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Three (and Smarty) tested packet loss - 'slow browsing' and timeouts

AliJCam

Member
There is known, recurring, frustrating, fault with the Three service that H3G refuse to fix. I am in a rural area where the 3.5+ km distance from the green cab means I barely get any copper broadband at all – trying to work from home is a nightmare, so I have a Three unlimited data SIM in a Draytek 2860Ln. I’m only about 500m line of sight across an open field from the Three tower (I could actually sling a wire to it!) so RAN connection / signal is not an issue. Download can peak up to 120Mb with consistent 30Mb up. All good so far. However, the issue is, as many have noticed, that accessing web sites and services it a totally miss and hit experience. Failure to get DNS, failure to negotiate TLS, timeouts, packet loss all conspire to make the service pretty much unfit for purpose. Changing DNS, MTU, band, access tech (3G/4G) make little difference. However, using a VPN almost completely eliminates the problem – except that unless you spend alot on a full SLA’d commercial VPN the speed is crippled and connection is unreliable.


So I decided to write a monitoring app to hit a selection of 10 URLs every minute and log the results - which are amazing. At worst, I see over 25% failure to complete the URL transaction and the average runs at about 9-10% failure rate over time. It appears to be consistent, random packet loss issue. The BEST I have seen over a rolling 1 hour window is about 3% error rate. Those failure rates, as far as I am concerned, do not even fall within the ‘best effort’ small print. For comparison, EE runs at less than 0.05% failure and even the dribble that I DO get from BT also runs at less than 0.05% failure rate.

This all suggests there is a serious design flaw in the Three core; probably an under-specified / overloaded backbone or equipment – but it’s difficult to speculate.

I have spent hours on the phone to various 1st and 2nd line support ppl in Three, but after getting through the dumb ‘have you turned it off and on again’ scripted response, all they will offer is ‘we don’t know how it works’, ‘we can do nothing about it’ (WON’T do anything?) and ‘would you like to cancel?’ (and return that c**p Huawei router). It’s as though even the 2nd line view the network core as some sort of invisible magic they can’t touch and won’t question. Any request to escalate to core engineering is met with ‘I don’t know how to do that’ or ‘we are not allowed to do that’ depending on who you are talking to. They DO NOT DESERVE TO BE IN BUSINESS with that sort of attitude. I have pointed out that MANY of us suffer the same experience, all over the country, and that they REALLY need to take a look at why it's happening - but with no takeup whatsoever. I guess the majority of Three customers use phones and just put the necessity to retry down to ‘bad signal’ – when it is really a fundamentally broken service. The fact that a VPN over Three works without these errors shows that the RAN (and your home equipment) is not the issue.

AVOID THREE (and Smarty) AT ALL COSTS!

(fwiw, I used to be a cellular core engineer)
 

GavinAshford

Top Member
Nice write-up on the issue, and nice to see someone collecting immutable evidence to support it.
Have you happened to try the same with a non-unlimited Three SIM, or the same SIM in a non-router device (mobile+tethered)? There were a couple of comments a while ago I saw that mentioned it only seemed to impact the unlimited SIMs (they had a limited SIM and that didn't exhibit the same thing). And also using the unlimited SIM in a mobile phone and tethering (I guess either USB or Wifi) would also alleviate the issue.
 

colinn500

Casual Member
have had these issues for a number of weeks now (some sites just won't load ever) but switching to 3G does seems to cure it (albeit too slow for streaming/video conf but ok for e-mail, general internet use)
 

baddesley

Member
Similar problems with Smarty myself. I joined them at the end of 2019 and had no problems. Come 30th May 2020, that all changed. Suddenly pages were taking more than a minute to load, I was constantly getting logged out of webmail and other similar sites and other services that had been fine before, like FTP, simply wouldn't work.
I contacted them and after a few days, someone eventually got back to me. I then wasted ten days trying to find the cause of the problem, as they refused to accept it was their network. I spent ages emailing them and answering their questions, eventually sending videos of pages loading, when they finally said 'good news, we know what the problem is - switch to 3G while we are sorting it out!'
It has taken them more than two weeks to sort it out (hopefully fixed for good now) and they didn't even have the courtesy to tell me - I was still suffering using 3G.
And they think that offering me a 'free' month compensates for all this. £20 for ten days' work and time lost. I don't think so. Absolutely disgusting service, if you can even call it that.
 

