Merry Christmas, and Happy Gaming!

As I type this, Christmas is just two weeks away, and one of the most anticipated games in years, Cyberpunk 2077, has just been released earlier this week.

This seems like a good time to remind our subscribers that this season of giving, specifically giving video games, may result in some concerns with your family’s internet performance.

People who purchase this game for PC, for instance, have to download the massive game files (over 60GB, plus a Day One patch which is also many GB in size), but even console players can’t just drop the disc in their machine and play, as the required Day One patch for Cyberpunk 2077 on consoles is typically 25-30 GB.

To put this into perspective, this table shows the best-case scenario for download times of a 25 GB file (or 214,748,364,800 bits) at each of our plans’ speeds. By “best case”, I mean under perfect circumstances:

  1. a flawless connection between the device and the router (because every data packet which must be re-sent adds extra time)
  2. literally no other traffic through the router whatsoever, so the download can utilize 100% of the capacity of your internet connection
  3. servers on the publisher’s side which have the capacity to serve all packets at maximum speed, without any bottlenecks anywhere along the path from their servers to our datacenter, which could inadvertently limit the speed

(Any variance from perfection equals a longer download time.)

Download SpeedNumber of hours needed
318.96
69.48
96.32
124.74
153.79

As members of your household open their presents on Christmas morning and pop their new video games into their systems, pretty much all of these games will require updates in order to play. Some needed updates may be pretty small, but others could be very large, indeed.

Please be patient during this process, and do understand that it may be necessary, if your household wishes to utilize the internet normally on Christmas Day, to wait until everyone is done with the internet for the day or ready to go to bed before attempting to install the new games, and that, depending on the specific details, these games may not be ready to play for quite a while. (If you have the ability and time, you could theoretically set up the console and install the games and patches in the remaining time before Christmas Day, sticking to the middle of the night for downloads, which would allow for play as soon as the console is unwrapped.)

We also want to remind everyone that many gaming consoles, including Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and Series X, and PlayStation 4 and 5 consoles, can (and do) use the internet connection to download data, even when the consoles are not in use and/or appear to be off. If the console’s primary user cannot tell the console to pause the downloads, it may be necessary to disconnect the power completely from the console to get it to stop monopolizing your internet connection.

Also, please note the units used in these calculations: Our service’s speed plans (as is the case with most Internet Service Providers) are expressed in megabits-per-second values, but it’s not unusual for systems to display in-progress file transfer speeds in terms of bytes (or kilobytes, megabytes, or gigabytes) per second, and as each byte is made up of 8 bits, this can be a little confusing. If the speed display you see uses a lowercase “b”, it probably means bits, and if it uses an uppercase “B”, it’s probably bytes. All figures in terms of bytes/time should be multiplied by 8 to convert the value to bits/time.

Sales Tax Law Changes

At the end of last week, we were informed that there had been a recent change in the law regarding sales tax collection for internet service, taking effect as of July 1st. Under the old laws, the first $25 of internet service fees were exempt from sales tax, but the remainder of the invoices were all subject to sales tax. Under the new law change, all internet access fees are now exempt from sales tax.

Based on our conversations with the Texas Comptroller’s Office, our understanding is that this exemption removes all sales tax from regular internet service fees, and any other services which directly affect internet access, which in this case refers to fees for a fixed public IP address. Router rentals involve a physical object, and setup fees are primarily labor and are separate from internet service fees, so the taxation rules on those did not change. Similarly, web hosting and domain registration fees are covered in a separate section of the sales tax laws, and were not affected by this.

Of course, as I mentioned, we were not told about this in advance, so we had been calculating and collecting tax for these invoices normally. In order to make this transition simpler and fairly pain-free for our subscribers, our CEO decided to just credit everyone’s accounts for the sales tax levied against all applicable invoices, so none of you will need to file paperwork with the state tax office to get these taxes refunded – we are taking care of that.

These credits have already been applied to all affected accounts, and you do not need to do anything. You can log into the payment portal and view each of the credit invoices which has been generated for your account. Each credit invoice has a description line which refers to the original invoice on which the tax was charged.

