Washington Apple Pi

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Adventures on the high-speed on-ramp, or

A Search for High-Speed Internet Access

by David L. Harris

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Some months ago I heard on the radio a Verizon 800 number to call to determine if my home telephone qualified for DSL (it requires that you be within a certain distance of a telephone branch station). I called and, after providing my home number, was informed that I could not get DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). So I forgot about it.

More recently there was some discussion on the TCS that suggested that DSL providers other than Verizon might be able to offer service to me, even though they have to use the same telephone lines. So I fired up my Web browser and went to Covad's site.

March 8, 2001

After providing my telephone number and address on Covad's page, I was informed that yes, I could get DSL service! They have a number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) available, and, following suggestions on the TCS, I took a look at Speakeasy and at Earthlink. (Covad is a company that organizes DSL service, while the ISP actually provides it.) Although Speakeasy came highly recommended, I chose Earthlink because they advertised a home connection speed twice that of Speakeasy, for the same monthly fee ($49.95) as Speakeasy, but with no installation fee and no equipment cost. Earthlink's Web site also confirmed that I could get DSL service.

I entered my choice on the Covad Web site. Covad sent me a confirming e-mail, and provided a timeline of what would happen. Here is some of what I read on their Web site:

Installation Process
DSL Request Sent to ISP. You should receive an email shortly to confirm your request. EarthLink should then contact you within 5 business days.

ISP Contacts You

EarthLink will contact us and we will organize all the equipment and connections needed...

Prepare to Install DSL

Your local phone company will install the dedicated line at your location...

Arrange Install Date

Two or three weeks after the phone company has installed and tested your new DSL line, we will schedule an appointment for a Covad field technician to finish setting up the service...

Covad Connection Day!

The Covad technician will arrive to set up your DSL service and equipment. This will typically take about two hours...

Roll On!

Once the Covad technician connects your DSL line, you will have access to the Internet all day, every day. Your ISP will provide ongoing customer service and support.

March 15

Five business days had passed and I had heard nothing from Earthlink, so I called them to inquire about it.

March 16

Mikey from Earthlink returned my call. She confirmed that they had received an order from Covad. She took some more information from me, including credit card information, and I was assigned a work order number and prospective e-mail address.

March 28

I still had received no calls from Earthlink or Covad. Called Mikey at the number she had provided, but found she was in sales and did not know the status of the order. I went to Earthlink's Web site and took a look at my order status. It said "Your order is currently being processed. We are working as quickly as possible to complete your order. Thanks for choosing Earthlink DSL!" Only stage 1 of my order (order received) showed completion.

I did receive a CD with some software from Earthlink, plus telephone numbers to call in case I had questions. Following a hunch reinforced by posts on the TCS about similar events, I telephoned them. I was told that there was some problem with my order. After looking it up on the computer they said my order had been cancelled! It seems they tested my telephone line and found it did not qualify for DSL -- too far from the nearest telephone sub-station. I had to call them to find this out; they did not call me.

It took Verizon one minute to tell me the same thing months ago.

March 29

Went to the Comcast (my cable company) Web site. A friend of mine just got cable Internet service from them. A special offer, ending March 31: no-cost installation, if you do it yourself, otherwise professional installation reduced from the usual $149 to $49, plus two months Internet at $19.95 per month, reduced from the usual $32.95 or $38.95, depending on whether you already are a cable TV subscriber. (I think these prices are correct; approximately so, in any case). With only three days to go on the special offer, despite my misgivings about the cable company and about their subscriber agreement -- they monitor your online choices and provide information on them to other businesses -- I ordered the Comcast@Home Internet service online. The confirmation said "Thank you for your order. A Comcast@Home representative will contact you within two business days to confirm your installation appointment."

April 4

Had heard nothing from Comcast@Home. Called them and talked to Sarah. She had no record of my order! I was out of luck for the March special prices. However -- guess what? Another special offer for April: $59 installation and one month free. About the same dollar saving. She also said it would be better if I were a cable TV subscriber; among other things there is a discount on the Internet service if you have cable TV already (I didn't). So I decided to call Comcast and get the Limited Basic cable TV service at $12.26 a month, plus $22.14 installation fee.

