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Telecom: New Zealand’s leading Internet Service Preventer

Posted by steve on Jan 11, 2013 in international, internet, New Zealand

You don’t know, it is indeed true, what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. My family and I were reminded rather rudely over the last couple of days how much we rely on our Internet connection — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe is a telecommuting web and print designer, and Teenage Daughter’s social life is mediated almost entirely via Twitter and Skype; I have been known, occasionally, to use the Internet too — when our ISP here in New Zealand, Telecom, suffered a series of rather catastrophic outages.

The first signs, for me, came when I tried to check my email. I opened up my MacBook Pro, only to find, by the names of mailboxes in my inbox, exclamation-mark-inside-triangle warning signs. Next stop was Safari, but attempts to view Web pages returned nothing more than an error message telling me “You are not connected to the Internet. This page cannot be displayed because you are currently offline.” Something, then, was wrong; it was time to figure out what.

This was clearly something a little more troubling than a Web page not wanting to load. If I find a page, especially a page from a site that I know is usually reliable, simply will not show itself, then I try surfing to the New Zealand Herald’s Web site. This isn’t because I expect news of my potential Internet outage to make headline news — even New Zealand rarely has slow news days that slow. No, I visit that site because I know that it is, typically, a snappy and reliable site. If the Herald’s front page shows itself, I know that the problem is likely with a sluggish server at the site I had originally wanted to visit; if the Herald similarly fails to show, then it’s time to start looking at my connection. When I lived in Florida, I used the BBC’s news site — it, similarly, tended to be quite responsive. Google, or Apple, or any other well-resourced, well-equipped site can serve as an effective test site; I’d avoid Facebook, though, simply because, in my experience at least, it tends not to be the absolute last word in speed and performance; at any rate, it is a good idea to have a mental list of reliable sites that can be used as a first step in trying to diagnose a problem.

Last week’s problem, though, was clearly much more widespread. My first step, then, was to check my local network connection. I have a WiFi network at home, powered by a couple of Airport base stations, and shared with the rest of the family. Teenage Daughter saved me the trouble of having to ask her if she was also offline — a cry from her room that “The Internet’s broken!” let me know quite unequivocally. Evidence was now pointing to the problem being outside my laptop.

In my home network, and likely in many similar setups, the next item upstream, and the first shared element, is an Airport base station. Rather than try to troubleshoot it, my next step was to eliminate it altogether. My thinking here was simple — if I connect my MacBook Pro directly to my DSL modem, and if I can then connect to the Internet, then the problem lies with my base station; if I can’t, then the problem is further upstream. So I unplugged the Ethernet cable connecting modem and base station from the base station, and connected it directly to the Ethernet port on the side of my laptop — still no joy. I opened System Preferences on my laptop, and selected the Network pane. My Ethernet connection had, apparently, an IP address, suggesting that my DSL modem was behaving itself.

The next step was one that I don’t enjoy having to take, for the simple reason that, due to constraints of space, my DSL modem is located in a rather inaccessible spot. As a result, I can’t easily see the state of the lights on the top of the modem. But, because it was now looking necessary, I reached the thing out from its cranny and saw that one of the four lights was out. Getting to know the standard state of your modem, be it DSL or cable — or, if you’re lucky enough, as we hope to be in a year or so, to have it, fibre — modem might seem unnecessary, but at times like this, it’s a useful little piece of knowledge.

The light that wasn’t lit was the one labelled PPPoE; this told me that all my hardware was doing its best to connect, but that the problem appeared to be not at my end but with Telecom, my ISP, an abbreviation which, in Telecom’s case at least, appeared to stand for Internet Service Preventer. “Have you turned it off and back on again?” is the usual question at this point. But there is a better step to take than that. Most modems such as this one have an embedded Web server for device management, and so I plugged the address of the device into a browser window in Safari. Typically this address will be something like 10.0.0.1 or 192.168.1.1. Again, it’s worth having this information, likely to be found in the instructions that came with the modem — you won’t be looking it up online, will you, now?

My modem’s configuration page confirmed that the thing was disconnected; attempts to reconnect failed. At this point, I was absolutely confident that the problem lay with Telecom. But how to find their phone number? This was not a problem, for I have an iPhone. A call to Telecom’s helpline confirmed that their network was down, not just for me but for the vast majority of their customers across New Zealand — a pretty major outage.

It was late, and work for the day was largely complete, so we decided to trust Telecom’s technicians to resolve the issue overnight. The next morning, though, as Mrs. McCabe fried eggs, a quick check revealed that maybe I had given Telecom’s engineers just a little too much credit. We still had no connection.

