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Reader Stories on Home Networking Realities

Note: This is an expanded version of an article on reader responses to our 10/20/03 article Digital Dreams Meet Reality. An abbreviated version of this article appears in the November 16, 2003 issue of our report.

Bill Rose's "Trials and Tribulations"

Bill Rose wrote to tell us about his experiences installing a network in his own home and for one of his neighbors. Bill is one of the leading experts on home networking--he chairs the Consumer Electronics Associationís Home Networking Committee and its Technology and Standards Council and is a board member of the Home Networking and IT (HNIT) Division. We published Bill's guest article on wireless video networking in our December 17, 2002 issue.

So, you too have had the pleasure of helping out a friend or family member and spending hours on what should be a quick job for "pros" like us.

You have heard of some of my trials and tribulations before and I have a couple more. Several are not even home networking related but help to point out a disturbing trend in consumer electronics.

To summarize my prior HN experiences, I have installed two HomePNA networks, an 802.11b and an 802.11g network, a cable Modem, a DSL modem, and of course several Ethernet connections to connect the desktop to the above networks. In the course of these installs I have spent approximately 40 hours of my own time including contacting various vendors who mean well but usually conclude it is someone elses problem. I have had:

  • One bad cable modem
  • One bad DSL modem (Both modems were bad out of the box and confirmed by technicians who I insisted on coming to my home after exhausting both my own and their ideas)
  • One bad 802.11b card (confirmed by simply replacing it with another)
  • One telephone repair person put his foot through our bedroom ceiling while fixing a broken phone wire in the attic - the wire was fine until the moment I attached the DSL modem at which point the phone stopped working. (Since I had been on the phone moments before attaching the modem, I can attest that either the digital gods were playing a trick or the modem's signal was the last straw for a poor connection.)
  • One 802.11b vendor's configuration software that, after several calls and emails between myself and their service people, was confirmed by the tier 2 service person did not support Windows 2000. Why tier 1 people were not informed of this I can only surmise. Could I have been the first person to try it with 2000?
  • One incompatible cable modem - after Excite went under and AT&T switched to their new service I could not get connected for nearly a month. Customer service tried everything and one rep even gave me his home email address stating he had better tools to trouble shoot the problem there. He spent several hours of his own time on a Sunday with me to no avail. It turned out (after insisting on a technician visit) that the modem I had was not a DOCSIS modem and therefore incompatible with the new service. One would think that they could query the modem and see the model and firmware version.
  • One trashed TCP/IP stack - trashed when loading either the 802.11b drivers or when updating AOL software (foolishly done after I thought I had the network working but before I tried to browse using AOL so I could not determine which was to blame). I could retrieve email wirelessly, and browse the Internet using Windows IE, but could not browse using AOL. No one could solve it so once again, after many hours and calls, I uninstalled and reinstalled the stack and everything worked.
  • Several IRQ (interrupt request) conflicts when 2 network cards were installed. If you have tried to force Windows to use different IRQs, it is not an easy task - at least on the DELL I own. DELL's solution? Not their problem since they didn't sell me the network card. When I suggested that they should have had a utility for changing the IRQ BIOs settings like most other computers, they suggested I reformat the drive and reload everything. Don't listen!!! Try uninstalling the cards and reinstalling them in reverse order.

Now the good news. My 802.11b/g (mixed devices) has been working flawlessly for months. Windows XP (Pro) is far easier than 98 or 2000 to network. In fact, the last 2 installs of 802.11 I have done were on XP machines and they were effortless. Of course I had learned a great deal prior to those installs and the network they were attaching to was already running but in the past that was no guarantee. Of course, the last 802.11 machine I attached could not print over the network, which took me a half hour to track down (uninstalling and reinstalling the printer drivers did the job - which I have learned should always be the first step for print problems after ensuring print sharing is turned on).

Now, as they say, for the rest of the story. I volunteered to set up a friend's A/V rack - a simple task you say? Wrong again! She had a new TV (analog), a dual DVD/VCR deck, a DVD burner, a PlayStation 2, a stereo receiver she wanted to use for better audio than the TV provided, and a cable set-top-box. Without going into details, it took 5 hours and 2 trips to Radio Shack to get the system working in a manner that she could use without referring to a state diagram of inputs, outputs, switches, etc. to use all of her devices. The issue is not one of making connections; it is one of making them in a way that makes selecting the desired box simple yet provides the best signals. Mixtures of S-Video, composite, and coax when the TV has inadequate inputs for consistancy is the problem. In the end, a 4 button switch with both S-Video and composite inputs and outputs did the job but not until I had drawn about 10 different schematic diagrams of various connection schemes.