April 5

Called Comcast to see how long it would take to set up cable TV. They said the next day! An appointment was set up for the installer to come Friday, April 6, between 5 and 7 PM.

April 6

The cable installer was a no-show. After waiting, I called and was told that they had checked at 7:03 PM and no one was at home. Not so. I had been listening carefully for them.

April 7

After recovering somewhat from my disgust, I called Comcast again, talked to Bryan, and set up another installation appointment for Tuesday, April 10, between 3 and 5 PM.

April 10

The teenage punk-rocker (or whatever) with two earrings was there before I got home at 3, and had set up some cable stuff outside already. After some fumbling he established my Limited Basic cable TV connection and set up my TV and VCR. We weren't quite sure what channels I was supposed to get, but I have 39 of them (many are fluff). In spite of his appearance, he was a reasonable person.

April 12

Called Comcast@Home from work. I wasn't sure if I wanted to try to set up an Internet connection at that time, since I was shortly to leave town for 10 days vacation. The first time I called, I got disconnected. Tried again (Why, you ask?). Talked to Crystal. She agreed that it probably would be best to delay setting up a connection. Later I got to thinking that I would like to know exactly what the process would be to get connected for Comcast@Home service, so I could decide for myself whether to delay signing up or not. Called Comcast@Home again, and talked to Michelle in Niagara Falls. She walked me through the steps. When I asked how long it would take, she said I could make an appointment for a professional installation (the $59 special) for the next day! I agreed, and we set up my member name -- the part that goes in front of @home.com in the e-mail address. Installation was set for sometime between the hours of 5 PM and 9 PM Friday. Two installers would come: first, the hardware person would drill holes, set up the cables, install the splitter (allows both cable TV and Internet connection from the same cable), the cable "modem," etc. Then the software guy would come and download the software online from Comcast. I had chosen the professional installation option, rather than try to do it myself, because my existing cable was on the other side of a wall from my computer, and I didn't know if I wanted to risk hardware and wiring unknowns.

Friday the 13th

Called the automated Comcast line to check on the installation appointment. Confirmed that it was set for sometime between 5 and 9. Left my inner front door open, and listened for a knock. As I waited, there was a program on one of the cable TV channels about the do-it-yourself Comcast@Home installation kit. So I learned a little about what might be involved.

The installers did not come.

Called a couple of times on Friday, once before 7 (you can tell I was worried) and another time after 9. The automated check said my installation was still scheduled for between 5 and 9. When I talked before 7 to an actual person, she said there was still time for someone to come. They didn't. After 9 when I called, only their answering service was available. Left a message about the no-shows.

April 14

Called soon after 9 AM, when Comcast opened again. Was told the installers had checked at 17:44 (I guess that meant 5:44 PM) and no one was at home. Asked how the installers determined whether anyone was at home. Was told that they were instructed to telephone first to check. Asked what would happen if they found an answering machine when they called. Was told that they would leave a message. No such message. Asked to talk to supervisor. Was told that one would try to call me later that day (Saturday). Asked if it would be within a few minutes. Didn't know. Went out to shop. Went by Radio Shack to check on Comcast@Home self-install kit. Came back home. Recorded message on answering machine from Comcast. Said to call back. Gave no contact name or special telephone number. Called Comcast twice. On hold. Busy Saturday...

By that time I was disgusted with installers. (I suspect now that they probably called my home both times, encountered an answering machine -- I keep it on to foil telemarketers and pick up the phone if it's someone I want to talk to -- and hung up.) After determining that I probably had the tools to drill a hole in the wall for the cable, and remembering the previous night's program on the self-install kit, I decided to go back to Radio Shack. Special offer for the kit, which includes cable, the splitter, and installation software on a CD, plus the cable modem, for $230, with a $100 mail-in rebate and one month's free service. I bought some extra cable and connectors, plus a crimping tool, because I knew the hole I could drill through the wall could accommodate the cable but not be large enough to put through the connectors. I would have to cut the cable, drill the hole, poke the cable through the wall, and put a new connector on that end. With a 10% discount for getting a Radio Shack credit card, the total cost including tax added up to the original $230. At $7 per month cable modem rental, I recoup the difference in cost in ten months, and I own the modem. From then on I am ahead (since I don't pay the modem rental each month).

