DSL hardware: getting the connection

ITworld.com –

I had planned for this to be a column comparing simple DSL bridges. These are the devices commonly called "modems" to make it easier for the mass market to understand what they do. After all, just about everyone knows what a modem is used for, and a bridge would be something entirely new. But, no matter how you slice and dice it, they are bridges, not modems. There's nothing to "modulate" or "demodulate" since both sides of the box are digital.

So, why am I not writing about bridges? Because my DSL has only been installed for a few days and I haven't had time to move between bridges and evaluate the differences properly.

OK, what IS this story about then?

DSL acquisition.

There are several companies competing for your DSL service. They provide the Internet connection at the other end of the line. But the signal itself travels over normal telephone lines, which means the Good Old Phone Company gets involved. 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" web site, I was able to get DSL service last May. I ordered it and had a due date of June 13th. I won't go into the blow-by-blow, but the service was finally turned up on October 4th and I received my "self install" kit on October 6th. BellSouth figures that their customers are too simple-minded to install an Ethernet device, so the only "self install" options are a PCI card or a USB device. Slots are more precious than gold around here, and I have never liked the idea of plugging something attached directly to my computer bus into the public phone network, so I elected to try the USB device.

The Alcatel Speed Touch USB arrived by UPS on October 6. It's cute little thing -- it looks like a 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. Here, the plot takes its first twist. BellSouth provides NTS EnterNet 300 version 1.3. This software installs as a PPPoA (Point to Point Protocol over ATM) or PPPoE (Point to Point Protocol over Ethernet). The manual said to use PPPoA so I decide to try 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. Checking on the NTS web site (http://www.nts.com), version 1.4 is available and it DOES support SMP (and it improves support for Windows 2000). There are both a 30-day demo and a "buy it on-line" options on the web site. 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 to the computer and plugged the DSL line into the "tail". Guess what? It actually worked. Or, it did 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 did not 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 3 hours once - by not touching the keyboard or mouse on my computer, 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. I suppose I could build a new computer but that seems a trifle excessive.

If you check your calendar, you see that October 6 is a Friday. Naturally, all this occurred over the weekend. As soon as I was able, I called BellSouth to change from the USB device to an Ethernet device. Of course, in spite of the fact that I've already gotten one DSL device running, BellSouth insists that only a "professional installer" can install the Ethernet variety. (What am I, chopped liver?) I agree to pay the $150 for the installer to come out and install the DSL/Ethernet bridge.

Of course, when the installer shows up a few days later, he doesn't want to touch the Windows 2000 machine. I point him at one of the Windows 98 computers. He merrily installs the Ethernet drivers on the single CPU Windows 98 machine, attaches the computer directly to the Alcatel Speed Touch Home bridge, gets it running and leaves. Tthe first thing I do is shut down the software on the Windows 98 computer, move the bridge from a direct connection to the computer's Ethernet card to my Ethernet switch (swapping from a straight-through cable to a cross over cable). Since the Enternet software is already installed on the Windows 2000 server, I fire it up. I create a new connection and DSL comes up. I configure the NAT and the all the other computers now have access.

DSL service has been less than 100% reliable (we've had 2 outages of 4 hours so far) but it's growing so rapidly in this are, that's to be expected and, almost, forgiven.

Recommendations: (1) If your ISP allows you to do a self-install of an Ethernet based bridge, go for it (Earthlink/Mindspring does that). (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!

As for the future of DSL: it seems the favorite words from a DSL ISP 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. Run Windows 2000? They won't support you. Cross your T's before you dot your I's? They won't support you. One can only hope this will improve as the ISP's learn something about the other end of the business. Good luck!

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