My current project is an ATSC broadcast tuner connected to my HDTV so I can get Monday Night Football. I know enough to go to the website to determine the type of antenna I needed. They provide color codes based on your home address. Match the color code from the site with that of an antenna and you're done. Except when on the fringe of 2 codes - one which suggests you can use an omnidirectional antenna, and the other which says you need a directional antenna (and the attendant antenna rotator). The second problem is that few manufacturers color code their antennas and the sales people assume you want to match the antenna to your house paint. I tried the omnidirectional first and got 4 stations but not ABC - Monday Night Football. I then exchanged that with a huge directional (skipping the in-between sizes for the sake of my health - walking around on the roof in the rain is not for the faint of heart or unsure of step). I got ABC, but lost NBC and CBS. So I added an amplifier hoping to avoid the rotator and another wire run down the side of the house, across the basement, into the garage and through the wall to the TV. I know have intermittant NBC and WB, no CBS, and almost perfect ABC. Next up - return the amplifier and get the rotator. By the way - Monday Night Football is awesome in HD. Worth the effort though I might have a different view if I fell 2 stories into the rhododendron.

My last comment on DTV though is on issues relating to screen resolutions and szes. With a separate tuner and DTV, you have to set up the screen resolutions and sizes separately in each box. The tuner has a switch to set it for 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i. The TV receives 480i, 480p, and 1080i. You find this in the owners manuals. Also the tuner needs to know if the TV is of the 4:3 or 16:9 variety. Once these are set, you have to decide if you want to see a full screen or wide screen format - i.e. do you want a larger picture with everyone looking taller than normal, or a smaller screen (bars top and bottom) but in the correct proportions? I prefer full screen. However, either one results in most of the commercials shown in "pillar box" format - bars on the left and right (and top and bottom if you are set to wide screen format). This is only disturbing if you don't know why it is happening. Unfortunately that includes 98% of the population. I can easily see thousands of football fans missing out on the action taking place at the screen because of wrong settings, or an emperor's new clothes situation where the owner invites everyone over to see his new TV. He sees it as a great picture since after spending hours getting it set up and several thousand dollars, he can fool himself. They see a 480i picture, zoomed, in 16:9 format making the 40 inch set look like a 32 inch but don't want to tell him and burst his bubble.

The moral of all of this is industry has a lot more to do to make all of this stuff "consumer friendly" and to ensure their return rates, satisfaction rates, and customer irates are kept at a manageable level. Technology is great but it is far better when hidden from view.

I freely speak out on the shortcomings of the products going out today to all who will listen. CE is getting PC-ized. The CE industry has lowered its target for ease of use and I believe it is hurting the industry. I think they see the PC industry getting away with difficult to use products and figure they can too, especially to get new technologies out quickly. As I see it, Walkman, transistor radios, DVD players, all were blockbuster hits because they are sole purposed, simple to understand, and simple to use. TVs were slow because they required an infrastructure - broadcast stations - to be in place. PCs (in the home) were slow because they were complex and difficult to understand and use. HN is very complex and w/o a clear app beyond sharing a BB connection. And they are a standalone product (until Centrino) that have no function w/o other products. When they get built in, then they will go mass market since then they will be a feature, not a product. Till then, strictly early adopter, at least for entertainment. Similar to the video blasters from X10 and Recoton. This is not a dongle market.

Tony Aiuto "DSL providers could save a lot of support calls"

Tony Aiuto is a software developer and a full-time telecommuter working out of his home.

Your article about setting up the home network struck a chord with me, having done similar setups for several friends and family.

I think the DSL providers could save themselves a lot of support calls if they really embraced the idea of home networks, even if they are a single computer. In this era of worms, it is imprudent to connect a machine to a broadband connection without a hardware firewall. Most end users don't understand that, so it is the responsibility of the provider to educate and inform. The easy way to do that is to ship a router/firewall with every DSL modem. If they could be combined into a single unit, that would be even better. The only option the customer might have is if they want wireless as well.

I have not seen the DSL/PPPoE problem. I've had a Covad-based DSL line for several years now but there was never any password setup; this is Covad's TeleCommute+ service, which provides 4 static IP addresses. They ran the wire, plugged in the modem and told me my IP addresses. The only time I ever needed an account name and password was to access the mail server.

It occurs to me now that getting mail set up and running could be made much simpler as well:

  • Verizon knows your MAC address, which is associated with a customer
  • When you connect, it assigns an IP address for that MAC, and can use this to map IP address to customer.
  • Your installation instructions could tell you to visit which would use that mapping to display a welcome page explaining how to set up your email account and what passwords to enter. It could even provide a downloadable script which would do that for you.
  • The setup page should also contain everything relevant about your account, and a recommendation to print and save it.

I am employed full time by ICS ( where we make software development tools. Since I telecommute from my house, I've had to become something of a network expert to keep my site alive. This was especially true when we were doing a spinoff where I was writing network services. I ended up with both a cable modem and a DSL line so that I could route a client out the cable to a server on the DSL to test my protocol code.

Being a full-time telecommuter, I've gotten very interested in the issues of broadband w.r.t. telephony and home-automation. I'm always looking for ways to manage the incoming message stream (phone and email for both work and personal (and other members of the family) use) and distribute that to devices in the house as appropriate.