Hardware installation, including drilling the hole in the wall, went pretty well. The instructions for preparing the cable to receive the new connector did not seem right: it would leave the central connector of the coaxial cable too short, and there would be no connection of the outer shield to the connector. (Maybe at these high frequencies it is connected inductively or capacitively?) So I cut the cable the way I thought would be better, put it through the wall, and tried to attach the connector on the other end. It didn't crimp very well, using the indicated tool setting. Used a smaller tool opening to get a better crimp. Still didn't seem perfect.

Got all the hardware installed. Called to activate the service. Gave the tech the serial number and MAC (Media Access Control) number of the cable modem. I had actually looked at the modem booklet, so I knew I should have these numbers ready. I already had my Comcast member name; the tech gave me a Client ID or Computer Name. All these things are needed for Comcast to connect to your machines and know it is you. Tech told me it would be a few hours before things were set up and I could get online. He even promised a $20 credit for the no-show installers.

After a few hours, I still could not connect. Flashing cable modem lights would indicate searching, but no stable connection. Decided to wait until morning. Maybe the service would be set up by then. Meantime I installed the Comcast@Home software from their CD.

April 15 -- a holiday

But not from the computer. Tried to connect again. Flashing modem lights. Called tech. Was told that service was activated. Was advised to check modem on another cable. OK. I thought maybe the cable I had constructed was no good.

Went into next room where TV is, where cable sprouts out of the floor, to connect the modem before it gets to the splitter. (By the way, that awesome device is about two inches on a side and consists of one input connector and two output connectors. I don't think there are any electronics inside of it.) No three-prong receptacle to plug in cable modem power supply. Have to rob the extension cord that connects the computer in the next room, and find a three-prong receptacle in the kitchen. Have to disconnect the cable modem from all the wires connected to it. Finally get the modem connected to the source cable (which serves the TV fine). No different behavior. Just flashing lights.

The next step, suggested in the modem manual, was to take a TV set and check the end of the cable I made, in the adjacent room where the computer is. Have to reach behind the TV table, take off the tape which keeps the cats from dislodging the TV power plug, and carry the (13") TV into the next room. Have to take back the extension cord so the TV will have some power. Have to connect my cable to the TV. It won't fit! The connector, which goes on the cable modem perfectly, is too small for the cable connector on the TV! Well, it turned out that by just holding it in place I was able to confirm that my cable was carrying the TV signal just fine.

In my modem travels, I checked the serial number, which I had given the tech the day before. I gave him a wrong number -- those tiny zeroes with slashes through them looked like eights. (Hint: get all the needed numbers from the bottom of the modem before you connect it with the three wires to the power supply, the cable, and the Ethernet port of your Mac. It's easier that way.)

Again (remember, this is the same holiday Sunday) I call tech to give the correct cable modem serial number. He (too many different people now to remember names) discovers that they have the wrong MAC number. I did get that one right. Apparently they did not. He passes along the corrections, and says they will call me, maybe today, when the information is corrected. They may give me a new Client ID number, too. I will have to enter that into my Comcast software. Then my modem lights should stop flashing, and I will be connected. Maybe.


At around 7 PM on Sunday, April 15, while online with Explorer Service, I noticed that my cable modem (in standby) lights were not on. Before, even in standby mode, they occasionally flickered. I turned the cable modem "on" and the top three lights were steady, with the activity light sometimes flickering. Apparently my modem is now connecting. Still can't connect to the actual service, though. Will wait until tomorrow, when they may call me with a new Computer Name.

April 16

No call from Comcast; modem still appears to connect, but no Internet connection. Called tech help; they returned the call and gave me a new Computer Name. Entered it into the TCP/IP Control Panel, rebooted my Mac and tried again. No connection. Will wait until tomorrow to see if it takes time for changes they might make to propagate. I will call tech help if the service is still not available.

As with anything new, there are so many unknowns that it can become very frustrating.

