Need. Internet. Back.
October 25, 2009 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I connect to the internet anymore? Is customer service giving me a plausible explanation?

Our home internet connection has been down all weekend. We use a new and speedy 24" iMac. When we try to connect to PPPoE, it just says "Connecting...Connecting...Connecting" and finally says that it can't connect to the server. No amount of power cycles and restarts make a difference. This has happened once before, a few months ago, and changing the access password with the ISP solved the problem (until Friday).

Our apartment sucks and there is only one working phone jack, which is in an inconvenient location. Thus, we run a 15 foot phone cord from it to a normal telephone cord splitter, from which a 10 foot (filtered) telephone cord goes to the modem, and a second cord goes to our telephone.

Yesterday, my ISP's customer service guy said that the phone cord from the wall to the modem has to be 6 feet or less, or else it'll be unreliable. He correctly surmised that we often have connection issues (i.e. sometimes it says "Authenticating..." for a long time), although never before recently has it totally failed to connect, and for a couple of years we never even had the long authentication issue either.

When I told him that this issue has previously been solved by a password change, he tried that again and it didn't solve the problem. I asked him why, if the cord length is the issue, we were able to have the same setup for years without a problem. He replied that the cord can deteriorate over time.

Various forums online debate whether the length of the phone cord has anything to do with internet speed or connection reliability. Does it? Could the problem be that I'm using that splitter? Does it matter where the splitter is--i.e. should the splitter only be at the wall jack, or can I have it where it is, after the first 15 foot cord? Should I do as my ISP suggests, and either (1) replace the telephone cords that go to the modem with new ones (to solve the supposed "deterioration" problem), or (2) try to rig it up with a 6 foot cord and then a really long ethernet cable (to solve the supposed "long phone cord" problem)?

Thanks for any advice you can give me. FYI, this is in Toronto, and the ISP is Primus. (I would rather switch to Teksavvy, but when I put my number into their website it says they can't provide service to me, even though I live right downtown...?)
posted by Beardman to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
My first thought is that it's a baldfaced lie. See, behind that wallplate, there is X feet of phone cable that goes from the jack, back to .. probably a distribution point ... and then to the ISP's box. I have, offhand, seen runs of 5' from that plate to the ISP point (typically called the Demarc), and I have seen runs of 500' from there to the Demarc. The wire behind your wallplate is not magical, and it's not particularly special, so I highly doubt that adding 9' of wire to your side of the wallplate will do ANYTHING.
posted by frwagon at 11:04 AM on October 25, 2009

Also, on the deterioration point ... while technically true, I believe that we're talking much longer periods of time for sufficient deterioration to happen. If telco wire, or cat 5, or other related ISP wires can deteriorate in less than 10 years... I suspect large parts of the internet backbone are in desperate trouble. I'd say that's also a lie from the ISP.
posted by frwagon at 11:06 AM on October 25, 2009

When you say that the line to the modem is "filtered", do you mean that there is a microfilter on that line? The line to the PHONE should be filtered, not the modem.
posted by selfnoise at 11:20 AM on October 25, 2009

I'd have to agree with frwagon's comments. About the only way a cable can "go bad" is if someone trips on it, or somehow stresses the ends where the plastic plugs are crimped on. (of course, all of this is easily testable by purchasing brand new phone cable, and temporarily moving the iMac and DSL modem directly next to the wall jack (while you have the ISP on the phone--- to force them to fix the issue)

Regarding your comment about your sucky apartment building... It is entirely possible that the cables inside your apartment are fine--- but something has changed between your wall jack and where the cable goes outside. Mice chewing.. water getting inside the Demarc (cable-junction box) .. or interference by some change in electrical power/shielding. But the only way to test that would be to ask the ISP (or phone company) to come out and test your building.. which (in my experience) costs around $100+ depending on what equipment they need to bring.
posted by jmnugent at 11:22 AM on October 25, 2009

Can't you connect the modem to the wall jack directly to verify that the problem doesn't lie in your line extension?
posted by justkevin at 11:45 AM on October 25, 2009

I worked for a few days doing DSL tech support for a Canadian company that had won a telephone support contract from a major American ISP. From what I understood, our company was paid per-call, so keeping call times down was the biggest thing we were concerned about.

Monthly bonuses were available to 'high-performing' employees. Each worker had a performance metric based on 'quality' (they'd eavesdrop your calls and use a checklist to make sure you were following the service agreement) and average call length.

