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ATPM 8.04
April 2002




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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Paul Fatula,

We Hate When That Happens

My segment on AT&T Cable Internet last month ended with a sort of a cliffhanger, and has earned a number of interesting reader responses. I’m glad to say my experience has finally landed on a happy ending, which I’ll share before turning the article over to reader comments.

Three cheers for Ray! When I received my bill for Internet service, it did not, as expected, reflect any credits; but when I phoned in to AT&T to check my bill, the promised credits had been made to my account. So it took nearly two months, but I’m finally square with AT&T.

What’s more, the whole motivation for going to broadband, for me, was cost: Ameritech had suddenly, without notice, decided that all my local calls were to be billed as “local long distance.” Literally, that meant it cost more to call the next town than it did to call halfway across the country. Complaints to Ameritech fell on uncaring and uninterested ears. But my recent local phone bill reflected a massive credit; apparently someone at Ameritech realized the error and corrected it. I called Ameritech, spoke briefly to Paul, and was told a check in the amount of my credit would be mailed to me in 3-4 weeks. That’s great news—I’d long since given up on ever seeing that money again.

AT&T, some division of which is apparently still unaware I even have cable Internet with them, recently sent me yet another flyer begging me to sign up for cable Internet, this time offering six months (rather than three) for $19.95, and professional installation for $49.95 (rather than $9.95). Sounds good, assuming they keep up their end of the bargain.

So would I sign up again, given the chance? Yeah, I think I would. At the end of all the installation and billing headaches, I did finally wind up paying what I expected (not counting the value of my time), and I’m happy with the speed I’m getting. (I transferred an 11 MB TIFF file in just under 15 minutes; I don’t know how long that would have taken with my dialup, but I doubt my connection would have lasted long enough to get the file through.) I’ve only experienced downtime once in two months, and it lasted for about half an hour. Not bad at all.

Web Sites

One reader suggested a Web site called Broadbandreports, which has user experience reports in three categories (“Smooth ride,” “Mixed,” and “Horror stories”), broadband news, polls, and forums. Though a lot of the site is geared towards DSL users, there’s certainly enough there to keep Cable users happy.

ATPM staffer Lee Bennett passed on a tip about an OS X program called Broadband Optimizer, which can significantly speed up cable Internet connections. It’s well worth checking out if you use Mac OS X.

An interesting article was posted mid-March about ISPs (in this case, AT&T) deliberately limiting speed of cable Internet access. Matthew Hallacy, having gotten nowhere with AT&T support on the problem of near-dialup speeds through his cable line, hacked the cable modem, and was able to fix the problem. (He then reverted the settings.) The article links to the original posting where he divulged how he did this.

Reader Responses

ATPM Staffer Gregory Tetrault offers a counterpoint to my article; he had a great experience with Cox Cable Internet:

Cox Cable brought digital cable and high speed Internet service to my neighborhood (in Chesapeake, Virginia) in August of 1999. Cox Cable offered free installation, $30 per month unlimited Internet service with a free Web page and up to four e-mail address, and cable modem rentals for $15 a month. I called Cox Cable on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend and asked to add both services to my existing cable TV service. The customer service representative said they could send someone out “tomorrow afternoon.” I replied, “You’re doing installations on Labor Day Weekend?,” and she said “Yes.” I was told that two cable installers would come first. They would install a completely new cable from the curbside box to my house. Then they would hook up the digital cable system and run the cable to my computer for the modem. Later, an installer would come to connect the cable modem to my computer, install the required software, and enter the appropriate settings.

Cox Cable gives you a two-hour service window. The cable installers were due between 1 and 3 PM. They arrived around 1:30 pm. They quickly surveyed my house, TVs, computer, and yard. They ran a temporary cable to my house and wired up the TVs and my office. They showed us how to use the digital cable system. When they were nearly finished, they placed a phone call to the cable modem installer. He was running late and wouldn’t make it at the scheduled time of 4 PM. I said that coming later was no problem. The first crew finished, cleaned up, and left. The digital cable picture quality was fantastic.

The cable modem installer arrived around 5:30 PM. He said that difficult PC installations (IRQ conflicts, problematic Ethernet cards, and assorted Wintel woes) made him late. He said that mine was his first Macintosh installation. I thought, “Uh, oh!” He asked if I had configured my Macintosh to use a DHCP server. I told him no, because I wanted a fixed IP address to make it easier to use Virtual PC with the cable modem. He said that wouldn’t be a problem. He installed some files from a CD and entered some settings in my TCP/IP control panel. We connected to the Internet minutes later. He entered e-mail settings and got Outlook Express working, too. He was done in 20 minutes and said it was the easiest installation he had performed for Cox Cable. (Hurrah for the Mac!) I got the cable modem to work with Windows 95 via Virtual PC the same evening.

My Internet access speed went from 28 Kbps to more than 500 Kbps just 26 hours after I called Cox Cable. I love it when that happens! A subcontractor crew buried a permanent cable two weeks later. My Cox Cable service has been excellent. I have never waited more than 24 hours for in-home service, and I have experienced few periods of down time.

Cable modem prices have fallen since 1999, and last year I decided to buy instead of rent. Cox Cable lists compatible cable modems on their Web site, and I found a highly rated Toshiba at a good price. After the new modem arrived, I swapped it for the rented Motorola cable mode, called Cox Cable, gave them the Toshiba’s MAC number and serial number, and was online again 45 minutes later. I brought my rented modem to a local Cox Cable customer service center and was credited for the few days remaining in my rental month! Altogether, a much better experience than Paul’s.

