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Home Networking Realities: Creating a network at Len's house

Revised 11/2/2003

Note: This is the complete version of this article. An abbreviated version Digital Dreams Meet Reality appears in the October 20, 2003 issue of our report.


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 rather more difficult than Dave anticipated.

Dave tells the story and provides some "lessons learned" for our industry.


"Get Broadband and I'll Connect Your PCs"

Len has four PCs. Three are desktops for him, his wife Veronica, and their twelve-year-old son Sjoma. Len carries a notebook PC back and forth to the university where he's a professor. All are used to connect to the Internet.

Len had resisted installing broadband, partly due to the cost and mostly since his family has been living in a rented apartment since he had sold his previous house. I had long promised that if he got broadband, I would set up a network to connect all the PCs together and into the internet.

During the summer, Len bought a row house in the 'fashionable Girard Estates neighborhood' of South Philadelphia, about two hours away from where Sandy and I live in northern New Jersey. Shortly after moving in, he installed DSL connected to one PC. I promised to get a network working with all his PCs the next time we visited Philadelphia.

After Sandy and I set up a business meeting in Philadelphia, I said we'd visit and expected to get the network running the same day. It seemed like a pretty simple network, so I thought we could get to Len's house, join them for lunch before our hour-long meeting a few miles away, get the network working in the afternoon, and be home in time for dinner.


The Initial Plan

Len and his family live in a small three-floor row house. The ground floor has the living room and kitchen; the second floor has three bedrooms off a central hall; the semi-finished basement has utilities in the back and a partly finished room in the front.

Len usually uses his portable PC on a table in the living room adjoining the kitchen. He had Verizon install the DSL modem on the table, connected to his notebook PC and to a phone line in the kitchen.

Len said he wanted to use the middle bedroom on the second floor as a study with the two adult PCs, with the third PC in Sjoma's bedroom.

My original network plan was to move the DSL modem to the study and connect it to a wireless router. I would use wireless to connect from the router to the portable PC on the table in the living room, and use Ethernet to connect to the three PCs on the second floor.

My planned tasks included adding Ethernet NICs on the two older adult machines (Sjoma's machine already had one), installing a CAT5 cable between the study and Sjoma's room, and installing a wireless notebook adapter in Len's portable.

I decided to use 802.11g for future-proofing, taking advantage of the higher speed for applications such as file transfer and network backup.

Here is a diagram of the planned setup:


Figure 1: Original Network Plan


Moving The DSL Modem

After we got back from our meeting in mid-afternoon, I first confirmed that Len's notebook PC was working properly with the DSL modem in the living room. Sjoma offered to help me, and we worked together throughout the day.

I powered off the DSL modem, moved it upstairs to the study, and plugged it into a phone jack near the window. Nothing happened. I plugged a phone into the jack, and it didn't work either. We looked outside at the NID (the phone company connection to the house) and found a pair of inside wires disconnected. I reconnected them, but the jack in the study still didn't work. I tried lots of other things, but eventually concluded that all wires to that jack were cut somewhere.

We then traced the wires going to the phone jack in the front bedroom, and found that a set of wires seemed to go through the wall to the study. Sure enough, we found a phone jack near the floor behind a desk, and it was working.

So we moved the line splitters around, connected the DSL modem to the working phone jack and connected Len's notebook to the DSL modem. Everything worked fine.

Len's wife Veronica with the boxes of equipment Dave installed in their houseWe all went out to a nearby Radio Shack and bought a wireless router (Linksys WRT54G "Wireless Broadband Router"), wireless adapter card (Linksys WPC54G), two Ethernet cards (Linksys LNE100TX), and several short and long Ethernet cables to connect everything together.

It was already late in the afternoon, but I thought the hard part was over.


Getting The Router Working--First Try

Following the Linksys instructions, I disconnected Len's notebook PC from the DSL modem, and connected the Linksys router between the PC and the modem. I ran the Linksys "wizard" and it reported that no Internet connection was found. So I followed the more detailed instructions using the PC web browser to configure the router.

When I came to the "WAN Connection Type" I wasn't sure what to select, but "PPPoE" sounded right since that was usually used with a DSL connection. Unlike the other connection types, PPPoE requires a name and password, and Len had been using a name and a password to connect to Verizon's service with the DSL modem directly attached to his PC.

