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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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