Virtuality

Created: 1999-06-25
Last Modified: 1999-06-25
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Cable Modem Installation


Background:

It was clearly time to get a higher-speed home internet connection.

In the three-and-a-half years since I had arrived at Berkeley, the average throughput I was getting from home through the dial-up lines attached to U.C. Berkeley's faculty modem pool had declined from an average of about 18,000 bits-per-second to about 8,000 bits-per-second--and that was not counting the increasingly-common experience of having to put my modem on auto-redial for half an hour to get connected at all. Increasing congestion--modem purchases and maintenance not keeping up with demand--was taking its toll. (And this was the level of service in the (privileged) faculty modem pool: when I asked my graduate students what things were like in the non-faculty home-IP model pools, they assured me that I really did not want to know.)

This level of service began to feel more and more unacceptable. In part this was because of relative-service-speed considerations: while my Berkeley dial-up connection was falling in average throughput from about 18,000 to about 8,000 bits-per-second, my wife's AOL account was increasing in average throughput from about 4,000 bits-per-second (when she could log on at all) to a fairly reliable 36,000 bits-per-second or more. In part this was because of the increased availability of truly high-speed connections: both TCI Athome and Pacific Bell (and other DSL providers) were promising sustained 1,000,000 bit-per-second connections. In part this was because of the increasingly-large amount of interesting stuff on the internet.

The standard response of Berkeley departments to the... slow... speed at which home-IP pool capacity was increasing was the standard one of exit: run your own modem pool accessible to people in your department. My department set up a very nice group of 56,000 (OK, 53,000) bit-per-second modems. But my main machine was still my Apple Powerbook. And Apple Powerbook modems are flaky and finicky: for some reason that Apple could not explain to me, my connections to the department's modems were very fragile. It was--counting disconnects--better than home-IP, but not by much.

So my choices were simple: (a) live frustrated and envious of those with higher-speed home connections, (b) get a main home computer that would have a more reliable and more robust modem connection than the Apple Powerbook, or (c) go for a truly high-speed internet connection.


Market Research:

"You are going to have to go with TCI and a cable modem," he said. "We're beyond the range for DSL--even our DSL. So the phone company just isn't an option."

"He" was Salvatore D'Auria, the father of one of my nine-year-old's friends. He also was a very senior executive of Tut Systems, Inc. (net income last year, approx. -$10 million; current stock market capitalization, approx $500 million), which:

...designs, develops and markets advanced communications products which enable high-speed data access over the copper infrastructure of telephone companies, as well as the copper telephone wires in homes, businesses and other buildings.  These products incorporate Tut's proprietary FastCopper technology in a cost-effective, scalable and easy-to-deploy solution to exploit the underutilized bandwidth of copper telephone wires.  The Company's products include Expresso high bandwidth access multiplexers, associated modems and routers, XL Ethernet extension products and integrated network management software.  Tut's award winning HomeRun technology, an in-home application of FastCopper, has been chosen by the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) as the initial specification for in-home networking over phonelines.

This means that he should know.

But I called up both Pacific Bell, asking about a DSL connection, and TCI, asking about a cable modem connection.

Pacific Bell said that they would call back in less than 24 hours to tell me if DSL would work on my home phone number.

Pacific Bell called me back the following day to say that the answer was "maybe," that they were referring the question to the engineers, and that I would hear within three business days.

Pacific Bell called me back six business days later--on the phone line that I wanted DSL installed on--to say that they had lost the phone number that I wanted tested for DSL.

I decided that even if DSL was possible, I surely didn't want it through Pacific Bell. The organizational incompetence quotient was just too large, and in the meantime TCI has called me back with a time, a date, and a price for an Athome cable modem connection. The date was soon, the time was convenient, and the price was $100 for installation; $39 for ISP service, cable modem (i.e., router) rental, and connectivity; and an extra $10 for two additional IP numbers so that all three of the computers at home could transparently access the internet.


Installation:

When 3:30 on June 23, 1999 rolled around, the TCI truck showed up.

They discovered that cable signal at the house was too weak to support a modem at all. Another truck was called to install an amplifier three-tenths of a mile away to boost the signal. This was successful: the signal was then very strong.

They discovered that the cable I wanted the cable modem in was one of the few rooms in the house without a cable connection. I pointed out that there was a cable connection directly beneath where I wanted the modem--eight feet straight down on the floor below. They said that they were cable guys, not electriciants. They were not equipped to hook onto the first floor cable and pull another drop eight feet up through the wall. So over the next two hours they climbed 30-foot ladders, explored routes, made false starts, and in the end strung a hundred extra feet of cable under the house and up behind downspouts to get the cable into the study.

The cable modem then came out of the box. It was plugged into the power strip, it was plugged into the cable connection, it was plugged into the little four-port ethernet hub that is the core of our home four-foot-in-diameter tiny area network. Nothing happened. I reached out and punched the "uplink" button on the hub. The hardware installation was then complete and successful. But it was clearly a hardware installation done by cable guys--not by electricians.

The configuration information datasheet then came out of the box. The ethernet and TCP/IP control panels on the Acer were configured to look to the ethernet for TCPIP, to look for a DHCP server, and were told the addresses to tell the DHCP server. Pings pinged. The system software configuration was then complete and successful.