The name and password had been saved on the Verizon Log-on screen and the password was concealed, so I asked Sjoma to get the password so we could configure the router. He retrieved it from a index card, and we entered it into the router configuration. We saved the configuration and tried to connect to the internet through the router from Len's PC. Nothing happened.

We looked closer at Len's index card, and saw that the password he had written down was somewhat ambiguous: "Is that a 'one' or an 'el'...a 'u' or a 'v'...an 'oh' or a 'zero'...a small or capital 's'?" To make sure we had the right password, I disconnected the router, reconnected the PC directly to the DSL modem, and tried to log in to Verizon. It took about eight tries before we finally got the password right and could connect to the internet.

It was now late enough that we decided to have dinner with Len and his family before going back to the router.

After dinner, we reconnected the router, and entered what we had determined was the right password into the PPPoE setup. Still no internet connection. We tried several other ideas, but couldn't get it working.

Since it was now nearly 11:00, we decided to give up for the day, and get Len and his family back working the way it was before we tried to build a simple network. We disconnected the router, moved the DSL modem back downstairs to the living room, and reconnected Len's notebook PC. Now the PC refused to connect to the internet, even using the password we had determined to be the correct one. And Len's desktop PC in the study wouldn't connect either until we reconfigured the phone lines and the filters back to the original arrangement.

It was now midnight and Sandy and I drove two hours back home. I hadn't accomplished any of the tasks I'd planned for the day. And I'd broken Len's broadband connection.


"Networks in a Flash"

On the way home, I remembered that we had a copy of a recent book Networks in a Flash by Hrair Aldermeshian and Tom London. Hrair had been a colleague of Sandy's at AT&T, and we had met with Hrair and Tom after they published their book.

I'm not someone who usually reads a book before tackling a technical problem. Because I've had a lot of experience with this stuff, I approach everything on "first principles" and read things on the Web (or--Heaven forbid!--on paper) only when I run into problems. But this was a time when I clearly needed help, so the next day I spent several hours reading "NiaF" carefully to see where I had gone wrong.

The book has a very detailed procedure for each installation, with advice appropriate to all kinds of network setups. It's very well suited to people who prefer to read about things before they roll up their sleeves and plow into it.

"NaiF" certainly suggested some things to check when I tackled the router problem again. I wrote out a sequence for diagnosing the next time I visited Len.


The Revised Network Plan

So I called Len to arrange another try. He told me that his notebook PC was now working with the DSL modem. He had called Verizon, and they told him to power the PC and the DSL modem off, wait 20 seconds, turn the DSL modem on, wait until the lights stopped blinking, and then turn the PC on. They called that a "power cycle".

I arranged to come again a week after the first failed attempt, saying that this time I'd arrive in the morning, make no other appointments, and stay until I got it working.

Len told me that there had been a change in plans. Veronica's mother was probably coming to stay with them, and she would use the bedroom that had been the study. So Len wanted to set up the study in the partly-finished room on the basement floor. He would keep the study on the second floor for a while, but would probably move it downstairs early in the new year.

That required a change in the network setup. I had planned to put the wireless router on the second floor, but the computers would now be on the basement floor with two floors between them and the router. From the tests we have conducted in our own house, I knew that floors and ductwork severely attenuate wireless signals, so the signal probably would not reach the basement; even if it did, we almost certainly would not get the full speed of 802.11g.

The revised plan was to leave the DSL modem where it was working, on the ground floor, and install the wireless router there. We could connect Len's notebook PC to the router with either Ethernet or wireless. We'd use wireless to reach Sjoma's PC on the second floor, and either wireless or Ethernet over Category 5 cabling to reach the desktop computers when they were moved to the basement.

Since all the computers were still on the second floor and would stay there for a few months, I decided to use a wireless bridge to get from the ground floor to the second floor. I could equip all the desktop machines with Ethernet (as in the original plan) and connect them to the single wireless bridge device. I could locate the bridge to get the best signal, so we could probably get better performance. And that seemed simpler than equipping all the machines with wireless adapters.