PeteRabj

Member
I'm so glad I found this. I was about to do a ground up review of my internal network. I also live in the country, so have been using a 4G unlimited SIM since June last year. Since a few weeks ago the performance has become dire. Strangely VOIP type activity is OK, e.g. streaming, but I get frequent timeouts on other types of request. Since my contract is up for renew, and OpenReach are tantalisingly close to connecting me up with FTTP I'll shop around with a few other 4g providers on PAYG and see if that helps.

As others have said, contacting support is a pointless waste of time for people that know more than the basics about networking (I work in IT, so I know a few things about diagnosing networks).
 

PeteRabj

Member
After trying their support, waiting in a queue for 2 hours only to be dropped out, I thought I would try a few things.

I changed my APN in the router from three.co.uk to 3internet. This seems to have helped, or at least taken the state from "dire" to "acceptable".

This could be anecdotal, but I will keep an eye on it.
 

AliJCam

Member
Thanks for the replies. To answer some of your points raised since my post…

I use the 3internet APN as it provides a real, public (albeit dynamic) IPV4 address. Three.co.uk only provides a CGNAT ‘private’ / non-routable IPV4 address. IPV6 is not enabled in my area. The bulk of my testing has been on 3internet as I need the public IP for servers I currently run from home office. Current failure rates (as of midday 29/6/20) show a 10 day average of 5.2% and a since-midnight failure rate of 6.4% - which is a little lower than 2 weeks ago and is at the low end of the span, but, sadly, I do not expect it to be indicative of any resolution. There appears to be no difference in these rates on either three.co.uk and 3internet, unlimited or not. (I have a whole selection of SIMs now.) Smarty non-unlimited 1-month 50G also gives similar figures. The monitor I have written also includes the DDNS updater, so it operates 24/7 and runs the 10-site test every minute when it also tests and updates DDNS as necessary. (But not ON the minute to try to avoid any congestion from other minute/hour triggered services.)

Streaming services appear to be subjectively less badly affected but I suspect this could be down to streaming FEC and the fact that listeners/viewers aren’t as badly affected by an occasional glitch as much as a web site failure to load. I listen to internet radio (Planet Rock mainly!) most of the day while I am working and I do hear regular glitches and timing readjustments that I don’t get on the BT dribble. It is also noticeable on Skype / Zoom etc – but, again, people almost expect a level of ‘crunchiness’ on those services.

Using a tethered phone gives pretty much exactly the same figures.

Dropping to 3G does give a significantly lower error rate, but it is still there and is worse than ALL of the rest of the non-H3G ISPs - and the upstream/upload rate is terrible.

What to do? I have found no real resolution. If any other Cellular ISP were to be able to offer a public IPV4, I would switch in a flash and never look back. EE runs off the same tower but is exclusively CGNATed and also has a slower throughput AND is 3 times the price to boot - but has a close to zero error rate. I have not really spent much time on the possibility of using IPV6 as some clients to my servers are IPV4 only and the IPV6<>IPV4 ‘translation’ options are not mature enough yet – and in any case, three don’t offer IPV6 in my area yet so comparisons are not really possible.

The error rate does drift up and down, and it may be linked to overall volume but I have not been able to convince myself that I see a pattern yet.

Three have offered an ongoing discount for the unlimited service, but that doesn’t really help me. It’s a bit like giving you a discount on a car that breaks down every week – it still needs fixing. I can’t believe that it would be a huge task for H3G (or whoever they have subcontracted their core to) to run some diagnostics in/on their core to find the problem – and I’m sure there are many of us out here who would love to do it – even for free! Unless these symptoms are from some designed-in usage limitation (and this would be a rubbish way to achieve that), I can only think there must be some sort of overloading or mis-configuration of a key core component that causes the packet loss.