Neither, as we soon found out, did most of Telecom’s customers. In the cruellest of ironies, but one that is almost a commonplace in the tech world, an attempted upgrade to one of Telecom’s servers in Christchurch had, in fact, hobbled almost their entire national network.

This, of course, was bad. Mrs. McCabe, as I mentioned earlier, is a web designer; not too great a leap of logic is required to see that a sturdy Internet connection is somewhat crucial to her line of work. I would have taken this as a sign that I was meant to take a day off, that the Universe wanted me to spend a day on the sofa with a pot of coffee and a good book, but Mrs. McCabe, being infinitely more diligent and conscientious than I, wanted to be able to get some work done. So how to reconnect her?

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he described it as, inter alia, a “breakthrough Internet communications device.” Its first two aspects, touchscreen iPod and mobile phone, elicited near-orgasmic applause from the assembled geekery, but his reference to this third element, the ability to access the Internet from a pocket device, was met with — if we’re being generous — a polite smattering of claps and somewhat bewildered cheers. Six years ago, nobody really understood how “breakthrough” the iPhone’s Internettery would prove to be.

But when her Internet connection failed her, the Lovely and Talented Mrs. McCabe knew that all was not lost, because she knew how empowering her Breakthrough Internet Communicator 4S could be. She could, I suppose, have taken herself off to the McDonald’s down the road in Pukekohe and taken advantage of their free WiFi network, but this was less than ideal on a number of levels. Firstly, while she has a laptop, her serious working files, including those for the project that was engaging her at the moment, were all on her desktop computer, her primary working environment. Add to that the fact that many free WiFi networks are only free if you’re buying something else (I’m not entirely sure how true this is McDonald’s, but I’m not willing to go and do the research), and, at least here in New Zealand, are often limited in terms of how many minutes or megabytes are free. Additionally, not all protocols are enabled — fair enough, really, this one, since the operators of such networks don’t, for a number of reasons, don’t want punters bit-torrenting down their pipes. And, let’s face it, it’s bloody McDonald’s — hardly the atmosphere most conducive to Mrs. McCabe’s design brilliance. Free WiFi networks have their uses — a quick email check, say, or a lazy surf, but not serious work, or a Skype call to a client back in the US.

So let us return to the iPhone. Since early 2011, and the release of version 4.3 of the iOS, iPhones 4, 4S and now 5 have been able to share their 3G connections (and, presumably, their LTE, but, living in New Zealand, I wouldn’t know about such things) via the Personal Hotspot feature, which combines the iPhone’s cellular and WiFi components to make, well, a personal hotspot. And so it was that Mrs. McCabe was able to get back online.

This, of course, is far from an ideal solution. Our home office is in the very middle of the house, and cellular connectivity, when it happens, is spoggly at best. So Mrs. Mc’s iPhone had to be put on a coffee table in the lounge, where it could establish and maintain a reliable connection to Vodafone’s cellular network. But it also had to be put in such a place as would allow its WiFi output to reach her iMac in the office. Occasional signal drop were inevitable, but more an occasional nuisance than an actual work-disrupting problem. The simple task of tapping on Settings, then on Personal Hotspot — conveniently located in the middle of the screen — enabled her to connect to the Internet, and finish those bits of her current project that needed to be completed that day.

But no more than that, mark you. Every single byte that went through the iPhone — to her iMac or from — counted against her iPhone’s data allowance, the 250MB for which we pay NZ$65 every month. Fortunate, then, that Telecom had their network back up and running that evening.

And so, despite Telecom’s best efforts to give Mrs. McCabe some downtime, and to get Teenage Daughter out of her room and off her computer, all was not lost. Projects were finished, work was done. What started out as a simple Internet outage, and rapidly grew into a potentially quite compromising problem, was quickly diagnosed and very simply addressed.

Just as well, really, because Telecom’s network failed again the very next day.

 

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Paying by the Bit: Internet access in New Zealand

Posted by steve on Jan 17, 2010 in international, internet, network, New Zealand, Personal

For reasons that would take too long to explain here, I moved to New Zealand about six months ago. I brought my life with me, including, among goods and chattels more varied than I had realized, my trusty Mac mini, which has been doing sterling duty as a Web and mail server for a year or more. My life also includes a wife and daughter, and they, not surprisingly, came with me too.

This has been an almost entirely unqualified success. The people in New Zealand are friendly, the food is astonishing, and the wine is spectacular. But, even in God’s Own Country, nothing is perfect. New Zealand is a truly splendid place to live in many, indeed almost all, regards. But for a techie – and I am, quite unashamedly and unabashedly, one of that number – there are definite quibbles, of which by far the largest is bandwidth, or the lack thereof.

