DSL: Getting the connection

ITworld.com –

Several companies are competing to provide you with DSL service. They provide the Internet connection, but the signal must be transmitted over normal telephone lines. That means the good old phone company must become involved.

In my experience, it seems that a DSL ISP's favorite words are "we won't support you." If you ask Earthlink for the password to access your DSL bridge, they won't support you. If you use a device other than the one provided by the ISP, they won't support you. If you run Windows 2000, they won't support you. One can only hope that attitude will improve as ISPs learn about the business.

My ISP is BellSouth Internet Services (formerly known as BellSouth.Net). My telephone company is BellSouth. One might conclude from this that getting DSL should be pretty easy. Not so fast!

According to the BellSouth FastAccess Website, I should have been able to get DSL service last May. When I ordered it, I was told I'd have it by June 13. I won't go into the blow-by-blow, but the service was finally activated on Oct. 4, and I received my "self install" kit on Oct. 6.

BellSouth figures that its customers are too simple-minded to install an Ethernet device, so the only "self install" options are a PCI card and a USB device. Slots are more precious than gold around here, so I elected to try the USB device.

The Alcatel Speed Touch USB is a cute little thing. It looks like an aquamarine manta ray with a long tail. The tail has a jack for the phone line and a USB plug at the end. Simple enough.

The software should have been easy to install, too. But here, the plot takes its first twist. BellSouth provides version 1.3 of NTS EnterNet 300. This software installs PPPoA (Point to Point Protocol over ATM) or PPPoE (Point to Point Protocol over Ethernet). The manual said to use PPPoA, so I tried that.

The first rude awakening was that version 1.3 doesn't support symmetrical multi- processing (SMP). At least the installation software was smart enough to tell me this before it loaded into the OS and killed the system. According to the NTS Website, version 1.4 is available, supports SMP, and improves support for Windows 2000. I downloaded the demo version. It's only $29.95 to register, which I wound up doing a few days later.

This version installed properly. I followed the instructions, installing the software before plugging in the USB device. Then I connected the USB adapter to the computer and plugged the DSL line into its tail. Guess what? It actually worked -- for about 20 minutes.

There are only two lights on the Speed Touch USB. One is labeled USB, the other ADSL. After 20 minutes, both lights went out. I tried switching over to PPPoE. No change.

A check of the manual and some research on the Web revealed that the USB port is limited to a half an amp of current. The Speed Touch USB is right at that limit. A warm boot failed to bring the USB port back to life. Only a cold boot -- either power or the reset button -- would. According to the documentation I found, this indicates that the USB is probably overloaded and shut down.

I was able to keep the USB device up for about three hours once -- by not touching my computer's keyboard or mouse, and letting Win2K function as the NAT for the rest of the computers. As soon as I moved the mouse, KABLAM! The USB turned off again.

Oct. 6 was a Friday, so naturally, all of this occurred on the weekend. I called BellSouth as soon as possible to switch to an Ethernet device. Despite the fact that I've already gotten one DSL device running, BellSouth insisted that only a professional installer can install the Ethernet variety. (What am I, chopped liver?) I agreed to pay the $150 for the installer to come out and install the DSL/Ethernet bridge.

Of course, when the installer showed up a few days later, he didn't want to touch the Windows 2000 machine. I directed him to one of the Windows 98 computers. He merrily installed Ethernet drivers on the single-CPU Windows 98 machine, attached the computer directly to the Alcatel Speed Touch home bridge, got it running, and left. I then shut down the software on the Windows 98 computer, disconnected the bridge from the computer's Ethernet card, and connected it to my Ethernet switch (swapping from a straight-through cable to a crossover cable). Since the EnterNet software was already installed on the Windows 2000 server, I fired it up, created a new connection, and configured the NAT. All the other computers now have access.

So far DSL service has been less than 100 percent reliable (we've had two four-hour outages already), but vendors are rolling out the service so rapidly that that's to be expected and, almost, forgiven.

Based on my experiences, I recommend:

  1. If your ISP allows you to do a self-install of an Ethernet-based bridge, go for it. (Earthlink/Mindspring does.)
  2. If your ISP offers a USB device, think twice about it.
  3. Get the service: be prepared for some outages, but enjoy the speed. As Tony the Tiger says, it's grrrrrrrrreat!
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