Keep shouting at them! We may get there yet!
 

TTJJ

Top Member
Thanks for the replies. To answer some of your points raised since my post…

I use the 3internet APN as it provides a real, public (albeit dynamic) IPV4 address. Three.co.uk only provides a CGNAT ‘private’ / non-routable IPV4 address. IPV6 is not enabled in my area. The bulk of my testing has been on 3internet as I need the public IP for servers I currently run from home office. Current failure rates (as of midday 29/6/20) show a 10 day average of 5.2% and a since-midnight failure rate of 6.4% - which is a little lower than 2 weeks ago and is at the low end of the span, but, sadly, I do not expect it to be indicative of any resolution. There appears to be no difference in these rates on either three.co.uk and 3internet, unlimited or not. (I have a whole selection of SIMs now.) Smarty non-unlimited 1-month 50G also gives similar figures. The monitor I have written also includes the DDNS updater, so it operates 24/7 and runs the 10-site test every minute when it also tests and updates DDNS as necessary. (But not ON the minute to try to avoid any congestion from other minute/hour triggered services.)

Streaming services appear to be subjectively less badly affected but I suspect this could be down to streaming FEC and the fact that listeners/viewers aren’t as badly affected by an occasional glitch as much as a web site failure to load. I listen to internet radio (Planet Rock mainly!) most of the day while I am working and I do hear regular glitches and timing readjustments that I don’t get on the BT dribble. It is also noticeable on Skype / Zoom etc – but, again, people almost expect a level of ‘crunchiness’ on those services.

Using a tethered phone gives pretty much exactly the same figures.

Dropping to 3G does give a significantly lower error rate, but it is still there and is worse than ALL of the rest of the non-H3G ISPs - and the upstream/upload rate is terrible.

What to do? I have found no real resolution. If any other Cellular ISP were to be able to offer a public IPV4, I would switch in a flash and never look back. EE runs off the same tower but is exclusively CGNATed and also has a slower throughput AND is 3 times the price to boot - but has a close to zero error rate. I have not really spent much time on the possibility of using IPV6 as some clients to my servers are IPV4 only and the IPV6<>IPV4 ‘translation’ options are not mature enough yet – and in any case, three don’t offer IPV6 in my area yet so comparisons are not really possible.

The error rate does drift up and down, and it may be linked to overall volume but I have not been able to convince myself that I see a pattern yet.

Three have offered an ongoing discount for the unlimited service, but that doesn’t really help me. It’s a bit like giving you a discount on a car that breaks down every week – it still needs fixing. I can’t believe that it would be a huge task for H3G (or whoever they have subcontracted their core to) to run some diagnostics in/on their core to find the problem – and I’m sure there are many of us out here who would love to do it – even for free! Unless these symptoms are from some designed-in usage limitation (and this would be a rubbish way to achieve that), I can only think there must be some sort of overloading or mis-configuration of a key core component that causes the packet loss.

Keep shouting at them! We may get there yet!
I posted in another thread about this. I’ve got a few B535’s in parents and grandparents homes. Basically abysmal. My grandparents don’t notice because their browsing habits are very basic. The line quality test I’ve got running shows dropped packets basically every day along with poor latency.

In my parents house I managed to get Three to cancel it FOC but let me keep the router - got a Vodafone £33 SIM with unlimited data and it’s a cash back deal so over the year the price is similar to Three’s. Significantly better performance and much more stable but you lose the static IP. Not an issue for them though as they just want stable internet.
 