When I lived in America, I was undeniably spoiled, as many Americans tend to be. Life, however shallow it may have been in other regards when one lives in Florida, was certainly easy from a connectivity point of view. My home office had a broadband connection with, as I simply took for granted, took for my birthright, unlimited data. I could slurp down, and throw up, all the data I wanted. The Internet was mine, all of the time.

But when we signed up for our New Zealand connection, we were stunned – stunned, I say! – to discover that the Internet, in New Zealand, is a highly limited and finite resource. We went from “all you can download” to “you get 20 GB a month, you’ll pay $100 a month, and you’ll be grateful for it” in the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland (which is, now I come to think about it, a horrendously long time). This was a most atrocious imposition for the Internet junkies that my wife and daughter had become (not me, though, of course – I was far too virtuous, too self-restrained). For all that New Zealand had to offer, the narrowness of its Internet pipes was simply intolerable.

We opted for the “double your data” option (and the additional $30 per month that wasn’t optional), but we still find ourselves limited by 40 GB per month. I check the online usage-meter every few days (using, in the process, a few more precious bytes; oh, the cruel, vicious, bitter irony!), and issue imprecations to Wife and Daughter, reminding them that Facebook is a luxury, not an absolute necessity; they, as addicts always do, try to justify their endless status-checking as being entirely reasonable, indeed essential. I calculate the bandwidth usage of Skype and of YouTube; I flinch when I see Daughter download another Mary-Kate and Ashley movie from iTunes (that’s not really a bandwidth issue; that’s just on general principles – I’d cringe if that were happening if we had a free and entirely unlimited T3 connection direct to the trans-Pacific backbone). I have developed new and careful Internet habits: I use the “Open link in new window” option if I think there’s any possibility that I might want to visit a second link from the same page, to avoid potentially having to load the original page a second time, and Apple Mail no longer checks automatically every minute – each check uses several dozens of bytes, I’m sure, and they all add up. I even avoid visiting Japanese or Chinese sites, conscious of two-byte character sets using more than their fair share of bandwidth.

I check my Google Analytics numbers with conflicted emotions: every page view for our various blogs and online presences is, on the one hand, a cause for celebration – more visits, more revenue, more Internet fame and glory. On the other hand, those page views are also an occasion for more hand-wringing, since they were served up from my Mac mini, over my desperately and mercilessly limited Internet connection. I post photography from the beautiful country we now call home, but wince when I see that I’ve had visits to my site. Even the very act of visiting the Google Analytics Web site eats up a handful of kilobytes that I can scarce afford. Even writing this article is a painful experience; while the catharsis of venting about the primitivity of our connection is undeniably therapeutic, every adjective, every atom of invective, every single character I devote to letting the world know how abjectly deprived we are is one fewer byte that can be used elsewhere.

The reason for this caution is simple. As soon as we reach our allocated 40 GB – think about that for a second; it’s only a gig and a third per day, and the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe, with whom I share everything, including my bandwidth, is a Web designer – a Gollum-like finger, somewhere in a dungeon buried deep in darkest Auckland, reaches out in the gloom, flicks a switch, and says “It’s dial-up for you. Your bandwidth is mine, it’s mine, my precioussss.” And that’s it. We’re reduced to an Amish connection, one so slow it would be more efficient to hand-write packets of data and strap them to the legs of carrier pigeons. Web pages load – if they load – in minutes, rather than seconds. YouTube is a pipe dream. Downloads, well, downloads don’t. There has been much discussion around the blogosphere in the last month about when the first decade of the 21st century will end. Here in New Zealand that discussion is academic – we’re still, at least in terms of Internettery, stuck back in the 1990s. My connection today is so slow that I half-expect to hear the dolphin-screech of a modem actually dialing in to Vodafone as I try to connect, and I’m grateful that I’m not on deadline for this article. Looking at the cave paintings of Lascaux would represent a faster data transfer than the one I’m hobbled with right now.

I have, I would like to stress, been more than diligent in my attempts to figure out where our precious data might be going. My first thought was Skype, given that Daughter spends much of her time video-chatting with friends back in the Northern Hemisphere. I installed iStat Menus; as far as I could tell, a two-way video conference was using only around 120 KBps. But Vodafone’s (for they are our current Internet provider) online “check your usage” tool was reporting that there were days when we used as much as 6.5 GB of data. The day we reached this number (our record so far, by the way) was a school day – I doubt, then, that Daughter’s Skyping can be the culprit (she would have needed 15 hours of non-stop chatting, and while she’s good, even she’s not that good).