If you have any questions about this, please do not call us on the telephone about this. Please email us about any questions or concerns about these tax issues at billing@ecpi.com. As this is essentially a billing issue, we don’t want to overwhelm our billing team with questions, some of which may not be answerable by them in the first place. Also, please remember the billing team is available Monday-Friday, 8 am to 6 pm, and use of the after-hours tech support line for non-technical support purposes, such as this, will result in a $10 fee being applied to your account

Moving forward, we have already changed the settings in the system, so all future invoices should reflect the updated tax laws.

Fiber cut

As most of our subscribers have probably noted, the fiber cut we suffered at about 10:30 this morning is having a big impact on nearly all our subscribers at this time. We did file a trouble ticket with the fiber provider as soon as the event occurred, and they are working on tracking down the damage and repairing it, but we do not yet have a ETA for repair completion.

I will be updating this blog entry as more information comes in.


As of 3:17 pm, the splicing team is on-site and assessing the damage.


The current estimated time of repair is 8:00 pm, CDT


The fiber repair has been completed, and traffic is now flowing normally. The storm which is currently passing through the service area is creating an impact, too, but that should be short-lived.

We apologize for this inconvenience, and thank you for your patience.

Western Broadband Update, 3-23-2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic is having a big impact on everyone’s lives. We encourage all of our subscribers to be aware of the risks, not just to ourselves, but also to the more vulnerable members of our communities here in Central Texas, and to take all necessary precautions to slow the spread of this disease.

Bandwidth Usage

In order to “flatten the curve” and prevent our hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed, most schools have sent students home, and many businesses are encouraging or even requiring their employees to work from home. This combination has already resulted in higher-than-normal bandwidth demands throughout the day, and as more people shift to this new, temporary way-of-life, we expect to see that increase even further.

Our normal planning method for increasing capacity looks at existing demand and extrapolates based on a simple, linear growth model. This new surge in demand was unexpected, and although we are constantly upgrading and improving our network, and we did already have plans to add additional capacity to support higher speed plans and improve redundancy, the new equipment for this is here at our office, still awaiting FCC license approvals, at which point we will need to schedule tower climbs to install it.

We fully intend to try to expedite this process as much as possible, but all this additional bandwidth demand is stressing our network in new ways. As a result, there may be periods of the day during which you may not be receiving all the network speed you normally expect. Just like the grocery stores had their shelves cleared of hand sanitizer and bleach and have to scramble to restock, we are working hard to improve our infrastructure, but it can’t be done all at once.

We ask for some patience, and request that you please refrain from running speedtests, if possible – speedtests do not have some secret process to objectively determine the speed of a connection; they work by throwing as much data as they can at our system, and detecting the point at which the connection chokes. That means that when you think your connection is running slow, and you run a speedtest, you are putting even more traffic, carried over the whole path from the fiber to your access point and then your home, possibly during those same periods in which everyone else on the same access point is competing to use bandwidth. If you are concerned that you’re not getting the speed you should be, please call us on the telephone, and we will be happy to run the necessary diagnostics to figure out what is happening. That process may involve a speedtest, but under monitored conditions.

If you require additional bandwidth to meet your work-from-home needs, or to allow your children to use learning-from-home software, please call us. We can evaluate the quality of your connection, and determine if we can make the requested increase. In some cases, a site visit may be required to improve the signal level in order to allow the higher-performance plans to work properly. In certain instances, where the signal levels are already at the best we can manage, yet are still marginal, we may not be able to increase the speed as much as desired.

Special WiFi Hotspot

We know that the wireless connections we offer are limited in speed by their nature. We are working on improving speeds to your homes, as I mentioned above, but we already have a high-speed fiber optic line which connects to our office in Austin. During this crisis, we understand that you may need to move files so large that they won’t work well over your home’s connection, so we are setting up a WiFi Hotspot accessible from the parking lot at our office. You can use a laptop and see upload and download speeds much faster than you’d get at home for those few files that are too big to send or receive from home. Please call or email us for details.

24×7!

Three months ago, we began using the after-hours call center. Things have not always been as smooth as we would have liked, but overall, it seems to be working pretty well. We have been paying attention to the feedback from our subscribers, and the biggest message we’re hearing is that the after hours support window (in other words, outside the M-F 8am-6pm office hours) should be extended. Well, we do listen…

Starting immediately, on a trial basis at first, we will be extending our after hours support line to 24 hours, seven days a week. Now, you will be able to call and speak with a support technician whenever you are having a problem, not just during the old, limited support hours. This extended support line is still Tier 1 support only, and escalations will still be handled the same way (next-day response, except for holidays), but we believe this should help our subscribers get assistance on their own schedules, not just on ours.

