Do I Recommend Road Runner?

Phil Karn
12 November 1997

I get asked this question a lot. It's surprisingly hard to answer, because it depends on what you consider important, and what you're willing to put up with.

Let's summarize the main pros and cons of San Diego Road Runner as compared to a conventional dialup retail ISP:





Road Runner is much like McDonald's. All their advertising aside, the only real attraction to either one is speed. (It's safe to say that few people actually prefer fast food for its taste). So if you only use the Internet occasionally for a little email and you don't regularly download large files, Road Runner is not for you. If you travel a lot, you'll need a dialup ISP in any case, preferably one with local POPs where you travel.

On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time on the Internet at home telecommuting or downloading large files off the web, the extra speed of Road Runner can be worth the cost and hassle. This is especially true if you have access to alternative mail and news servers (e.g., at work, at school, or through another ISP) so Road Runner's own abysmal mail and news servers aren't of concern to you.

Road Runner is also better than a dialup ISP if you need to access your machine(s) remotely (e.g., from work). Most ISPs charge a premium for outward demand dialing, or for 24-hour "nailed up" connections. Although Road Runner, like most dialup ISPs, assigns IP addresses dynamically, your machine can keep an address indefinitely as long as you leave it on. If you have access to a "friendly" network with direct Internet connectivity, you can set up a virtual subnet with a tunnel through Road Runner so you can support a whole LAN of machines with static IP addresses without having to pay Road Runner for extra IP addresses or for their so-called "commercial" service. (If you need true commercial-grade service -- particularly if you're going to host a high volume web server -- get a leased line to a regular ISP. Today's cable modems are not nearly reliable nor fast enough in the reverse direction to support a "commercial grade" service.)

You should also consider your traffic patterns. If you telecommute to a local San Diego company that's connected to CERFNet, the direct Road Runner/CERFnet link that was installed in early August is a big win. But not every company and university in San Diego is connected to CERFnet; if yours is connected elsewhere, then the path from Road Runner may still include MCI and the infamous MAE-West tie point in San Jose. This path may lose so many packets at peak times as to squander most or all of any speed advantage Road Runner may have over a dialup link to a local ISP with better connections.

What Happened to the Money-Back Guarantee?

Last spring, Road Runner announced a 30-day money back guarantee. If you were unhappy with the service in the first month, you could have both the $100 installation fee and the first month's regular fee ($45) refunded. But according to their customer service representative, this guarantee was "promotional only" and is no longer available. One wonders why.

My Own Experiences

Since my physical plant problems were resolved last spring, and especially since the CERFnet link was installed in early August, my Road Runner service has actually been pretty good. I still have my ISDN line as a backup, because I still don't trust Road Runner enough to risk having to pay another $160 to have ISDN re-installed should Road Runner again become unusable for a long period. (I also use my ISDN line for fax and secondary voice calls.)

I use Road Runner almost exclusively to tunnel IP packets between my home LAN and Qualcomm across the CERFnet link, or to the web proxy cache at SDSC. Since I read news and mail at Qualcomm and at home (where I run my own SMTP services), I rarely use Road Runner's web proxy, news or mail services. So the poor quality of these services as continually reported in the Road Runner local newsgroups is not a major concern to me. Road Runner claims they will be upgraded in another week; we'll see.

What To Do During Installation

Whatever one may say about the inability of the telcos to innovate, at least the services they do provide are reliable. When Pac Bell installed my ISDN line in April 1995, the installer ran a comprehensive bit error rate test before he turned the line over to me. Except for a major cable cut that summer, my ISDN service has been absolutely solid. But when Southwestern Cable installed Road Runner in February 1997, they jumped up and left as soon as they had downloaded Internet Explorer -- that was enough of a test for them.

Don't let them do this! When they're done, insist that they ping your local cable router for at least 10 minutes. If you see any packet losses or large delays, refuse to accept the installation. Have them file a trouble ticket, and don't agree to pay for either the installation or the service until they resolve the problem. From personal experience, it can take weeks or months to resolve cable plant problems, and performance can be utterly abysmal during this time. Now that Road Runner no longer offers their money-back guarantee, it's even more important to make sure that your installation works before you pay them a single penny for it.

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