I suspected that it might be my server. I was reluctant to give up running my own server after moving to New Zealand because I’ve localized a handful of my domains – mccabe.net.nz, threelions.co.nz, astralgraphics.co.nz – and it’s hard to find U.S.-based hosting services that handle .nz domains. I host my personal site, stevemccabe.net, as well as my clients’ sites, through a European hosting-and-reselling service, but they don’t offer anything in the Kiwi domain space, so I’ve bought my domains through GoDaddy. I’ve become familiar with GoDaddy’s DNS setup system, and so, frankly, it’s just convenient to register with them and then host myself. That said, GoDaddy’s pricing structure for hosting is Byzantine beyond belief (I’ve had clients in the past want me to set up their sites on GoDaddy – oh, the power of advertising, especially if it involves scantily clad ladies with large chests – and I now make it a condition of service that I provide hosting as well as design) and life was so much easier when I knew that I had all the Internet connectivity I wanted.

So I looked at the traffic stats on my server. This was a bittersweet experience because on the one hand, no, I wasn’t ploughing through my data, which was good, but on the other hand, this meant that my sites weren’t getting the traffic I would have liked. Still, at least that was another possible culprit struck from the list.

I issued the sternest of imprecations to my girls, and, to all intents and purposes, stopped using the InterWebs. But no matter how much we cranked back our usage, we still found that we were using – or, at the very least, we were being reported as using – at least several hundred megabytes a day.

It was time to talk to Vodafone. I contacted them several times, and received several different bogus explanations: I had viruses (_ahem_, my network is Apple-only), I had moochers (WPA2 password, a house built of brick, a large garden) – basically, it was my fault, one way or another. It certainly couldn’t be Vodafone’s fault. I pushed a little further. I was told to install a data tracker – I was even sent Vodafone’s recommended monitor, SurplusMeter. I installed it across my network, and it reported, of course, that I was using monstrous amounts of data. The reason was simple – it meters not only wide-area, but also local-area network traffic. My iMac, for example, was pushing through megabyte after megabyte, even though I had no applications open at all. Well, none that would use the Internet.

Except iTunes. But I wasn’t downloading anything. What I was doing was streaming music to my AirPort Express. SurplusMeter was recording every last packet that went out of the data port it was charged with monitoring – in this case, my AirPort card. I called Vodafone again, and explained that the numbers SurplusMeter was reporting were meaningless. They said I should shut down my local network for a day and see what my numbers were like. I did – and on that day my wife’s iMac managed not to report a single bit going in or out. Not bad for a Web designer who telecommutes between New Zealand and Florida.

Vodafone’s next suggestion was that we had a line fault. This was a possibility – I live in a very old house (we think it’s pre-war, but we’re not sure which war; my money’s on the Boer War) – and one of the call-centre people I spoke to noticed that, while a DSL modem typically reconnects four or five times a day, mine had already reconnected over a dozen times – and I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee. They assured me that they would look into this, but in the meantime I’d need to disconnect my phone line (a service, mind you, that I pay for) for a day in case there was a problem with my DSL filters. This may, or may not, have been the problem; I have no way of knowing. Maybe they’re still running tests. At the very least, they haven’t replied.

Finally, I wrote to Russell Stanners, CEO of Vodafone NZ, at the end of last month. A week or so later, I got a phone call from Vodafone, and, after a long chat, the rep who called me (also called Russell; hmm…) agreed to waive the $199 early termination fee and release me from the one-year contract that we would have been bound to until June 2010.

We’re switching to TelstraClear. I’m not doing this because they’re particularly brilliant, but because they do one thing that Vodafone don’t – instead of dialing us back to pecking-out-bits-on-a-Morse-Code-tapper speeds, they’ll keep on selling us more gigabytes. I’m willing to pay for a service (especially a service that I actually receive), but the idea that I only get my 40 gigabytes, and, regardless of whose fault it is, that’s it, I’m cut off like a naughty schoolboy, well, that really chafes.

So now we’re waiting. Our Internet connection went back to last-millennium speeds after only a fortnight this month, so we’re struggling – some evenings we can’t tell whether we’re offline, or just really slow. And although I signed up to TelstraClear over a week ago, I just had a phone call from one of their reps letting me know that, because of the Christmas and midsummer holiday backlog, they won’t flip our switch for another week.

I’ll be emailing this article off to TidBITS World HQ shortly. I have no idea when they may get it. The Word document that contains this piece is 41 KB, which, at my current Internet speeds, could take until March to send. It might be quicker for me to save it to a CD, swim to California with the disc between my teeth, walk across the country, and hand it to Adam Engst personally.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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