Reader Matt Fosberg commented:

As a former employee of a company that provides both cable and DSL services, I can say that this situation is not that atypical, and that the company I worked for is one of the better examples of customer service. I would definitely find a tech at whatever company you use who understands the Mac. Most ISP’s have a “Mac guy.” They should be able to walk you through any installation problems. Then watch the billing carefully. Most errors are simply that. Billing systems can be incredibly complex, and both human and computer errors compound this complexity. Know what you were supposed to be charged and, if you can, get a copy of it in writing. I wouldn’t change back to analog phone Internet connections for any reason, but I still watch my bill and monitor my connection carefully.

Reader Pete Ruksakiati commented:

I had a better experience with my AT&T cable install. Though the tech wasn’t Mac-savvy, we were able to muddle though (IE only—not just for the initial installation but also to access your account online). Still tinkering with Eudora to get e-mail (Outlook Express-only).

If you’d like to tweak your settings and don’t have OS X, try IPNetTuner from Sustworks Software. It’s a control panel that’s a bit complicated, but their tech support is very good.

I’ve had no trouble getting Mailsmith to check and send mail through my AT&T account, though so far, the only mail that’s come in there is spam from AT&T. IE is long since banished from my computer, and I’m doing all my browsing with iCab, and having no trouble at all. —Paul Fatula

Finally, reader Jeff commented:

I had a fun experience with AT&T Broadband turned AT&T@home turned Mediaone Express. It’s a long story, but it’s all true:

One of the reasons I chose the apartment I now live in is that I was assured that cable modem service was available. So after I was settled, I ordered MediaOne Cable Modem service.

A couple of weeks later, two guys show up, one to test the line and one to install the modem. I took it as a bad sign that the line tester had an “FTW” tattoo, but it takes all kinds, right? So he hooks up his equipment to the jack in the bedroom upstairs, and announces that he’s got a “zero signal,” which according to him was right where it should be. So he packs up and leaves.

Then the modem guy starts—he’s never done a Mac before, so after the standard “Yes, it has on-board Ethernet,” and “The TCP/IP control panel is simple to configure,” the modem is set-up, plugged-in and turned-on. So he calls the office to tell them we’re ready, I configure TCP/IP and reboot, and we wait for the connection light to come on. It doesn’t. So he calls his office again, and says that it’ll take 10 minutes to negotiate a connection. Well, after two hours, five calls, and with a growing sense of frustration, it’s still not up. So the modem guy decides that he can’t do anything, and they’ll send out a technician in a week or two.

About a week later, the technician comes in and heads straight to the wall jack. I tell him what the FTW-guy said, at which point he begins to shake his head. He hooks up the same equipment, and gets a zero signal. He explains that this means that the jack is connected to the building’s TV antenna, not the cable line. He also makes a comment under his breath about stupid people. So he tells me that there’s nothing he can do. I’ll have to wait for another installer to show up—in about three weeks.

Three weeks later, an installer shows up and can’t understand why I have no access to the building’s attic, where he’s sure the cable line is located. He tells me that he’ll have to send someone else out once they figure out where the line comes in to the building.

In another two weeks, MediaOne talks to the building management about getting into the attic. They find that there is an entrance a few doors down, so I ask my neighbor if MediaOne can come over and get into the building attic through her apartment. She says fine, so I call back MediaOne, and schedule an appointment for a week from that day. The appointed day comes, and guess what? No cable in that side of the attic! But, there is a firebreak wall separating her section of the building from mine, so maybe it’s on my side. So we have to find a neighbor on my side who will let them in to check the attic.

Someone in the building management office finally realizes that the cable doesn’t come in through the attic. He says he’ll check the plans and get back to me with its location. He calls back a few days later and sheepishly explains that not only does he have no idea where it comes in, neither do the maintenance people or MediaOne themselves! At this point, I was convinced that I’d never get a cable modem, but I’d continue with the farce and hope for the best.

So I call MediaOne and tell them the bad news. They say, no problem, we’ll just use a splitter off the existing line downstairs. This was something I had suggested to one of the previous visitors to my house, but I had been told that a splitter introduces too much noise into the line to be able to use it with a cable modem. Whoever I was talking to on the phone said no, a splitter will work fine. So we set up another appointment, for another couple of weeks.

This time, two installers come in, we move the furniture, and they hook up the splitter. Now the problem is how to get it upstairs. One guy goes upstairs, drills a hole in the wall, and starts feeding a wire down to where the existing jack is. Suddenly, the line is yanked through his hands, cutting his palm badly, and there is a terrible pounding on my front door. Turns out, the installer had drilled through the wall into my neighbor’s apartment! Now, my neighbor didn’t take kindly to drywall dust falling into his several-thousand-dollar stereo, and was threatening to kick someone’s butt—and he didn’t care whose.

So the installers beat a hasty retreat, saying they’ll send someone else in a week or two, and I apologize to my neighbor, telling him to talk to MediaOne about the damage, which mollified him somewhat.

Still With Me? Good.

So about a week and a half later, two new installers show up, and this time drill carefully up from downstairs, without incident. They install a jack, and are on their merry way. At this point, another modem guy shows up and—guess what? I still had no connection light. Turns out the modem was bad. Arrrggghhh! He promises that someone will be over the next day with a new modem.

Surprisingly enough, the next day an installer did show up with a new modem which he plugged in. I twiddled the control panel, and voila! I now had huge bandwidth! And it only took six months! The ironic thing was, they had been charging me for my (nonexistent) cable modem service for the whole six months. I had been refusing to pay (and telling them about it), which led to my cable being shut off about a week later!

Finally, I got someone in billing to sympathize with (and understand) my dilemma, which she cleared up with about five keystrokes. And I got two week’s credit to my account!

How’s That For A Story?

By the way, no, the service hasn’t gotten any better with the switch to AT&T; in fact, after the @home debacle, my bandwidth has been about halved! Once I win the lottery, I’m just going to get a dedicated T1 and be done with it!

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