We were given a list of things that we could use to cop out of a phone call early while still maintaining the level of service required by the contract. Phone cord length was one of the things on that list. I completely agree with frwagon, but if I'd actually tried to help a customer once they'd said they had a long phone cord, my average call time would have gone up, possibly disqualifying me from receiving a monthly cash bonus.

If at all possible, you want to talk to a customer service rep that isn't working under that system. We had some folks doing 'executive customer service' whose mandate was to solve customers' problems, not to keep call times down. You didn't mention what ISP you're using, but some googling should turn up the executive customer service contact for your ISP, and you can go from there.

All of that being said, I suspect that selfnoise is right -- if you have a filter in line anywhere between the phone jack and your modem, you'll get exactly the symptom you're describing. The filters belong on the telephones, not on the modem. Put the filter as close to the telephone as you can, then you don't have to think so much about whether you've filtered the splitter that you're plugging your modem into.
posted by jpziller at 12:00 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just to be absolutely sure— you're using DSL, right, not an old-fashioned dialup modem?

If so, as selfnoise says, the filter should go between the wall jack and any non-DSL equipment. The filter's purpose is to block the DSL signal, which although it doesn't occupy the same part of the spectrum as a normal telephone signal, can sometimes interfere with devices that don't expect it. (And vice versa.)

Most DSL modems have status lights on them, at least one to indicate "link OK" between the modem and its partner at the phone exchange, and one to indicate that there is traffic flowing. (Often another two to indicate similar things about the connection to the computer. And probably a power indicator.) Does your "link OK" light come on? Usually it'll take 30 seconds or so for the modem to get its stuff together after you plug it in. If the light comes on and stays on, then the problem isn't with your phone wiring, it's somewhere else.

The length of cord shouldn't be a problem at all; six feet is nothing compared with the rest of the phone circuit the modem is dealing with. But I would definitely consider that the cord might have "deteriorated". They're cheap and they're subject to a lot of abuse; flaky cords and connectors are the source of more problems with computer equipment than any other single piece of hardware, in my experience. OTOH, testing this theory is easy; just connect the modem to the wall jack using a different cord and see if its link light comes on.
posted by hattifattener at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2009

The circuit between your wall plate and the telco's DSLAM is unshielded twisted pair. The twists in the wiring help cancel out various types of interference. A typical phone cable from your wall is not twisted, so there is the potential that longer runs present an opportunity for interference, but the thing is, I'm pretty sure the run from the phone pole to the demarc on most houses is neither twisted, nor shielded, and can vary from house to house by 10-20 feet or more, so a 25' vs a 6' interior cable span seems insignificant. Even so, inside wiring matters, there is something weird enough about my home wiring that I'm stuck at 3Mbps down because the house wiring makes a decent signal at the demarc marginal for 5Mbps once it gets into the house.

On the other hand, common 100baseTX ethernet, which operates over twisted pair, has a range of 100M, so putting the modem much closer to the wall jack and running an ethernet cable to it rather than a long phone cable isn't a bad idea. If that allows you to use the modem's internal splitter, rather than an external one, so much the better.

One thing that isn't clear from your post though, when you can't connect, what do the status lights on the DSL modem show? If the WAN/ATM link is up, then your wiring arrangement is a red herring. The fact that you don't mention it makes me wonder if your tech has skipped over something obvious.
posted by Good Brain at 12:39 PM on October 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses so far.

1. Yes, it's DSL.

2. Doh. I screwed up my description of the wiring set-up: contrary to what I wrote, there isn't a filter on the modem telephone cord. It's on the cord that goes to the telephone, where it should be. So that isn't the problem. (Would that it were, though.)

3. All the lights on the modem are on. They are: Power, Ethernet, DSL, Internet. I'm not at home now (obviously, as I'm online), but I recall either Ethernet or Internet blinking periodically. I think it does this when I'm connected too.

So, Good Brain and hatti, you're telling me that if all these lights come on, then it can't be a wiring problem? In that case, since the tech I spoke to knew that all the lights on the modem were on, he should have known that the wire length isn't the issue...lending grim confirmation to jpziller's inside scoop on the tech support industry?

