BendBroadband installed the second of four new routers overnight Wednesday, marking the halfway point of a multimillion-dollar network upgrade that is supposed to alleviate the slow service and unreliability plaguing Central Oregon’s only cable broadband network.
Once the upgrade is complete, possibly by Thanksgiving, BendBroadband will offer faster maximum download speeds, 600 megabits per second, and it will consider whether to completely eliminate caps on data consumption, said Deanne Boegli, spokeswoman for parent company TDS Telecom.
“By no means are we perfect,” Boegli said in an email. “I do hope our customers can appreciate we are working hard every day to improve both the local communications network and the back-office processes that support it. Customers will see improved speeds by Thanksgiving, if they have not started to see improvements already.”
But some subscribers fear it won’t be long before BendBroadband’s marketing promises outstrip actual performance.
Matt Leebert, a customer since 2010, said he likes the fact that BendBroadband has raised the monthly data cap to 750 gigabytes for internet-only subscribers, but he’s also noticed a degradation of service over the past two years.
“They started expanding service and promising ‘fastest speeds ever,’” he said. “It’s meaningless when you don’t get it. It’s meaningless when you have a cap. It’s kind of like a weird advertising tactic to show how good they are.”
Although Leebert works from home as a software developer, he said he could get by with a top download speed of 50 megabits per second. “I don’t need high speeds. I would just like to have reliability,” he said.
Broadband providers face a vicious cycle as they offer users the speeds and data packages they want, and then need to make upgrades to accommodate the traffic that inevitably follows. TDS, based in Chicago, poured $28 million into the BendBroadband network after buying the local company in 2014. The current upgrade will cost at least that much, Boegli said.
Larry Boehm, director of engineering and construction at TDS Telecom, said a majority of BendBroadband’s internet traffic is from video streaming apps like Netflix.
In May 2016, BendBroadband began offering unlimited data to subscribers who bundle their internet service with cable television. At the same time the company raised the cap for internet-only subscribers from 500 gigabytes to 750 gigabytes.
Other TDS-owned broadband providers do not impose data caps, but the company has hesitated to completely eliminate them in Bend, Boegli said. “We know from past experience that as users get more bandwidth they increase their data usage quite significantly,” she said via email.
Broadband providers take different approaches to the issue of maintaining service levels while meeting the ever-growing demand for data, said Jameson Zimmer, director of content at BroadbandNow, a website that helps consumers find and compare broadband service.
Major players including Comcast impose a data cap, but it’s 1 terabyte, he said. One terabyte, which is 1,000 gigabytes, is the equivalent of about 500 hours of movies.
Charter Spectrum dropped data caps, but the service is generally more expensive, Zimmer said. “Some providers will have a million different options. Charter’s like, ‘Here’s the three flavors.’ There’s no budget option.”
Tim Ellis, an IT network professional who works from home in Bend, is skeptical that BendBroadband’s upgrade will make a difference for long, and not because of consumers’ Netflix-viewing habits. Streaming video apps adapt themselves to the available bandwidth, he said, so when BendBroadband bumps up the size of the proverbial pipes, streaming will begin to consume more data, even without subscribers spending more time online.
“You can throw lots more bandwidth at the problem, or you can manage the bandwidth you have,” Ellis said.
Internet providers can manage consumption of bandwidth without unfairly throttling specific apps, which is a focus of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, he said, but it takes sophistication.
Boehm said BendBroadband doesn’t take any steps to slow down certain types of traffic. Instead the company is relying on the streaming video content providers to adapt so their technology consumes less data.
TDS Telecom acquired BendBroadband in 2014, and Central Oregon has been a lucrative market because household incomes are high, and the population is growing quickly. But the company has struggled to keep up with Bend’s growth.
Leebert, who uses monitoring tools to track the performance of his home connection, said download speeds in the evenings drop to 5 megabits per second, and sometimes there are outages.
Leebert said he’s complained so often that in January a BendBroadband technician visited his house and told him the southeast Bend neighborhood was over-subscribed, meaning too many households were being served by the same node. The company has been giving him a $15-per-month discount since then, he said.
Leebert recently set up a wireless hotspot for backup because he was experiencing outages in the mornings after 8 a.m. “I’m paying now $250 a month, just to have reliable internet.”
Yet BendBroadband, which pays 5 percent of its gross receipts to the city of Bend as a franchise fee, appears to be rebounding after two years of decline following the acquisition. The city collected a little more than $1 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, up 13 percent from the prior year.
Ellis, who lives in northeast Bend, was one of the first to sign up for BendBroadband’s 300 megabit-per-second service in May 2016, but he’s since downgraded to 100 megabits per second because he says the service is so unreliable.
Ellis said he can make high-quality video calls from his house all day, but that’s impossible during the evening.
“What most people are doing at home frankly doesn’t need 10 megabits per second. The stuff we’re experiencing with BendBroadband shouldn’t happen,” he said.
In addition to upgrading routers located in the headquarters off Empire Boulevard, BendBroadband will install more than 40 new nodes at the neighborhood level by the end of this year, project manager James Preuss said. All subscribers received an email notice about the overnight outage last week, so it’s not an indication of which households are being served by new equipment.
Speeds should be even faster once the whole project is complete, Boegli said. “Once complete I don’t expect customers in the city of Bend to have speed complaints related to our network,” she said via email. “We are looking forward to putting 2017 behind us. We really do appreciate our customer’s patience on all of these projects.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to state the terms of data caps in gigabytes. The Bulletin regrets the error.