BoredPanda

Member
Thanks for the replies. To answer some of your points raised since my post…

I use the 3internet APN as it provides a real, public (albeit dynamic) IPV4 address. Three.co.uk only provides a CGNAT ‘private’ / non-routable IPV4 address. IPV6 is not enabled in my area. The bulk of my testing has been on 3internet as I need the public IP for servers I currently run from home office. Current failure rates (as of midday 29/6/20) show a 10 day average of 5.2% and a since-midnight failure rate of 6.4% - which is a little lower than 2 weeks ago and is at the low end of the span, but, sadly, I do not expect it to be indicative of any resolution. There appears to be no difference in these rates on either three.co.uk and 3internet, unlimited or not. (I have a whole selection of SIMs now.) Smarty non-unlimited 1-month 50G also gives similar figures. The monitor I have written also includes the DDNS updater, so it operates 24/7 and runs the 10-site test every minute when it also tests and updates DDNS as necessary. (But not ON the minute to try to avoid any congestion from other minute/hour triggered services.)

Streaming services appear to be subjectively less badly affected but I suspect this could be down to streaming FEC and the fact that listeners/viewers aren’t as badly affected by an occasional glitch as much as a web site failure to load. I listen to internet radio (Planet Rock mainly!) most of the day while I am working and I do hear regular glitches and timing readjustments that I don’t get on the BT dribble. It is also noticeable on Skype / Zoom etc – but, again, people almost expect a level of ‘crunchiness’ on those services.

Using a tethered phone gives pretty much exactly the same figures.

Dropping to 3G does give a significantly lower error rate, but it is still there and is worse than ALL of the rest of the non-H3G ISPs - and the upstream/upload rate is terrible.

What to do? I have found no real resolution. If any other Cellular ISP were to be able to offer a public IPV4, I would switch in a flash and never look back. EE runs off the same tower but is exclusively CGNATed and also has a slower throughput AND is 3 times the price to boot - but has a close to zero error rate. I have not really spent much time on the possibility of using IPV6 as some clients to my servers are IPV4 only and the IPV6<>IPV4 ‘translation’ options are not mature enough yet – and in any case, three don’t offer IPV6 in my area yet so comparisons are not really possible.

The error rate does drift up and down, and it may be linked to overall volume but I have not been able to convince myself that I see a pattern yet.

Three have offered an ongoing discount for the unlimited service, but that doesn’t really help me. It’s a bit like giving you a discount on a car that breaks down every week – it still needs fixing. I can’t believe that it would be a huge task for H3G (or whoever they have subcontracted their core to) to run some diagnostics in/on their core to find the problem – and I’m sure there are many of us out here who would love to do it – even for free! Unless these symptoms are from some designed-in usage limitation (and this would be a rubbish way to achieve that), I can only think there must be some sort of overloading or mis-configuration of a key core component that causes the packet loss.

Keep shouting at them! We may get there yet!
How did you manage to get port forwarding / incoming working with three. I've got mine set to 3internet APN too and it gives me a real IP but no incoming port works. I wondered if it was my modem but then someone (a telco engineer for voda actually) told me they don't allow incoming traffic. Obviously that's not the case if you've got it working. Did you need to do anything special ? (by which I mean ask three to do something?) thanks.

Also had this issue, and I also read VPN fixes it and it did.
 

BoredPanda

Member
I posted in another thread about this. I’ve got a few B535’s in parents and grandparents homes. Basically abysmal. My grandparents don’t notice because their browsing habits are very basic. The line quality test I’ve got running shows dropped packets basically every day along with poor latency.

In my parents house I managed to get Three to cancel it FOC but let me keep the router - got a Vodafone £33 SIM with unlimited data and it’s a cash back deal so over the year the price is similar to Three’s. Significantly better performance and much more stable but you lose the static IP. Not an issue for them though as they just want stable internet.
The packet loss thing (might) not be right. As in most tests use ICMP, and when a router like a big Cisco or a Juniper gets very busy, it will drop ICMP traffic in favour of "normal" traffic. This shows up as packet loss. It's the same if you run MTR against a very busy router, it will show packet loss but actual data might work fine. However, I'm not saying this is the case, just a possibility.
 

Buggerlugz

Top Member
Great detective work Alijcam! I'd raise it directly with Ofcom providing the evidence you've found. Though I'm unconvinced they have any technical understanding of network issues they may finally start to take a closer look at Threes operating practices.

Certainly someone needs too.
 
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