A few weeks ago, I broke down and signed up for internet access through cable-TV provider Comcast. The thought of giving more money to Comcast wasn't so appealing but there was little option. Switching to higher-speed internet uncovered some deficiencies in my equipment, but it's still a vast improvement in speed. Plus, the increased speed is more than I need, but there is no lower-speed option.

For years, I've been connecting to the internet through a DSL connection. While the 7 Mbps down/786 kbps up speed may seem unbearably slow, it's enough to run two video streams and one audio stream. Uploading was a problem in that uploading a video brought the downstream to its knees. I also stayed with the DSL reseller because of its top-notch support. After several years with DSL, we had reached a point where we needed more speed. Higher speed with DSL isn’t available, probably because of the distance to Verizon's central office.

Figure 1 represents some possible high-speed internet providers but in reality, Comcast was the only option. Most of the service providers don't cover anywhere close to my home. Verizon FiOS is in the area, but not in my community. Wireless provider Starry may arrive someday. For now, they are installing in apartment buildings only, not single-family structures.

high speed ISPFigure 1 At the present time, there's only one internet service provider at my location with speeds faster than DSL.

Then there's cable provider RCN. They installed cable on my block before we moved here in 2011. Unfortunately, RCN comes up both ends of my one-block street, but there's a gap right here. No service. Neighbors on both sides have RCN connection boxes, but not me. This is the second residence I've lived in where RCN stopped one house short. RCN lost me as a subscriber for the second time. Comcast is the only option here, other than staying with DSL.

Installation

Returning home from the local Comcast store with my router—they call it a "gateway" because it integrates the cable modem, Wi-Fi router, and Ethernet router—I connected the device to my cable feed. You see, the house was wired for cable, Ethernet, and phone when the walls were open during the 2011 renovation; the house has a dozen RJ-45 jacks. All the cables come through the walls into a distribution closet. Right away, there was a deficiency: only two Ethernet ports. My previous Wi-Fi router has four.

As in many homes, we have numerous connected devices: computers, phones, a printer, and others. The list includes:

  • Four laptop computers, of which three are used every day in the home office. A fifth shows up once in a while.
  • Two desktop computers: one in the office (has Wi-Fi), another in the basement electronics lab (there's a network drop down there); no Wi-Fi on the "lab" computer.
  • One DVD player that has both wired and wireless connectivity for streaming services, but we never use it.
  • One iPad and two or three phones.
  • One Sonos music player in the office. The Sonos once required an Ethernet port, but now has Wi-Fi thanks to a firmware upgrade a few years ago.
  • VoIP phone, but work line.

The router's four wired ports were all I needed to cover the printer, two desktop computers, and the VoIP phone. The VoIP phone has a pass-through port, giving me one port for my desk if needed. Yes, the printer and one desktop PC have Wi-Fi capability, but I prefer to use the wired connection when available.

Losing two Ethernet ports left two options: use Wi-Fi for the printer and desktop PC or add an Ethernet switch. Figure 2 shows the gateway's two Ethernet ports, one connects to an Ethernet switch.

xfinity gatewayFigure 2 A wiring closet contains all the infrastructure needed for a connected home.

While I could have connected everything except the VoIP phone and the basement PC over Wi-Fi, I prefer wired Ethernet. Fortunately, I had an unused 16-port 10/100 Mbps switch. Having 15 ports (one goes to the gateway) gave me enough to cover all the RJ-45 jacks.

Comcast claims to deliver 200 Mbps of download and 5 Mbps upload speeds and indeed they do. Sure, the 10/100 Ethernet switch limits the download speeds (see Table 1), but coming from DSL's 6.7 Mbps, who cares? A 1 Gbps switch for just $32 would deliver the full speed, but why spend the money and make more e-waste if 100 Mbps makes everyone happy?

All speed tests used Speakeasy connected to the closest server, New York City. Tests took place at about midday.

Table 1 Home network speed test results
Device Download speed (Mbps) Connection
HP ProDesk 450 G1 38 2.4 GHz 802.11n (Qualcomm QCA9565 does not support 5 GHz)
HP ProDesk 450 G1 91 Wired Ethernet through 10/100 switch
HP ProDesk 450 G1 237 Wired Ethernet direct to gateway (no switch)
Dell Laptop 214 802.11ac (5 GHz)
Dell Laptop 41 802.11b (2.4 GHz)
Toshiba Satellite C50-A 46 802.11n 2.4 GHz, no 5 GHz support
Lenovo T61 21 2.4 GHz 802.11g
Lenovo T61 21 5 GHz 802.11a (Will not connect unless gateway 802.11a enabled)
iPad2 24 5 GHz 802.11n (supports 802.11a/b/g/n)
iPad2 24 2.4 GHz
iPhone 6 41 2.4 GHz
iPhone 6 140 5 GHz

In addition to having four ports, my previous router was set up for two Wi-Fi networks. One provided access to the internet and home network while a guest network provided internet access only. The Comcast gateway came set up for one 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi network. It now has a 5 GHz guest connection, which Comcast set up remotely. The main network runs on 2.4 GHz 802.11g/n while the guest network can run on 802.11a/n/ac. There's no way for me to change the main network to 5 GHz nor to change the guest network to 2.4 GHz, even with logging into the gateway settings. Apparently, Comcast has more access to the gateway than I do.

With the 5 GHz network set up, I attempted to connect my devices. That's when I learned that two of my laptops don't support 5 GHz. Indeed, the guest network doesn’t appear as an available wireless network. One laptop is an HP ProBook 450 G1 purchased in 2014. The other is a Toshiba Satellite C50-A. The HP laptop uses a Qualcomm Atheros QCA9565 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi Adapter, which has no 5 GHz support. While disappointing, the HP is still far faster than it was when connected through DSL.

Strangely, a much older Lenovo T61 (dated 2005/2007) will connect to the 5 GHz guest network. The label says it supports 802.11a/g only, but it does connect to the guest network as long as the gateway is set up to support 802.11a. The gateway lets me select 802.11a/n/ac or 802.11n/ac only. The gateway drops its speed to accommodate the Lenovo's 802.11a speed. The HP and Toshiba laptops don’t even see the 5 GHz network. Upgrading the HP wireless adapter's driver from v3.0.2.201 to v10.0.0.318 didn’t help.

I've been paying just over $100 per month for cable, plus another $50 for DSL. As it turns out, the cost for Comcast cable and internet, even when the two-year promotional period expires, will still be less than I've been paying.

Martin Rowe covers test and measurement for EDN and EE Times. Contact him at martin.rowe@AspenCore.com.