Changes!

“All is flux, nothing stays still”
― Plato


For quite some time, Western Broadband has offered in-house evening and weekend technical support. The way that worked was we had an experienced team member (Craig) who was able to answer phones 7 days a week, during every weekday evening and on weekends during the day, with relatively few breaks for holidays, vacations, or family events. He is now in a position where he is able to step down from this job and spend more time with his family. We’ll miss him, but we understand this is a good thing for him.

Of course, this leads, inevitably, to the question of how we will be handling technical support on the weekends and evenings. Hiring a new person or people to take over from Craig was considered, but it is simply not feasible. The costs of hiring and training, not to mention the time period during which any new employee would take to get a handle on everything, makes that option either very expensive (and those costs would have to be passed on to our subscribers), very inefficient, or both.

We decided our best option was to contract out our extended hours technical support needs to a new, US-based, remote office team. They have staff who already handle this sort of thing for other Internet Service Providers across the nation, and they are well experienced in solving the same sort of problems we already solve on a day-to-day basis. We believe this is the best way to ensure our subscribers’ needs are met without having to raise our rates.


How will this affect you?

  • For now, our support line hours will remain unchanged. The new service will operate M-F, 6pm to 10pm, 9 am to 5 pm on Saturdays, and noon to 5 pm on Sundays, just like Craig did. We are still not certain on how each holiday will affect the support schedule, but we can notify our subscribers of those relevant details here, in this blog.
  • Our network monitoring will not be affected. The same staff who currently monitor all the major aspects of our network, and are automatically notified when there are any problems, will continue to do this. Repairs to equipment in our datacenter or at the towers will still be handled the way they always have been, and with the same emphasis on minimizing our subscribers’ down-time.
  • We will have daily, in-house, Tier 2 escalation management. In other words, if you call in on Friday night with a problem that is outside of the scope of the evening team, you will be contacted the next day by one of our in-house personnel for additional troubleshooting, and at that time, if we need to schedule a service call, we can do that.
  • IMPORTANT: This new line is intended to be used only for technical support calls. Their staff will not be able to provide in-depth information to potential customers, so we will not be passing sales calls onto them. By the same token, they cannot answer questions about billing, or resolve billing disputes, and they will not be able to take payments or handle other, non-technical, customer support issues. Our payment portal will still be operational 24 x 7 to make payments, and telephone payments can still be made during normal operating hours, 8 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday. Questions about your bill can be asked during normal operating hours, or emailed to billing@ecpi.com at any time.
  • IMPORTANT: Because this new support system charges per call, and we need to keep those costs down for everybody, we must charge a fee of $10 to subscribers who use this new line to call about things it is not meant to or able to handle: things like customer service issues, scheduling issues, billing questions or making payments – as mentioned above, they cannot help with billing questions, they can’t take payments, they can’t resolve customer service disputes, and they aren’t able to rearrange scheduled appointments, but we would still be charged for those calls. We have an outgoing message which will remind callers of this policy, and this system requires a button push before it transfers over to them, so we don’t expect to have too many people accidentally incurring this fee.
  • If you are uncertain about which department you need to speak with, you can always email your question to support@ecpi.com, or call us during normal operating hours.
  • As a general rule, you should NOT call the technical support line after normal hours for these topics:
    1. To make a payment or discuss anything to do with payments.
    2. To make or update a payment arrangement.
    3. To ask a question or discuss a dispute about a bill you’ve received from us.
    4. To change the credit card information we have on file for you.
    5. To change the bandwidth plan you are subscribed to.
    6. To schedule an appointment for equipment to be installed or moved at your site.
    7. To ask about an upcoming appointment which has already been scheduled.
    8. To re-schedule or cancel an appointment.
    9. To cancel service.
    10. To address a (non technical) customer service-related issue.
  • You should call the technical support line after normal hours if you:
    1. Are unable to connect to the Internet.
    2. Are connecting to the Internet, but not getting the level of performance you should be (after you’ve eliminated other devices using bandwidth).
    3. Are experiencing intermittent connection issues.
    4. Have a specific, technical problem with our connection I did not list.

