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Weekly Column

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning: One Bob's Search for Reliable Internet Service in a Colonial City

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

During my five years in the California Wine Country, I struggled to overcome the limitations of rural Internet service. Dial-up was a joke since I never saw more than 26.4 kilobits-per-second. DSL was at first a bad dream since I was 36,000 feet from the telephone company central office. Cable Internet service was possible, but only if I paid the $22,000 it would cost to install the cable (no thanks). Satellite came and went. A long distance WiFi connection served me well for a couple years. Then one day, for no apparent business reason, SBC dropped an optical cable at the end of my driveway, and suddenly, I had a six megabit-per-second DSL pipe. Alas, by then we were already planning our move to South Carolina, where I hoped living in an urban environment would make simple getting a good Internet connection. Nope. Finding good broadband service here in Charleston was just as hard or harder than it was back in Santa Rosa. But now I'm finally satisfied and want to explain what I had to do to make it work.

Of course, I could have simply installed a T-1 line, but this is PBS, and we don't do things like that. My goal, though, was T-1 equivalent service with at least one static IP address so I could get my mail server back home where it belongs.

The first problem with Charleston is that it is a historic city and even the phone lines are antiques. So is my house, which was built in 1852. BellSouth could install its FastAccess ADSL, service but it includes no service guarantees whatsoever, and only dynamic IP addresses. My neighbor fights with BellSouth all the time, and the fastest he's ever seen his ADSL connection is 910 kbps downstream and 120 kbps upstream, and that was for a short time after the phone tech climbed a pole and made some sort of ritual sacrifice to the copper gods. This was not good enough for me.

I could get a cable modem, something I had no experience with. Comcast is the local cable company and it would be no sweat, they said, to install a service that's three megabits-per-second downstream and 384 kilobits-per-second upstream. Heck, that sounds great, but the IP address is "persistent," not static. "Persistent" means "dynamic, only we are trying not to say that so we can look superior to DSL." Oh, and no servers are allowed, period.

I installed the Comcast service, which was easy, and performance was pretty much as advertised though with occasional moments of insanity as the network just went away for awhile. I did a lot of probing and came to the conclusion that Comcast didn't really know or care what was happening on their network and I could probably have used a dynamic DNS service and got away with running my mail server. But that's not really the way I want to run my network, and for some reason, Comcast would support only one of my two identical Vonage VoIP adapters. I needed something better.

Then I discovered Megapath Networks, a national business DSL provider that would give me the same ADSL service as BellSouth, but charge me $75 per month instead of $50. But Megapath is so much better than BellSouth that I didn't hesitate for a second. Sure, it is the same 1.5M/256K service as BellSouth, but Megapath gave me a static IP address, has no problem with my running a server, offers a modest service level guarantee, and most especially, they beat up BellSouth on my behalf. It took two weeks to install, but the service works beautifully. Now if it was only faster...

Enter my new Xincom XC-DPG402 TwinWAN router, which allows me to simultaneously use both the Comcast cable modem and Megapath ADSL. In theory I have 4.5 megabits-per-second downstream and 640 kilobits-per-second upstream, but what I really have is both a belt and suspenders. At $99, the Xincom is no BGP router, but it gets the job done. It offers downstream load-balancing of a sort, pretty fair security, puts the mail server on a DMZ and makes the network feel significantly snappier. Best of all, when Comcast fades to black for a minute or two I don't even notice.

With a lot of effort, I managed to get both modems and the Xincom mounted on the wall of my laundry room along with a 3Com 3C19504 Internet Server, a small business gateway box that 3Com sold for a week or two back in 2002. The Internet Server cost $1,800 or so back then for the few suckers who bought them, but I got mine (three of them, actually) for $107 each on eBay. The 3Com Internet server runs Linux and comes out of the box with a 500 MHz Celeron processor, 32 megabytes of SDRAM, and a 10 gig hard drive. Using parts scavenged from other computers I jumped to 128 megs of SDRAM and a 40-gig hard drive of which only 32 gigs are visible to the BIOS. And I dropped the 3Com flavor of Linux for something called ClarkConnect, which is a specially modified Red Hat distribution.

Some purists don't like ClarkConnect because it is Linux, but it costs money. I'm not smart enough to be pure, so I like ClarkConnect because it comes with good support.

With ClarkConnect, I get my mail server and a web server and a squid proxy server and my beloved Wonder Shaper traffic shaping tool, and a bunch of other neat services like anti-virus and spam filtering all managed through a web interface. Now both my Vonage adapters work fine, and I'd say my network is significantly faster than even in the later days back in California. For this, I credit mainly the good proxy server and Megapath's better routing. Even though I'm getting with Megapath only half the downstream bandwidth of my Comcast connection, Megapath is clearly faster.

Though everything running on the laundry room wall is connected with CAT5 cable, there is no CAT5 anywhere else in the house and I don't plan to run any. Instead I am using Netgear HomePlug power line networking adapters everywhere, including to the two D-Link DCS-5300 nannycams that allow my Mom to watch her grandchildren over the Internet and make sure I'm not abusing them. Of course, I have a ton of wireless equipment leftover from California, but for some reason, wireless service isn't very good in my house. Maybe it's the ghosts.

I am about to install a Linksys WRT54GS 802.11g router running the Sveasoft firmware up on my roof, but that's for a secret experiment I'll be writing about in a couple weeks. Until then I'll remain hard-wired.

For those who wonder about such things, my dual Internet service costs $117.95 per month with another $44.90 for the two Vonage VoIP phone lines, bringing my total cost of remaining connected to $162.85. For a guy who relies on this connectivity for his livelihood, that Xincom, which appears to be unique in its price category, is a wonder.

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