Here is a diagram of the revised network:


Figure 2: Revised Network Plan


Finding an 802.11g Wireless Bridge

Translating the new plan into reality proved to be much more difficult than I thought. While all the networking companies have launched several generations of consumer wireless access points, network adapters, and routers, wireless bridges are mostly priced for the enterprise market and way out of the consumer price range. Even if I was willing to buy one of those, none supported 802.11g--they were all for either 802.11b or 802.11a. I did find one 802.11g bridge, but user comments were quite negative ("it fails to connect effectively and consistently" was typical) and I decided not to try that one.

I was ready to give up when I looked at the specs for the new Linksys WGA54G "Wireless-G Game Adapter". While it was not described as a bridge, and its specs were for connection to game consoles like the PlayStation®2, Xbox™ or GameCube™, it certainly appeared to have all the functionality of a bridge. I was encouraged to find a diagram in its online user's guide showing a "wireless bridging scenario" with several PCs connected to the WGA54G through a small Ethernet switch.

Since I was going to Philadelphia the next day, I looked on the web to see which nearby store carried the WGA54G. Since it was not yet available at any retail store, I called PC Connection. They said they had a few in stock and could ship one to me at Len's house, and that it would arrive by the next afternoon. I placed an order.

All this research took about three hours.


Getting The Router Working--Success on the Second Try

Armed with "Networks in a Flash", CAT5 cable and connectors, and all my networking tools, I arrived at Len's house at 11 am determined to get Len's computers connected in a network. Again Sjoma offered to help.

My first project was to get the router working. After making sure Len's computer was working through the DSL modem, I carefully followed the sequence I had developed from NiaF to connect and set up the router. But we still could not connect to the internet.

After an hour of trying, I called Verizon on the phone, and was delighted to get a technical support specialist on the phone within a minute. After several tries with no connect, she mentioned that the password had been changed a few weeks ago. Len could not remember changing the password since we had worked together the previous week, but after we reconnected his PC to the DSL modem and power cycled, that password did not work any more. The Verizon specialist created a new password, we entered it into the router, and still could not connect.

The Verizon specialist said that she had had experience with several Linksys routers, but not the one we were using. However, she thought that if all else failed, one approach that had worked before would be to reset both the DSL modem and the router back to the default settings and start again.

She also said that their procedure was to go through a full power cycle after making each change, and we went through several power cycles: turning off the PC, router and modem, and then turning on the modem, router and PC allowing time for each to fully start before starting the next. On the last power cycle, the router failed - its DIAG light was lit continuously and the router would not start. We tried to power cycle the router, and then do a reset, but nothing worked. It looked like the only solution would be to exchange the router for a working one.

We spent at least 45 minutes on the phone with the Verizon rep, who suggested that once we got a new working router, we try resetting the DSL modem if we were still having trouble.

Sjoma and I brought the failed router back to the Radio Shack store where we'd bought it, and found they were out of stock. The person we had bought it from was sympathetic, and called several other stores in Philadeplhia until she found one that had a router in stock and said they'd hold it for us. We drove to the other store and exchanged the router; we noticed the shrink-wrap was missing from the box, and wondered if it had been exchanged.

By the time we got back to Len's house, it was mid-afternoon. I connected the new router, and noticed that some of its settings were different than the original setting of the first router. Again following the sequence I had developed from NiaF, I entered all the configuration information including the new password, power cycled, and found it would not connect.

After several more attempts, I called Linksys for help. Again I was delighted that we got a specialist on the phone after only a few rings. With help from the Linksys specialist, I tried several alternate configurations of the router (DHCP instead of PPPoE, 192.168.1.1 instead of 192.168.0.1), but the router still would not connect. At Linksys's suggestion, I power cycled several times. When that did not work, he suggested that I reset the router, but I misunderstood and reset the DSL modem (as Verizon had suggested). It still didn't work.

While we were doing this, I had noticed that the connection between the router and the DSL modem did not seem to be working: neither the "Internet" lights on the router nor the "Ethernet" light on the modem had blinked at all when I tried to connect to the Internet. That seemed odd - as though the router wasn't "talking" to the modem.

I mentioned this to the Linksys specialist as he was getting ready to give up, and he suggested that we reset the router. It took several tries--resetting is "magic" and apparently not documented in any manual. What finally worked was holding in the reset button with a pencil, waiting a minute with power on, pulling the power plug and letting it sit for 20 seconds or so, reconnecting the power plug and finally releasing the reset button.

