My father, like many of us, has embraced the streaming video revolution. He has discovered the joys of binge-watching series and films on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, his viewing habits have been hamstrung by that bane of binge-watchers: a slow internet connection. Upon a recent visit, I took it upon myself to examine that connection, and to pursue faster alternatives. As you’ll see, no part of this process would turn out to be easy.
My parents subscribed to AT&T for land-line phone service, and for “high-speed” DSL internet service. In real terms, “high speed” DSL tops out at 5 megabits per second (mbps). In fairness, according to Netflix, this is fast enough to stream in “HD quality.” However, my dad has a newfangled 4K TV set, and Netflix is one of the first few content providers to offer 4K “Ultra HD” content. DSL’s speed limit means he wouldn’t get his money’s worth on that TV; he’d need at least five times that speed to get the full resolution. So I had a mission: find a faster connection so he could watch his Netflix in 4K.
In addition to their AT&T account, my parents subscribe to Time Warner Cable for television service. I, myself, use TWC for television and also for high-speed internet, so I called upon my experience in recommending that provider—well, not that provider per se, but the speeds they could offer. As of this writing, TWC’s fastest package is 300 mbps, a whopping 60 times the top speed of AT&T’s DSL service. Before adding internet service to their cable package, we did the legwork and bought a cable modem capable of those speeds, and then we connected it to the incoming cable line, so that when TWC activated the service, they’d be ready to go. Oh, if only it were that simple.
An Unfortunate Coincidence
I swear, I think the AT&T DSL modem saw this new, faster interloper, and asked, in its own way, “What’s she doing here?!”
Before even calling AT&T to discuss discontinuing DSL service, their modem jumped into a “panic mode” of its own, blinking red and green lights– and not in a festive, Christmas way. A call to AT&T would confirm this modem was failing, and that the only course of action would be to replace it outright. My folks weren’t quite ready to abandon DSL service altogether in favor of cable internet, so this meant a trip to the local AT&T store to pick up a new DSL modem.
“Let’s try this one. Ok, now let’s try this other one.”
Racing in to the AT&T store the next morning, I engaged in the ritual familiar to many of us: I was greeted by an employee with a digital clipboard. This employee took my name, and let me know that I was now in line to be helped by the next available store employee. Bear in mind, I wasn’t trying to add (or remove) service; I just wanted to buy a new modem. The previous day, Best Buy had made the process of purchasing a new cable modem fast and easy, with streamlined “in and out” service, as well as a healthy selection of cable modems from various brands; some with built-in wifi, some without.
The AT&T store, on the other hand, not only made me wait for the privilege of buying a DSL modem from them; but the modem was not available in other, non-AT&T stores (so much for a competitive market). In stark contrast to the selection at Best Buy, AT&T had two devices: one with wifi, one without. That’s it. I was reminded of the line from The Blues Brothers:
Since my parents had their previous modem connected to a third-party wireless router (namely, an Apple Time Capsule), I took it upon myself—when it was finally my turn for service, of course—to buy the non-wifi DSL modem and rush it back home. Connecting it was pretty straightforward: power cable from the outlet, phone cable from the jack, and ethernet cable to the router. Unfortunately, that was where the simplicity stopped.
Using my MacBook’s “Network Diagnostics” app (a lifesaver when setting up or troubleshooting a network), I found that with this new modem, something wasn’t fully connecting. Below is an image of a similarly-misaligned connection, as shown in MacWorld.
The goal of “all green lights” was eluding me. Again, I reached out to AT&T by phone and they assured me that this time, their modem was passing all of their tests, and that the issue must be with the Apple router. Fine. I called AppleCare.
My conversation with Apple was just as brief. After the standard tests, they were certain that their Time Capsule was in fine working order. If AT&T’s connection was working, and if the router was working, perhaps, they suggested, it was time to reach out to the DSL modem’s manufacturer directly, namely, Netgear.
Netgear tech support was the least helpful of the three I had spoken with at this point, primarily because they don’t take support responsibility for modems sold by AT&T. Frustrated, I decided the easiest way to solve this problem was to eliminate the variables. I returned to the AT&T store, waited my turn again, and exchanged the DSL modem for one with built-in wifi. I removed the Time Capsule from the equation, so everything was handled by AT&T, from the phone line coming out of the wall, to the wireless signal now permeating through the house.
A quick note: when you change wireless network names, you find out just how many devices were set up on the previous network, and now have to be reprogrammed. Some devices are easy to switch, with push-button Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS); but some demand the tedious process of typing in the new network’s password. Making matters worse, the default password printed on the new AT&T modem/router combo was an alphanumeric mishmash, guaranteed never to be memorized, and easily mistyped.
Less than a day into using this new wifi network, the problems returned. Some—but not all—websites were failing to load. Mail was sporadic, if not entirely disconnected. Speeds weren’t even achieving the modest 5 mbps limit promised by AT&T. And during this new—or continued—outage, my parents’ frustration continued to grow. A cliché in the tech support industry is to have the client say, “Things were working fine before you worked on it!” I was flummoxed. What could I have done to hamper their service this badly?
The issues we were experiencing are typically symptomatic of a failure of the Domain Name System (DNS), that system that translates word-based internet addresses (such as my own homewithtech.com, for example) into their proper numerical Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (220.127.116.11, if you were curious—but don’t try entering that into your browser for these reasons: http://ask-leo.com/why_doesnt_accessing_a_site_by_its_ip_address_work.html).
At the end of my rope, I called AT&T tech support yet again. This time, I was put on hold. After about 40 minutes of being told my call was important, I gave up and tried a different tack. Jumping on my laptop, I went to one of the sites that I could still access: att.com, and I engaged in their live chat support system. More and more, I’m recommending that my clients use chat instead of the phone support system, because I find you get the same level of know-how from the operator on the other end; but when typing, you don’t have to overcome the language barriers that tend to obstruct tech support phone calls these days.
The following screen capture shows how the conversation went with AT&T after three modems, four days, and countless headaches:
AT&T didn’t resolve the DNS problem before I left town. But they did, in their own way, resolve the tension between myself and my parents. AT&T made it clear, in the immortal words of Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in the film Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault.” And you know, sometimes even the most experienced techie needs to hear that once in a while.
Chartering a new course
After getting to the bottom of the DSL crisis, my dad was all too happy to give Time Warner Cable a shot—but that was an ordeal in itself, thanks mostly to the fact that TWC is now Charter Spectrum.
In order to add cable internet service, they would have to build an all-new package, losing many cable channels in the process. I’m too emotionally exhausted from the AT&T trauma to go into every step of that process right now (perhaps in a future blog post), but I’m happy to say, long story short, they got the new cable internet up and running before I left. It was Spectrum’s starter package, 100 mbps, still 20 times faster than DSL’s top speed. And the best part is, I can confirm the Netflix feed now comes in at full 4K quality, with crystal-clear picture.
And there’s nothing better than a little clarity.