Of course, this is a transition for us as much as it is a transition for you, and we do appreciate your patience as we work through this. We would also appreciate feedback from you – how clear our messages are, how effective the technical support team is, and anything else you might think is important – of course, that feedback should either be sent via email to support@ecpi.com or you can call us during those normal operating hours, 8 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday.

To reboot or not to reboot?

To reboot or not to reboot, that is the question… (apologies to the Bard!)

Because the radio transceiver we installed at your home and your wireless router are both computers, there are situations in which one or both might lock up, crash, or refuse to communicate with the other. For that reason, it is often the case that the first thing we suggest when troubleshooting is to power-cycle one or both of these devices. When we are dealing with a “one-off” sort of problem, that usually suffices to clear it up, and your connection is back up and working normally in a few minutes.

However, if you have been experiencing some sort of repeated problem, whether it happens at the same time each day, or is intermittent or unpredictable, those troubleshooting steps are not recommended, even if they seem to grant some relief. Here’s why:  We do monitor your transceiver for certain important telemetry data (like signal level and errors), but the system simply takes instantaneous snapshots every so many minutes – useful to show a trend, but not detailed enough to do any deep inspection. Other statistical data, invaluable in determining the root cause of problems, are stored in the transceiver in volatile memory which is cleared whenever it is rebooted, whether by a power-cycle or a software command. Similarly, the historical data we retain on your overall bandwidth usage is captured every few minutes and averaged, so it can sometimes be helpful, but it’s not precise enough to help with troubleshooting many brief or intermittent problems.

The best way for us to get a full understanding of the nature of those brief or intermittent problems is to view the data in real-time when the problem is happening, and the second-best way is for us to be able to view the transceiver’s statistical data immediately after the incident. What this means in the real world is that if you have been experiencing some sort of recurring Internet problem, whether it’s intermittent, transient, or regular, you will want to give us a call on the telephone, preferably while the failure mode is ongoing, so that we can collect enough data to ascertain root cause, and you should do this without power-cycling anything. That is the best strategy to eliminate those sorts of problems.

On the other hand, if you almost never have any problems with your connection, and it’s acting up with no obvious reason, then resetting the power to the transceiver and/or router may be the quickest way to get you back online. Just remember, if you are having problems with your Internet connection, we want to help you!

Good news, everybody!

UPDATE: Please note, this post was originally created in 2017, and at present, nearly all subscribers have been updated to take advantage of the updated (at that time) plans and speed. The tiny handful of subscribers who have not yet been upgraded are already aware of the necessary upgrades they need. If you aren’t on the old WiMAX equipment, you already are using the updated plans.


At Western Broadband, we have been working on improving our infrastructure to be able to handle more traffic between our towers, more traffic to and from the Internet, and also deploying the latest technology in Access Points which can transmit data to multiple Subscriber Modules simultaneously. Sounds great, but what does this mean for you? Well, …

  • All the extra paths with the high capacity help to make our network more resistant to weather-related problems, by giving alternate paths for most of our towers to use when the primary one is down.
  • Those new, faster paths combine with the new redundant fibers and redundant bandwidth providers to provide additional protection if one of our fibers or providers suffers an outage.
  • All of this works well in conjunction with the newer Access Points to be able to bring more capacity to under-served areas, to prevent AP overloading, and (I know, this is the one you were waiting for…) to increase speeds on the plans in the heart of our service area! Most of the newer capacity we’ve deployed in the outskirts of our service area, in places like Thrall, Manor, Holland, Belton, Salado, Youngsport, Watson, and parts of Burnet and Leander have no burst mode capacity, but we compensated for that by being able to provide higher speeds at the standard price points. Those higher speed plans had not been available in Liberty Hill, some parts of Leander, Georgetown, Florence, Granger, Weir, and Walburg… until now.
  • We are consolidating and simplifying our plans, so the price/Mbps will now be the same in all areas for modern equipment.
  • Starting immediately, all of our subscribers on the standard plans connected to the affected towers will be getting the newer, higher speed packages:
    • Please contact us for details about plans and pricing.
  • Oh yes, one other thing… We have now doubled the Referral Bonus from $15 to $30 – so when you refer potential subscribers to us, be sure to tell them to mention your name so you can receive that credit on your bill!

