum. He told me to unplug the WildBlue modem overnight and that I’d see the new amount of usage on Tuesday morning. I did, and I did. But by the time we finished talking, at about 8 o’clock at night, my usage was over the top. Without his help, at midnight the WildBlue computer would have cut my access speed down to dialup level.
Tuesday morning my usage was at 79%. I continued unplugging my computer from the satellite system when I didn’t actually need to be online. By noon, the usage registered 83%. By 5 it was at 87%. You can see where this is heading.
I was lucky enough to get hold of Alex again. He consulted with some of the technical gurus. They were stumped. Polite, but unable to explain what was going on.
At that point I called the most technical of the three of us on the broadband committee. He is also one of two volunteer installers for our town. Before he retired, he ran the customer service department of a technology company. In mid-May, he installed the broadband connection at my house, but it failed about 10 hours later. Aligning the radio that receives the wireless broadband signal from the fire tower where our equipment is installed is a very tricky and painstaking process. There’s no meter to show you when you’ve got it right; it’s pretty much trial and error (we don’t yet have the money for the equipment that would make it easier, but one of these days we will.) The committee member/installer said he’d come back and reposition my radio receiver when he could and I went back to WildBlue.
When we talked last night, he suggested that I plug back into the broadband system. He’d done some tweaking up on the mountain, and it might work, he said.
It’s working, at least for now. Later today, if it’s still working, I’ll resume my regular blogging. After a few days, if it fails again, I’ll be able to go back on WildBlue because my daily use average will have dropped (I think.)
I have two theories about what is going on with WildBlue. One is that water has inflitrated the line that goes from the satellite dish, about 5o feet from house. The overuse started on the first day of a three-day rainfall. The other is that someone who works at WildBlue, or who used to work there, stole my connection information and was using it to send spam. As long as I’m on the town’s broadband system, that’s impossible, because they don’t have the information they need to do that.
We’ll see. Meanwhile, I’m back.
If there’s anyone reading this who is working on a local broadband system, you may be interested in the technology we’re using: it’s Motorola’s Canopy technology. You can check it out here.