I like to be honest with listeners.
So we’ve been having some problems the past few weeks getting the show on the air at 12 noon. You’ve been annoyed and if I had any hair on my head, I would be pulling it out.
Today (July 31), after two hours of emergency troubleshooting by me and Mike Xu, the chief engineer at WRCT 88.3FM, here’s what we think is going on: Comcast Business is boning us. Again.
And we now think this problem has been going on for a while — we thought it was something either I or WRCT was doing wrong, but it isn’t.
This is the beauty of trying to have a studio in a low-income area like McKeesport — you barely get second-rate Internet and phone service. It’s more like third-rate.
And there is also no competition: It’s Comcast cable Internet, Verizon DSL, dial-up, or (I guess) cell phone.
Twice this year, power surges during thunderstorms have blown up our router, which is leased from Comcast. (I talked about this on the air a few weeks ago.)
The first time, we lost a brand new Mac Mini and some other equipment. The second time, we’d placed all of our equipment behind a switch — so although we lost one of the ports on the switch, our new equipment didn’t get zapped.
When the Comcast-leased router is working “properly,” service is erratic. And Comcast … well, they don’t care. We’re paying for 15 MBPS up, 75 MBPS down. Right now (2 p.m. Saturday, July 31) at our studio in McKeesport, we’re getting 1 MBPS. Sometimes it’s just stopping completely. It’s essentially DSL quality.
I opened a trouble ticket today with Comcast. They said the modem is fine. And we have a connection. OK, it’s not great, but what am I complaining about?
Well, it’s not OK for a radio studio, and it’s not what we’re paying for. What it means is, the stream keeps skipping or shutting off. When that happens, WRCT’s 88.3 FM transmitter also can’t connect. I now think this has been happening for a couple of weeks.
Today was particularly bad. If you tried listening in the 12 o’clock hour, it was a train wreck … it would play gibberish for a while (not the usual gibberish I say, audio gibberish), stop, re-connect, and go back to the audio gibberish.
Mike and I thought we were doing something wrong. We couldn’t figure it out. Finally, I filed an emergency request with technical support at our webserver provider. They ran some tests and said, “your internet connection is not able to support streaming right now.”
Swell. At 2 p.m., I finally got a webstream connected at 32 kbps — basically, AM radio bandwidth. Which I guess is OK for an oldies show, since most of these songs were on AM in the first place.
Like I said, if you live in McKeesport or a place like it, you don’t have a lot of Internet options. There is no Verizon FIOS, for instance. (They don’t install it in low-income communities.) Comcast is indifferent, because they’re essentially the only game in town.
However: We are lucky enough to be in the old McKeesport Daily News building. On the first floor is the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. Well, they can’t rely on Comcast, either, so they asked Duquesne Light to install a fiber-optic cable to the building.
Starting next week — if all goes well — we will be connected to DQE’s fiber system. It’s going to cost us more money, but if it prevents these constant glitches, it will be worth it.
Why am I telling you this, besides the fact that it’s embarrassing to me and WRCT, and annoying to you?
Well, imagine you’re a teacher at McKeesport Area School District or Duquesne or East Allegheny, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, you were trying to teach online. Guess what? Your students were having the same problem. (McKeesport school district estimates 30-40 percent of their students are unable to get high-speed Internet to support distance learning.)
And those kids probably can’t get DQE service, which is marketed to businesses, not individuals.
All over the country, in rural areas and poor urban communities, Internet service SUCKS. The big Internet companies have no incentive to fix it. The Pennsylvania state legislature has blocked local communities from installing municipal-owned Internet networks, and the barriers to entry for a non-profit to create an Internet network are very high.
There are efforts to bring Internet to poor communities — a joint CMU/Pitt project called “Meta Mesh” is providing service to students in Coraopolis, Homewood and New Kensington — but it’s a slow roll-out.
The Biden administration had support for rural and urban Internet upgrades in its infrastructure package — along with replacements for ancient water systems — but as I understand it, Republicans have stripped those out. The “infrastructure package” will essentially be a “bridge and road package” now. I guess water and sewer service isn’t important, and neither is Internet. Just cars and trucks.
Anyway, that’s my rant for today. Thanks for listening (when you can!) and hopefully the problems are going to be put to rest permanently.
Well, except for the technical errors that I cause. Experts have diagnosed those as PEBKAC (“problem exists between keyboard and chair”) and there is no known cure. As Zeke Jackson used to say when we were at WWCS in Canonsburg, some people are on the radio for 20 years, and some people do their same first year in radio 20 times in a row …