Do what you like, but don’t do it here

Posted on Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Colombia’s competition watchdog / consumer protection agency fined the telecom industry for ‘misleading’ its customers about broadband speeds over WiFi. The Superintendent of Industry and Commerce (SIC) says operators failed to warn clients adequately that headline speeds were only guaranteed for ethernet connections.

I must be one of those customers ‘hoodwinked’ by those nasty (mostly multinational) operators.

My apartment in Bogotá has a fair amount of floor space divided into the usual kitchen, dining room, living room plus two bedrooms, a small library and an office. I have two operator-supplied WiFi routers for my two fixed broadband sources (one FTTH, one cable modem for redundancy). The fiber connection has an additional, higher-power access point which I added. My devices deal with the hand-off fairly robustly although I have learned that I have to be connected to THIS router if I want to ‘do what I like HERE’ and a different router to do the same thing in a different room.

As I have commented many times, WiFi routers seem to be designed in Silicon Valley where standard North American pine-stud-and-gyprock construction is common. The only gyprock in our 25-year-old apartment is in a decorative drop ceiling in the living room. The rest of the walls are brick. Yes, the interior walls are brick.

I have decent propagation on the side of the house where the fiber and cable modem come in (unfortunately both on the same side) and so where the WiFi routers are. Luckily the office, living room and our bedroom are on that side. But there is connectivity in the kitchen only if the device is lined up with the doorway that points at the office. The guest bedroom has limited signal, so most prefer to do their email in the living room or the office.

As to the library, forget it.

I have tried extenders, power-line-communication and moving the routers around. I was able to improve coverage significantly in our bedroom with the access point, however nothing I have tried has worked in the library. I have a new extender from Telefonica that I should break out of its box, but other priorities have got in the way.

And my wife and I have learned to live with the situation. It is what it is.

I do not expect headline speeds to have much to do with my actual experience, especially over WiFi but I am a card-carrying member of the industry. I know what marketing departments say and, more importantly, I understand the physics of radio propagation. (I do expect that contracting a higher headline speed will improve my experience but that is about all I can hope for.)

I would not be complaining to my operator unless I had bandwidth issues at my desk which is beside one of the routers or if I connected my laptop with ethernet and had issues. I expect I signed a clause in my contract saying that the WiFi connectivity was ‘best efforts’. It would not occur to me to complain to the regulator or consumer protection authorities about my WiFi experience.

But I am far from being the average telecom customer. Neither are most / all of those reading this blog.

So is the fine unfair? Is it unreasonable to expect ‘guaranteed service’ over WiFi, especially in remote locations? Especially in Latin America where building practice is considerably different from, say North America.

My initial reaction was that the regulator had way overstepped its bounds but thinking about it, I am not so sure. One of the industry’s great sins is assuming that its clients are telecom engineers.

I am sure that it would be impossible for the operator to guarantee that its WiFi routers would provide headline-speed service in every nook and cranny of any arbitrary building.

But the SIC said it understood the issue and was not asking for that. What it said was that the operators had failed to explain to clients that their experience over WiFi would be different from ethernet-connected service.

Clarity does not strike me as unreasonable.

For years I have said that headline-speeds were misleading; average speeds better represented the customer experience. The risk for operators who only talk headline speeds is that clients will UNDER-provision, thinking they have enough bandwidth to do, say video conferencing when in fact they cannot. I would have thought that using average speeds would upsell services resulting in higher ARPU and a better experience.

Marketing departments obviously disagree with me, preferring to over-represent the bandwidth for low-priced options.

The question is how to implement the SIC’s requirement.

It is likewise unreasonable to try and explain all the contingencies or even, heaven forbid, promise to estimate the average experience for each client in every room of their house.

It may be too reasonable (for the operators) to merely put an asterisk on the (average) speed which says (in tiny letters) “Assuming an ethernet cabled connection to the router”. Maybe there could be a ‘good faith’ negotiation with the SIC over the font size.

Finally, I want to go back to the blog I wrote about Telefonica’s Analyst Day in June. The Spanish firm had showed off its ‘SmartWiFi’ portfolio (including the extender I have yet to take out of the box) – routers and extenders designed in their R&D labs and built to suit.  Brazil CEO Eduard Navaro had said that a customer’s WiFi performance is going to be their broadband provider’s responsibility anyway so you might as well do it yourself and do it well,

This decision by Colombia’s SIC demonstrates the truth of this statement.

(Title reference: At least something from the more universal ‘canon’ rather than the ‘growing-up-in-Ontario’ subset.  I am not sure how well-known this line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light might be but I have always noted it in the Springsteen version, not so much in the Manfred Man version.)

 

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