Expected Questions:

  • How do I take advantage of this? Well, by the time this post has gone live, all the changes to the databases have been processed, and all radios should already be operating with the new rates. If your radio isn’t already using the new rates, a simple power-cycle to the radio should switch it over to the new plan – just unplug the power supply for the radio from the wall, wait for the light to go out, and plug it back in. Give it 5-10 minutes before trying to use it again.
  • What if I am using that hardware, but my plan wasn’t listed above? We’ve tried to approach this sensibly – if you were on a custom plan that has now been superseded by one of the new plans which met or exceeded your current plan in each direction, we probably just switched you over to the new plan which was the best fit, as long as it was the same price per month or less. If we didn’t have a plan which met or exceeded your current plan in that way, we probably dropped the price of the plan you were on, effective with the next billing cycle – you can always check with us to find out how that went, or to make changes to the plan you are on. Either way, if you were on the affected hardware, you should be getting faster service, a lower bill, or in some cases, both!
  • What if I’m still on the older hardware? We still have a fair number of subscribers using some of the old technology, which is not capable of running these speeds. We were able to give a tiny level of speed improvements on these older platforms at this time, but the actual hardware limitations of those older platforms impose a much stricter limit on how much bandwidth each AP can deliver. For these cases, the only way to get the higher-level plans is to upgrade the actual equipment (the subscriber module) located at the site. Generally, there is a one-time service call fee of $99 and a one-year contract renewal required to get the upgraded hardware installed at your site, although additional fees for certain lengths of pole may also be necessary in order to get above the trees in the path, and in some cases, there may be other difficulties in performing the upgrade. Please call our support team at (512)257-1077 for more details.

Beware of scams!

Over four years ago, one of the first posts I put up on this blog was about the issue of Computer and Internet Security. In the last few months, we have gotten several subscribers calling us in a panic after falling prey to a particularly insidious scam. Their browsers had been tricked into displaying a screen which pretended to be from Microsoft, and it asked them to call a telephone number given in that same pop-up window.

Remember: if you see any popups while using the web telling you that there’s a problem with your PC and you need to call a number or visit a website to fix it, these are scams. There are also some varieties of this scam which involve the scammers calling you. The important things to remember, regardless of who called whom are: don’t be sucked into a discussion, don’t provide any personal information, and don’t allow them access to your PC.

Have fun, and surf safe!

Windows Updates and connection performance.

We have been experiencing a great deal of complaints about connection performance, only to discover the root cause of the problem is not a problem with the connection, but with the way Microsoft pushes Windows Updates. In previous versions of Windows, it was possible to set Windows to download and install updates automatically, but you could also take control and make your own decisions. In Windows 10, it is nearly impossible to have any control over when Windows chooses to download and install updates, and their new setup for the download process hits connections with constrained bandwidth (such as anyone using our fixed wireless system) very hard.

All is not lost, however. Notice I said “nearly impossible” above? If your computer is using WiFi, not an Ethernet cable, to connect to your router, there are a series of steps you can follow which will put you back in control. Now, it is important to note that these updates may contain vital security fixes, so we STRONGLY advise everyone to use this judiciously. If you need to get work done right now, and Windows Update is preventing you from doing so, this may help you get your work done, but you should reverse the change as soon as you are able to let Windows take over all your connection again. Leaving your computer permanently unable to automatically download updates can create a very real security risk, unless you diligently check and tell Windows to install updates regularly. If that sounds a little scary, then I did make my point. There is a way to do this with an Ethernet cable connection, but it involves editing the Registry, which is definitely not for beginners, so I will not provide details here.

OK, you understand the risks, and you want to change your Wi-Fi settings to do this – here’s what you will be doing: Telling Windows that your Wi-Fi connection is a metered connection, so that it thinks you have data limitations, and will not automatically download updates. Again, this is not a setting you should leave this way forever.


First, click on the Windows button in the lower left corner, and select “Settings”
Start Menu
Next, on the Settings screen, click on Network and Internet:
Settings
Then, you’ll see the Wi-Fi screen – you’ll need to scroll down below all the listed Available Networks, and click on Advanced Options:
Top of Wi=Fi screen
bottom of Wi-Fi Screen
And when you click on Advanced Options, you should see the Wireless Network Connection screen – just turn on Metered Connection (like so):
Metered Connection
Now that you’ve done this, Windows will not download updates unless you specifically tell it to. As I said above, that can be a help for the short-term, but can be dangerous if left that way forever.