If, then, the wiring issue is a red herring, what should I investigate next? I mean, I can call tech support back (preferably with the modem nice and close to the wall jack so they can't insist that wiring IS the issue), but what's one of the obvious problems he might have skipped over?
posted by Beardman at 1:43 PM on October 25, 2009

I would have them check the authentication logs for your account while you attempt to connect. They would be able to see instantly if it's a password problem.

If the "tech support" (aka phone monkeys) can't do this, then ask to change your password and then try the new one (it may take anything from a few minutes to a few hours for the password change to have an effect at the ISP, depending on how backward their authentication infrastructure is).

If the phone monkeys can't change your password, ask to be transferred to someone who can; they'll likely know how to actually troubleshoot the problem.

In any case, keep escalating until you get someone who can and will help. You're paying for this, after all.
posted by nonspecialist at 2:33 PM on October 25, 2009

Oh, another thing; you may be able to check your own logs for some hints. Under MacOS:

- Open Applications in the Finder
- Open the Utilities folder
- Launch the "Console" app
- keep the console app open while you attempt to connect; look at the (many confusing) messages that go by; keep your eyes peeled for messages containing key words like "authentication", "PPPoE", "pppd", "connect", "interface" and so on.
- relay these messages to "tech support"; if you get someone who can't understand what you're talking about, escalate.
posted by nonspecialist at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2009

You might also get some data by opening a terminal and typing:
dmesg | grep X
where X is any term you think might come up in the logs.
dmesg tail
can also yield results.

(disclaimer: these commands are unixy things that spit out log information; I'm not totally sure they work under osx.)
posted by kaibutsu at 4:48 PM on October 25, 2009

Does your "link OK" light come on? Usually it'll take 30 seconds or so for the modem to get its stuff together after you plug it in. If the light comes on and stays on, then the problem isn't with your phone wiring, it's somewhere else.

While this is usually true, I have personally seen an exception. At one house where I was installing an ADSL modem, the modem would always get ADSL sync according to its front panel LED, but would never be able to achieve PPPoA login. The fix turned out to be getting underneath the house and replacing 25 metres of handyman-grade phone wiring lovingly sculpted from random lengths of figure-8 speaker cable, bell wire and mains cable. Then things worked fine.

ADSL sync says that the modem and the DSLAM can see each other's signals to the minimum extent necessary for establishing what line speed to use. If the resulting connection has a sufficiently high packet loss rate, it can indeed cause PPP login failures.

Your behind-the-wall-plate wiring might (just might) be marginal enough that a long extension plugged into the wall plate will tip it over the edge. If I were you, I'd try plugging my ADSL modem straight into the wall plate with a short (under 2 metres) cable and no filter/splitter and nothing else connected, and see if it still fails to log in. If so, escalating past the script monkeys until you reach an actual technician will certainly be your best bet.
posted by flabdablet at 5:02 PM on October 25, 2009

First thing I would do - hook the modem up as close to the wall jack as possible, straight run, no splitter. If it doesn't work, they can no longer copout with the 'cable is too long'. FWIW, I've always tried to keep the run to the modem as short as possible, then taking the ethernet cable to where I need it, since there are no length issues (up to 100m, as mentioned above).
posted by defcom1 at 5:11 PM on October 25, 2009

Response by poster: OK, internet is back! But I'm not sure why. And this may happen again anytime (more and more frequently, apparently). For all I know, it'll be screwed up again the second I turn it off.

First, I tried moving everything close to the wall for the reason defcom suggests--then they can't keep telling me that's probably the problem. Sure enough, it made no difference.

However, after moving it all back, I went into Network>Assist me...>Assistant. I was prompted to do the standard stuff like restart the modem, and then it told me to type in my account name and password. After I typed the password, a message came up saying that my IP address was already connected or something...and then when I verified the password it just asked me to give this location a name (I chose the default, "Location (25/10/09 8:07 PM")), and then it said I was connected to the internet.

Unlike before, now when I open the Network window, I have two green bars that say "Sent" and "Received". Does anyone know what I did, and more importantly why it worked? The only difference seems to be that earlier the account name and password were associated with a location called "Automatic", and now they're associated with this new location name and come with sent/received bars.
posted by Beardman at 5:27 PM on October 25, 2009

Its impossible the say. There must be a million reasons why this would happen. Cut line, water, flakey modem, flakedy DSLAM, your landlord messing with the phone wiring, etc etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:45 PM on October 25, 2009

could have been unplugging and replugging in the modem when you moved it...
posted by jrishel at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2009

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