The Athome software installation disk then came out of its box. Athome's special versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer (and Outlook) were installed on the Acer. The newly-launched Microsoft Internet Explorer loaded a brief "welcome to Athome" page and then successfully loaded that Athome home page itself. But it loaded the Athome home page into a newly-spawned Explorer window, instead of loading it into the first-launched Explorer window.

We poked around, discovered that everything seemed to work. It did seem as though Explorer was spending a lot of time spawning new windows when it should be loading pages into old windows. But we agreed to ignore this strange misconfiguration and to declare that the application software on the Acer had been successful.


Software Problems:

The cable guys then left, saying that I would have to deal with the Member Services page on Athome in order to get my two additional DHCP configurations for the two Macs in the study. I sat down to do so, and ten minutes later had two additional DHCP configurations to load onto the Macs.

Athome's CD-ROM declared that on the Mac it worked only with Netscape Commmunicator, so I began to "upgrade" Netscape 4.6 to the Athome version of Netscape 4.5. By force I stopped the software installation disk from overwriting Quicktime 4 with Quicktime 3. And the computer reported that the software had installed correctly.

But...

When we launched Mac Netscape, it loaded not the Athome home page, but instead my home page http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/ at Berkeley. "Hmmm..." I thought. I poked around and discovered that installation hadn't overridden my earlier Netscape 4.6 preferences. I changed the preferred launch page to http://www/ and restarted. Now it showed nothing. I poked around some more and discovered that installation hadn't configured Netscape to use Athome's proxy server. I configured the proxy and again it showed nothing--but this time I couldn't even see my Berkeley home page.

I unconfigured the proxy and surfed the net, getting average throughput speeds of more than 500,000 bits per second. So I shrugged my shoulders--after all, why should I care about my ability to reach Athome's private version of AOL's home page?--and was happy.

Later on I reconfigured Athome's proxy, quit Netscape, tried to launch Athome's home page on the Mac, and poked around to see what was going on. I discovered that javascripts from their home page were crashing.

So I wrote to TCI technical support:

...when loading *your* home page: http://www/ on the Mac, I get a newly-spawned blank browser window and the Javascript error message:

>JavaScript Error: >http://www/V3/spawnindex.htm, line 693:
>syntax error.
> = 0405) &&
>.................^
>
>(window.top.navigator.appVersion.indexOf("Mac")
>== -1) ) {
>JavaScript Error: >http://www/V3/spawnindex.htm, line 3504:
>
>isIE4 is not defined.

I received back:

>Brad,
>
>Thank you for writing TCI@Home.
>In reference to your question about >javascript. We need some additional
>information to assist you. What browser are >you using on the Mac is it
>the Netscape Navigator, or is it Internet >Explorer.
>
>For further information, please write us >back, or contact our Customer
>Satisfaction Center...

This gave me a sinking feeling: Microsoft Internet Explorer is not supposed to work on the Mac for Athome: there is only one browser you can install from the CD-ROM. Does technical support not know this? I sent back and e-mail stating that I was using Netscape. And never heard from them again.

Software problems continued. Athome would go down. Athome would be very slow. They would reconfigure their DHCP server so that my machines would get different TCP/IP addresses: this broke all of the shortcuts in my little home area network. I counterattacked by switching my TCP/IP addresses so that I manually entered the original addresses I had been given.

And over time the software did not seem to improve...


Hardware Problems:

But I didn't hear back from them before the cable modem died.

Ten days into the cable modem experience--the evening of Saturday, July 3--it went dead: no power lights at all. "Gee. This is going to do remarkable things to Motorola's mean-time-between-failures..." I thought.

If it had been my cable modem, I would have called up whoever I had bought it from, gotten an RMA number, ordered another, and sat back to wait for a new cable modem to arrive the morning of Monday, July 5.

But it wasn't my cable modem: I was renting it from Athome. They offered to send a technician out to confirm that the modem was dead and to bring a replacement the following Wednesday, July 7. I told them that that wouldn't work--I had to be in San Francisco all day on Wednesday. They offered Thursday afternoon: a time some 78 hours later than if I had been handling tech support myself.

And it took a lot longer to negotiate with TCI tech support than it would have taken to get an RMA number from a mail-order company...


More Hardware Problems:

And over time the quality of response of TCI--now AT&T Internet--declined. Hardware problems appeared and corrected themselves.

By March of 2000 it took 190 hours from my report of trouble to the first appearance of a technician--and the problem was not fixed. A work order had been issued, and the work might be done before the weekend, but it might not.

And be this time I had reached the conclusion that cable modems were a second-class form of broadband internet service. The problem was not the cable itself--the cable is a wonderful high-throughput high-bandwidth device. The problem was that AT&T Internet is made up of cable guys, while its DSL competitors are people who work for the phone company. The phone company tries hard to fix problems: its ideal is that its service is always-on: you should never lose dialtone.

By contrast the cable guys think, as one AT&T cable supervisor said, that they are doing a much more than acceptable job if the roll a truck 48 hours after they have confirmed that there is indeed a problem in your strand of cable.

Thus the cable modem people are going to lose, and are going to lose big: they cannot develop a culture of service to match the local phone companies, and at a price point of less than $50 a month they are going to get stomped.

Excuse me, I have to call up AT&T Internet and yell at somebody in an attempt not to get billed for the time the cable modem has been offline...


The traffic map is taken from Telegeography: http://www.telegeography.com/


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

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