Web Informant #402, 8 March 2005: Postcards from the edge router




It has taken me almost a month of tinkering with my home network to get it back to the similar level of functionality it delivered when I was last in New York. This is a sad state of affairs. Most of the blame rests squarely with Vonage, my telephone supplier, and Adelphia cable, the bankrupt supplier of broadband that I sadly chose to deliver Internet access to my new home in California.


You could say this is an extreme case of the shoemaker's children, or perhaps your humble author is the man who knew too much about home networks. But it really is due to the hairy edge of Voice Over IP services that Vonage and companies of their ilk supply. No, this is not Ma Bell. It isn't even TPC (for those of you that don't catch that reference, go here: http://www.tpc.int/faq/history.html).


I would estimate about 40 hours of my time have been spent on getting my home network up and running. Most of this hasn't been touching any computer equipment, and has been spent on the phone with various support personnel. Now, before you send me off a nastygram, realize that my home network isn't anything all too sophisticated: a couple of PCs (one Mac, one Windows), a couple of printers (one USB locally attached, one HP laser that is networked), the Vonage phone, and a wireless access point. If there were any less gear, it wouldn't be much of a network.


The problem began when I moved in to my new home. I hooked up everything the same (honestly officer, it really was the same) as it was in New York. I called Adelphia and they promised to get things setup. They came and soon afterwards I was online. Except my cable modem was delivering an IP address in the 10.x.x.x range, which we all know is a private IP range. So I placed a call to their support line. Turns out that until they hear from you, Adelphia quarantines new modems. Then they register your modem for the real IP address. So I pick up my Vonage phone, hear a dial tone, and then proceed to leave for work that morning, confident that everything is working.


Well, it wasn't. My Vonage phone could make calls, but no one could hear me when they answered the phone. My computers could connect to the Internet just fine. My cable TV service was fine. But my mission-critical phone service was rendered useless.


Now to complete the picture, you should know that when we moved I didn't get a Baby Bell land line, because I was so confident of Vonage and the quality of service that I received when I was in NY. So having a non-working phone was stressful, because my wife and I had to depend on our cell phones. At one point, I almost broke down and called Verizon for my land line. But luckily we got things working. Although I am holding my breath as I type this.


It took a series of very lengthy calls with various support technicians at both Vonage and Adelphia to get things resolved. I even swapped out just about every piece of equipment (having alternative routers and modems is nice, I will admit), and trying out the AT&T CallVantage gear (they have a competing VoIP service).


What I found out was that the original cable modem I was using was an older model that supported the v1.0 DOCSIS standard. In order for me to get my VoIP service working properly I had to buy a new cable modem that supported the version 2.0 standard. And I am giving you the very condensed version, after hearing from various people at Adelphia and Vonage that I had to replace this or that on my network because of getting "high packet loss." I won't go into many details, other than to tell one amusing (now it is amusing, at the time it was painful) anecdote: one of the devices that the Adelphia techs wanted me to replace was a router/firewall/gateway that was on my home network, which was "causing" the modem's packet loss. Pray tell me how this could be possible?


One thing that I haven't mentioned is that my NY network worked except for one issue: whenever I ran Skype I lost my Internet connection after a few minutes. Maybe this is another issue with the older cable modem, I don't know. I have heard from several of my staff who are using both Vonage and Skype that this happens.


What I found out what that most service techs don't understand VoIP service in fact, the two that spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon at my house were very nice and knowledgeable people, but they had never seen a Vonage adapter before. By the end of the trouble call, one was ready to go out and purchase the service for his own use, despite the fact that they began the call by giving their standard disclaimer: we don't support networks, we don't support routers, we don't know about Vonage VoIP service, would you just connect a single Windows PC to the cable modem and see if you can bring up a Web page in IE, etc. etc.


So why did the older modem work in New York, on a non-bankrupt cable company's network (Cablevision, if you must know)? Got me. But if you find yourself in similar situations, now you know. Despite VoIP's promise of providing universal phone service from any broadband network, your mileage will definitely vary and the universe may be somewhat reduced to just a few places that has the right configuration of networks.


Now, this is not a knock on Vonage, or AT&T for that matter. I have had service from both, and been very happy with what I got. When it worked. Those of you that are thinking about going with VoIP phone service should wait for a review that we'll post on Tom's Hardware soon comparing the various vendors. But in the meantime, you might want to stick with your regular Baby Bell land line.


David Strom


Tom's Guides Publishing

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Westlake Village, CA 91362

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