April 17 and beyond

Still no connection. I called Comcast tech help again; this time I finally connected with a Mac-savvy person. He gave me instructions on setting up the TCP/IP Control Panel manually, and I was able to connect to Comcast@Home for the first time. But will the IP address, as set manually, be permanent, if Comcast makes changes on their end?

In succeeding days I have come to understand that my problems in connecting, after the modem was working correctly, had to do with how Macintosh Open Transport deals with the apparently non-standard ways Microsoft's "DHCP" (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server -- which is what Comcast@Home uses -- behaves. I am in the process of learning what such a server does (something like providing configuration information in real time, to connect your computer to a service provider's network and on to the big network). A Comcast@Home Mac-help newsgroup and advice on the TCS have helped to introduce me to yet another learning experience (YALETM). And my connection works, without the manual setting.

Other horror stories

From what I read, the reputations of high-speed Internet providers are not good anywhere at this time. It seems they have promised more than they deliver. Here is another example, quoting several e-mails from my brother in California:

Well, PacBell just missed the third date for activating our DSL. We have

received the software from Earthlink but no hardware. Earthlink now says that the DSL order was never placed, although they have been telling us for 6 months that it was placed and giving us dates for activation, all of which have now passed. They were getting the dates from Pacific Bell while I was on the phone with them, and now they say Pacific Bell has no installation order. The horror story unfolds much the same as I have been reading about.

Friday I had another email from Earthlink on Tuesday's DSL installation,

accompanied by 5 more with new email addresses (they give you 6 mail boxes). Pacific Bell was here last Wednesday to spruce up the phone line at the box down the street. Then yesterday there was an email from Earthlink saying "We have checked your phone line relative to your application for DSL service and it isn't available yet!" Wonder of wonders!!! Of course, I have checked it myself and DSL is available according to Earthlink and PacBell sites. I sent them another sharp email message, to which they never reply.

Well, April 10th came and went. I installed all the DSL hardware this morning, and the modem could not establish a DSL link through the phone line. I called SBC as instructed in the installation manual and guess what: "Your line does not qualify because it is too far from the office!" Why did they say it did qualify and send me all the stuff and have service people visit to check the line? Who knows? They don't.

Since Earthlink had already initiated the change, I called them. They were as surprised as I was. No one had notified them that it wasn't going to work.

They say I am supposed to send the hardware back. Maybe I won't and see what happens.

What is my advice?

At the moment you have two main options if you want high-speed Internet access: DSL, which uses your telephone lines, and cable, which uses cable-TV lines (if you have cable). Satellite may be available for some people. DSL has technical limitations (which your provider may not inform you of) which means you may not be able to get it at all. In addition, a number of ISPs are in financial trouble, and their stability may be in question. Cable companies probably are more stable. Their Internet affiliates may not be. Dealing with them may be a problem. In my case there was a lack of communication, at the very least.

Self-install, where available, is fairly easy, if you are reasonably handy with that kind of thing. If so, right now I'd suggest that option. You can do the setup on your own schedule, then contact the cable company when you want to activate your account. More advanced Mac users might not even need a kit. But make sure to double-check all information that you give your provider when you activate your account, both before and after giving it. You might get lucky and be connected within hours. You might not.

If you do sign up for Comcast@Home, tell them I sent you. I'll get a month free if you do.

High-speed Internet; how is it really?

If you have been connecting with a dial-up connection (modem) you will be in for quite a change. Everything is much faster, of course. I have been used to running my browser most of the time with graphics off, to increase the speed with which Web pages load. With a high-speed connection, that is unnecessary. Whole pages load much faster, and with graphics turned on, the experience is quite different than without them. Megabyte files download within seconds, making getting those software updates much less problematic. In the course of my work for the Pi, I monitor a list of Web pages of other Apple/Macintosh user groups numbering in the hundreds. With a high-speed connection I can go through many more pages, and download more user group newsletters, in a given time. If I were in business I could say that my productivity had increased noticeably. Telnetting to text-based systems is much faster. Pictures, still and moving, are readily accessible; I don't cringe when I want to get them. To me, the qualitative difference between dial-up and high-speed is something like the difference between black and white and color television. I had not anticipated how improved the Internet experience would be. It opens up a considerably wider spectrum of opportunities.