It works! Veronica with Len's notebook PC, wireless router and DSL modemWe then reentered all the parameters (for the third time) and power cycled. This time the "Internet" and "Ethernet" lights blinked, the router reported that it was connected, and Len's PC could access the Internet. We had been on the phone with Linksys for 45 minutes.

The router was finally working. Getting it working required having all the parameters correct (esp the password), resetting both the router and the modem, and power cycling everything.

It was nearly 6 pm.


Router Tests

Before we connected any other computers, I checked that the router was working correctly. Since resetting it had fixed the problem of connecting to the DSL modem, I was pretty sure it had been used and then returned to the second Radio Shack store, and I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong with it that had caused it be returned. I used my notebook PC to do a set of tests:

  • I used the Ethernet jack to test all four Ethernet ports on the router; they were all working properly.
  • I tested the router's functions as a wireless access point. I first used AirMagnet to do a signal survey, and confirmed that I was getting a strong wireless signal on both the second and basement floors.
  • Then I used my Linksys WPC54G wireless notebook adapter to test 802.11g. It indicated I was getting 54 Mbps everywhere in the house.


Connecting the Wireless Bridge

Len at his desktop PC with the wireless bridgeThe wireless bridge had arrived from PC Connection during the afternoon, as promised. I unpacked the bridge, and read its setup instructions, which suggested that in many situations it would work without any configuration (if not, the package contained a CD-ROM with a setup wizard). Without using the CD-ROM, I connected the bridge to my portable using an Ethernet cable, plugged it in -- and it worked "out of the box" with no setup.

Note that the wireless LAN was completely unsecured. Following the directions in NiaF, I had configured the wireless SSID and WEP several times that day, but the last reset had restored the router to the default setting for SSID with WEP disabled.


Completing the Network

Sjoma at his PCNow I was finally ready to connect the PCs in Len's network.

  • I installed the Linksys WPC54G wireless card we had bought a week before in Len's notebook PC, and it worked fine.
  • I moved the wireless bridge upstairs to the study, tested it with my portable, and it worked fine.
  • I opened up Len's desktop PC, installed an Ethernet NIC and its software, and connected it to the bridge. I found that I had to power cycle the bridge for Len's desktop to get DHCP.
  • I ran a 25-foot Ethernet cable from Sjoma's room to the study (through a drop ceiling), connected it to the bridge, power cycled the bridge, and it worked fine.
  • I showed Len how printer sharing and file sharing work.

I joined Len and his family for dinner and headed for home about 9 pm. It had taken me little more than two hours to get everything else in the network connected once the router would connect to the internet.

I had wanted to buy a 5-port Ethernet switch to connect to the wireless bridge in the study, but I hadn't been able to find one in a local store. So I haven't yet proven that the bridge will support multiple Ethernet devices, although the diagram in the manual suggests it will.

Len can now use his notebook PC and one of the desktops connected to the bridge simultaneously. Once he gets an Ethernet switch and connects the desktop PCs through it, his network will be complete.

Updated 11/2/2003:Sjoma sent me an email on Oct. 23 saying "I just installed the switch, it works fine." So we know the Linksys wireless bridge does support multiple Ethernet devices.


Remaining Tasks

I'll visit Len when he's ready to move the PCs downstairs, and I'll finish the network. Here's what's left on my list:

  • Secure the wireless network by changing the SSID, turning off SSID broadcast, enabling WEP and establishing a 128-bit code
  • Pull a CAT5 cable from the kitchen to the downstairs -- there's no ceiling in the utility area and I should be able to just drill a hole through the floor, pull the cable, and connect RJ45 jacks.
  • Install a LAN card in Veronica's PC.
  • Move two PCs downstairs and connect them to the router through the Ethernet switch
  • Move the bridge to Sjoma's room upstairs

This should all be easy, but I've learned the hard way not to say so.


Lessons Learned -- For the Industry
  • This all has to be a lot simpler. It should not have taken me more than 20 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. Wizards should work. 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 diagnotic procedure, and it should be.
  • Broadband service providers have started offering network installation. Getting a network 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.
  • 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.


Lessons Learned -- 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.