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The October 20, 2003 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Digital Dreams Meet Reality -- Creating a Simple Home Network

Dave's brother Leonard and his family recently moved to a row house in Philadelphia. After they got broadband with DSL, Dave made good on his promise to set up a home network for them.

Getting it working proved much more difficult than Dave anticipated. The full story is on our website at Creating a network at Len's house.

Len's wife Veronica with the boxes of equipment Dave installed in their house --> Click for larger pictureIn summary, to set up a simple network with four PCs, Dave spent two days at Len's house plus more time researching how to address the networking issues and resolving the problems he encountered--a total of about 20 hours. He ran into problems getting the exact and correct password for PPPoE, a router failed and need to be replaced, and he wasn't sure about the condition of the replacement router. He spent nearly two hours on the phone with tech support--first with Verizon and then with Linksys--to work through the problems.

Most of Dave's time was spent in getting the router to "talk" correctly with the DSL modem and in finding a suitable wireless bridge. Everything else was straight-forward and took little time. A recent book called Networks in a Flash helped work out a plan of action for the second day.

Dave says there were a lot of "lessons learned" from this experience -- both for our industry and for end users.

For the residential broadband industry:

  • This all has to be a lot simpler. It should not have taken me more than twenty hours to get a simple network working. The more typical user would have given up many hours earlier and returned all the equipment to the retailer. Set-up wizards should work and help more when they don't. The root causes of problems--such as a failure to connect to the internet due to a bad password--should be much more obvious to the user.
  • The "out of box experience" was exemplary for everything except the router. But that's the most complex piece of equipment. If it doesn't work, the customer will return all the equipment to the retailer.
  • I was delighted by the telephone support from Verizon and Linksys. Their tech support people answered very quickly, were very helpful and patient, and followed procedures each had developed based on lots of user calls like mine.
  • There shouldn't be so many equipment variables. Verizon didn't know about the specific Linksys router, and Linksys didn't seem to know about the DSL modem Verizon had installed. That made the procedures more tedious, since both talked me through many steps including power cycles that appeared to be generic rather than specific to the situation.
  • Checking the connection between the router and the modem was not part of the diagnostic procedures. I think the key to finally getting the router working was when I noticed that the lights indicating activity between the router and the modem were not blinking at all. This did not appear to be part of either company's diagnostic procedure, and it should be.
  • Broadband service providers have started offering network installation. Getting home networks working should be a lot easier for them than for end users: many of the variables--the make and model of the broadband modem and its quirks when working with various routers, issues with specific combinations of routers and modems--would be sharply reduced. The question is how many consumers would be willing to pay for this--but supporting users while they do it themselves may well cost more!
  • Wireless bridges are a great way to connect to desktop PCs. All new desktop PCs have Ethernet ports, and it's a lot easier for the end user to connect a bridge to a PC's Ethernet port than to open the PC case to install a wireless PCI card. Once the bridge is installed, it should be simple for consumers to expand them with inexpensive Ethernet switches to connect multiple PCs--or other networked devices--in the same room. However, there are not many consumer-oriented bridges available yet for 11G. There also seemed to be a lack of Web resources,including vendor Web sites, that addressed when and why a situation called for the use of a bridge.
  • I wasted a lot of time on two different days getting the password correct, and that seems crazy in retrospect. Why did I have to know the password? For that matter, why did I have to configure the router with an ID and a password? Verizon had installed the DSL modem - why couldn't they validate the connection through the modem's MAC address rather than imposing this on the end user? (I've had more experience with cable modems, and they don't need any of this complex configuration - you just select "dynamic" settings and everything happens automatically without any ID or password. If someone can explain why DSL/PPPoE requires this, I'm all ears.)
  • Finally, the industry should think about what happens when consumers return network equipment and it is sold to the next customer. My experience indicates that retailers should reset all returned units before they're sold again. Since reset procedures are pretty obscure, networking vendors should document them for retailers and caution them to reset the units if the shrink wrap has been removed. Otherwise, vendors will pay a heavy price in added customer support.

For end users:

  • Before starting, develop a plan of action. "Networks in a Flash" is a good example of the kind of reference that provides a lot of help to create a check list.
  • If you're using PPPoE (which you almost certainly are if you have DSL), make sure you know your user name and password. Both have to be exact or it won't work, and neither the router nor the modem will tell you anything other than "unable to connect" if you get it wrong. NaiF tells you to get the login information from the phone company during installation of the DSL modem; if you're starting later, make sure you have it before you start, and test it with a PC before you connect and configure the router.
  • Power cycle each time you make a change. This may not always be necessary, but it is part of both Verizon and Linksys procedures. It forces each piece of equipment to "forget" what it previously had "learned" about the network configuration.
  • If you're having any trouble connecting, look at the "Internet" and "Ethernet" lights (or whatever they're labelled on your router and modem) to make sure that the router and modem are "talking" to each other.
  • You're taking a big risk if you buy and try to install a piece of network equipment with the shrink-wrap removed.
  • If there's any doubt about the status of the router or the modem, find out what the reset procedure is and do a reset before you configure it. If you run into trouble, do another reset and start again.

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