Adventures on the high-speed on-ramp, or
A Search for High-Speed Internet
by David L. Harris
Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint
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:
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
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.
Five business days had passed and I had heard nothing
from Earthlink, so I called them to inquire about it.
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
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
It took Verizon one minute to tell me the same thing
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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