My Access Networks System: One Year Later
APRIL 11, 2016 DENNIS BURGER
A few months back, my friend and fellow AV journalist Brent Butterworth stopped by the Alabama offices of Residential Systems (i.e., my house) to crash for the night on his way down I-65 en route to New Orleans. And as you might imagine for a journalist who had spent most of the morning on the road, the first thing he wanted to do (after securing a lifelong friendship with my pit bull Bruno by way of vigorous tushy scratches) was check the damage on his email inbox. I gave him my Wi-Fi password, bopped into the kitchen to pour us a couple of mason jars of lemonade, and nearly dropped said jars when Brent let loose a string of expletives that I won’t repeat here.
Brent: “How fast is your [expletive deleted] internet connection?”
I had chuckled, because I get this question a lot. And the answer is, “Not that fast.” The thing is, though, most people are used to seeing their internet pipeline reduced to a trickle by the time it hits the wireless stage. And here at home, thanks to the Access Networks-configured, enterprise-grade home networking system, I’m getting Wi-Fi speeds that are, at worst, a couple of megabits per second slower than the pipe coming into my home.
An Access Networks Foundation-G network similar to what has been installed in the author’s home for a year.
Thankfully that anecdote was still fresh in my mind when Annie Heathorn, the new marketing manager for Access Networks, dropped me a line to ask how things were going with my system. Because, quite frankly, I usually forget that it’s there. And I mean that in the best way. Much like I don’t give any thought to the pipes in my walls (unless one clogs) or the electrical lines behind my sheetrock (until I need to tap into one to install a new dimmer or power outlet), I just sort of forget that my Access Networks system is even a thing. I take it for granted, which is pretty much the highest praise I could give it.
That does present one problem, though. When editor-in-chief Jeremy Glowacki and I discussed the possibility of doing a follow-up review of my system—a sort of one-year-later update—I found myself with very little to say. The only major network-related change I’ve made to my system in the intervening year is an upgrade to a new DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem, which boosted my maximum speeds from 30 Mbps to somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 Mbps. And the Access Networks system took that in stride. I can now stand at the back of my property, a good 35 feet from my back door, and enjoy average download speeds of 63.8 Mbps on my iPhone 6S Plus. (A speed test on my computer, hardwired directly to the Access Networks system mere feet away, reports an average of 64.2 Mbps, for the sake of comparison).
In the time I’ve lived with the Access Networks system, I’ve also completely and utterly forgotten how to manage a network, to be quite frank. I’ve had to reboot the system exactly twice: both times because I derped and assigned a static IP to a device when another device in my home already had the same address via DHCP.
Other than that, there really isn’t much to say from my experience. The system has been running like a champ, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds a year. Which doesn’t exactly make for the most compelling follow-up review. So I racked my brain to think of the sorts of problems that other clients may have with a complicated, pre-configured system of this nature, and took those questions to Access Networks’ chief technology officer Brett Canter for some additional insight. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Dennis Burger: On average, how frequently do Access Networks customers need customer service with their systems?
Brett Canter: This varies quite a bit depending on the integrator and the specifics of the system. Some jobs are a piece of cake. The integrator installs it, turns it on, and we never hear from them again. Other jobs, even small simple systems, can require more assistance. There may be environmental challenges that require more thorough investigation and troubleshooting, or problems with existing wiring causing issues.
It’s impossible to predict every possible issue before a system is installed, which is why having enterprise-level visibility into our systems is invaluable. Every integrator will eventually encounter an issue that requires customer service. Full visibility into the network, combined with experience and proper training, enables our support team to resolve issues quickly and efficiently.
I’ve had my system for a little over a year now, and thankfully it’s been problem free aside from my own boneheaded mistakes. I’m wondering, though, what types of service-related issues do you typically see with systems after they’ve been installed for more than a year?
After a year, there are generally few issues. If it’s a multi-VLAN system, the integrator might need some port VLAN assignments changed. A Wi-Fi password might need to be changed, or a device might have fallen off the network. If the internet goes out, a cable gets cut, or a piece of automation hardware fails, we’re usually one of the first ones to hear about it.
The majority of support requests are made during the first few months of the installation in order to fine-tune the system. For example, we might need to adjust the WAP placement so the Wi-Fi coverage is better in the house. Or various settings may need to be changed to accommodate the installation of additional AV equipment.
Regardless of the complexity of the system, we encourage integrators to request a health check of the system when the installation is wrapping up to confirm everything is plugged in correctly and all the devices are properly communicating at spec. The clients expect there to be some downtime while it’s all getting set up and dialed in. They do not expect frequent service calls after everything has been set up.
Do you find that many customers are frustrated by the inability to make modifications to their own systems via an app or web interface?
In general, no. Most of our clients prefer to have us manage the network.
Some dealers have expressed resistance in the beginning, but after they have done a few jobs with us, they almost universally prefer us to be responsible for the network. We make changes for them quickly, and we do it right the first time. Cisco enterprise gear, in particular, is not easy to tinker with if you are not trained or Cisco certified. It is programmed using a text-based command-line interface rather than an app or web interface.
We do, however, give our integrators web-based administrative access to the wireless environment. All of our custom systems also come with a lifetime subscription to FlexMaster, a remote management tool that allows the integrator to monitor and administer multiple ZoneDirector controllers via a single, unified, web-based interface hosted on our private servers.
How frequently do customers ask to purchase upgraded hardware for their systems?
Our systems are designed to last and support scalability. Nonetheless, many of our clients will often upgrade their systems in order to align with technological advances in both networking standards and ever-increasing internet connection speeds. In 2015, we saw a great deal of advancements in these areas and subsequently received numerous upgrade orders. These clients want the latest and greatest technology available, so they upgrade as standards change.
We also have other clients who have systems that are several years old. Many of these clients will upgrade their networking hardware after a few years because of technological advances, or because they are adding new devices that are not supported by the older technology.
Given the fact that the end user has very little control over his or her network with an Access Networks system, I imagine it may be troubling for a homeowner if the integrator who installed and maintains such a system goes out of business or moves. What happens in situations like this?
This does happen occasionally. For this situation, we have an official “Change of Integrator” process in which we seek confirmation from the homeowner permitting us to work with a new integrator. Ultimately, the homeowner owns the network equipment, and an integrator of their choosing is our point of contact for support and management of that network.
Similarly, what happens if the customer moves a substantial distance away from the integrator who originally installed their system?
Customers rarely elect to take larger systems with them. Our custom systems are specifically designed for the house in which they are installed, and are often sold with the house much like an HVAC system. Even if the square footage of the new house is similar, the layout, number of access points, and configuration will usually be different.
That being said, if the customer does elect to move the system and work with a new integrator, they are encouraged to file for a “Change of Integrator,” and we will gladly support them.
Dennis Burger is a contributing writer to Residential Systems, based in Montgomery, AL.