Wednesday, May 25, 2005

High Speed Cable Diary

We moved to a home that allows us to get high speed internet service. Up until now, we were stuck with dial-up, which, in this age of digital music, digital cameras, and video, is abysmally sloooow.

We chose Comcast Cable since it was available, and looks to be faster than DSL. The old cable days of sharing lines with your neighborhood are supposed to be over, and so cable promises to have the fastest speeds available.

We called and ordered the service. They promised installation next week inside a two-hour window. We asked for an earlier date, and they said they would try to accommodate. The next day, they called with a new time, which ended up being yesterday between 9am and 11am. They were on time. I was unavailable at the time of installation -- my mother-in-law is staying with us, so she was there during the installation. When I got home, it was working.

We bought a Linksys cable modem. I like Linksys, mainly because Cisco bought them, and I am a fan of Cisco. However, while the cable modem was working fine, the power supply was buzzing like a banshee, and so I took it back to where I bought it and got a new one.

And the problem started. I plugged the new one in, and it did not work. I looked at the paperwork that Comcast left, and noticed some interesting pieces of information:

1. My user name.
2. My password.
3. My IP, or Internet Protocol address (this is the unique address on the Internet or World Wide Web).
4. My "MAC" address -- "Media Access Control" address -- of the cable modem.

The MAC address is the underlying hardware address of a network card. Your computer can run a number of higher-level network protocols, or types, such as Internet Protocol, Novell's IPX/SPX protocols, AppleTalk, etc., but in each case these protocols work "on top" of a physical network. The cable modem (at least this one) runs a protocol called "DOCSIS," which means "Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specifications." My home network runs Ethernet. Each of these low-level networks have MAC physical addresses, and TCP/IP, the protocols of the Internet, run "on top" of these physical network types.

As a quick aside, that's the beauty of TCP/IP -- it runs on all sorts of physical networks, and yet all the computers running it can communicate as if they were all on one huge physical network. You don't know or care what the physical network that a particular web site is sitting on, all you need is its internet address, or its "URL" (Universal Resource Locator), which translates into its internet address. More on this at a later time...

One interesting thing about MAC addresses: they are universally unique. No two network devices have the same MAC address. It is part of the specification that manufacturers agree to when they build network cards. There is nothing that will bring a network down to its knees like have two addresses that are exactly the same, so the rule is rigid.

Turns out, Comcast, and all other cable internet providers, register your cable modem's MAC address as part of your account information, and match the MAC address to the IP address it gives you.

Therefore, when I replaced my cable modem, Comcast did not know anything about my new modem, and my service did not work!

This should be easy to fix. I suspected this when I saw that they had written the MAC address on the form -- it meant that it mattered for some reason. I also noticed that they wrote down my IP address. This means that it does not change (or else, why write it down?).

So, I called Comcast. The usual wave of "voice prompts:" "Press 1 if you want instructions in English, 2 for Espaniol..." Finally, I got a guy on the phone. I told him what was going on, and to make a long story short, he said my computer was faulty, and I needed to get my operating system disks. This was absolutely false. Nothing changed except I had a new modem. I fed the tech information like the new MAC address of the new modem, which he entered into his system, but he maintained that the computer itself was a fault. Knowing this was not true, I thanked him for his time, and hung up.

So, the cable was no longer operative. Now what?

I did what we all should do in times like these: RTFM. This means "Read The Freakin' Manual." I turned off the computer. I turned off the cable modem. I read the instructions that came with the cable modem, which are very easy to read, in large type. I turned the machine on. I saw that I had the correct IP address!

I ran the browser. I got redirected to Comcast's start-screen -- the new user registration screens. I said I was an existing user. They asked me to download their installation program. I did. I ran it.

The installation program noticed I had another cable modem on the account, and what did I want to do: add a new one, or replace it? I chose replace it. The program did so, and reset my modem. When it was done, lo and behold, everything worked!

This was really all I ever had to do.

Now, some twists: I added an internet router. This is important, as Uncle Mark said in earlier messages. What did I do there? I turned off the modem, RTFM (this time, the router manual), connected up the router, connected the PC to the router, and turned it all on, and everything worked!

One note -- I had to release my IP address on the computer ("ipconfig /release"), and then renew it ("ipconfig /renew"). This is done from the command line, which you get when you go to the Start Menu, click "Run...", type "cmd" and then click OK. Why? Because Comcast named my computer, and just renewing my address (from the router, using "ipconfig /renew" left the name alone. You can't have two machines with the same name on the Internet, so the router could not get my computer's address, and therefore it failed. This is really techie, so:

1. Turn off everything - the modem, the router, the computer.
2. Turn on the modem. Wait a few moments.
3. Turn on the router. Wait a few moments.
4. Turn on the computer.

This is the "bunny run" way to do it, but it'll get 'er done, as they say.

From all of this, what can we learn?

1. Your cable account, if you have one, is mapped to your specific modem. If you change your modem, you need to re-register it with the cable company.

2. Technical support, at least for the home user, generally stinks across the board. Do not think I am picking on Comcast here. I have had very similar conversations with SBC (their DSL service), Intuit (their "Quicken" software), Earthlink, South Valley Internet (a local service provider in San Martin, CA), and others.

3. Let everything have its head. Isolate and do things one at a time. Everything turned off. Cable modem turned on, then checked to ensure all lights are as they should be. Then router. Then computer. Time between to allow each to start up fully. Discrete changes.

4. If your computer works in the morning, and the internet is working, but at night the computer seems to be working but the internet is not, and you do not see or smell smoke, it is not your computer or its settings that are wrong! Something happened on their end.

In other words, do not believe them if they say you need to reinstall your operating system or buy a new computer.

Now, a caveat here. You can only pull the number 4 card above if you have a computer built in the 21st century, are up to date in your operating system patches, have up-to-date virus control and definitions, the power is on, all cables are connected properly, and your dog, cat, or baby has not decided to eat part of your computer system that you can't see.

Support people have a protocol they follow when they answer calls. They check some basic things, and they ask you for some information. They assume you do not know what you are talking about (but they are usually polite about it), and they will not deviate from the script. The guys who write their scripts are company guys, and they reach the part where their service is down at the end of a very long and dragged out procedure, which includes, in many cases, blaming your computer and having you reinstall everything. I used to follow along with them, knowing I could recover from whatever they do, but I don't anymore. I once spent half a day on the phone with SBC on a DSL problem that ended up being that one of their main service stations had a blown board (which I basically stated at the start of the conversation) - but it took half a day!

So, what to do? Do the basics, as above. RTFM. Call the provider. And if they have you pulling out system CDs, stop right there, and Ask Uncle Mark!


Eclectrix said...


Welcome to the wonderful world of cable support. We have had cable internet for almost 4 years now and it is hard to imagine when we didn't have it. I could never turn back.

Yes, support can be frustrating. I know all the first level support checks, so my approach when I need support is to minimally satisfy the lower level guys I have done the checks, and get the call promoted up the the real tech level support as soon as possible. The guys at the higher levels are actually often competent and can do some interesting checks and diagnosis.

Anyway, cable is the only way to go in my book.


niranjani said...

Nice..I using the High Speed Broadband i check my internet speed details in the site