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Win-XP kills Verizon DSL

As if the service wasn't bad enough already

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On Friday morning my Verizon DSL Internet access died. This was hardly unusual, so I paid it no mind and simply took an unscheduled long weekend. But Saturday morning it was still dead, and there were no reports of service outages in my area. Clearly this would require some looking into.

I experimented a bit and came to suspect that the issue was on Verizon's side. And so it was, with an interesting twist courtesy of Microsoft, I eventually learned; but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It's a good thing I didn't have any social obligations until Saturday night; when all was said and done, Verizon had taken seven hours of my time in exasperating, repetitive, futile interactions with their tech support staff, and no doubt a few months off my lifespan.

The customer is always wrong

After a lengthy exercise with the Verizon customer-service automated answering menu, I found a live person to talk with. A polite and earnest foreign fellow whose accent I couldn't identify. I explained that I had reason to believe that the server my account is associated with was refusing connections. I briefly outlined the steps I'd taken to arrive at that belief.

"What operating system are you using, Sir?" the technician wanted to know, "Windows XP?"

"All right," I said, "we can go with that -- but the connection doesn't work on Linux either."

"Let's check your network settings in Windows, Sir," I was promptly told.

"Well, all right, but I haven't changed my network settings or installed any software since the last time I was able to connect. And as I said, it doesn't work with Linux either. If I had a configuration problem, one machine would connect and the other wouldn't."

The techie sounded mildly alarmed. "You're using Linux?"

"Um -- well, only occasionally," I lied, offering some reassurance.

"What error message are you getting?"

"Number 678; 'the remote computer did not respond.' The modem seems to be getting a signal, so I have to suspect the problem is on your end."

"All right then Mr. Greene; let's right-click on 'My Computer'...."

And so it went, until we got to the end of Verizon's flow-chart and discovered that Windows networking was set up correctly.

We then re-set the dialup number in the networking configuration, to no avail of course. And at just about this time, as luck would have it, my mobile phone dropped out. But before I rang back, I decided to do some more tinkering with the hardware on my end, just to be certain there was nothing I'd overlooked.

The next technician was considerably less helpful. She was clearly an American, and clearly inclined to deny satisfaction to others by referring to rules and regulations. She also wouldn't be baited into rational arguments, again on regulatory/procedural grounds.

After five minutes of recapping all that had gone before, she insisted on dragging me through her network settings flow-chart.

"Look, I said, "there's no point to this. The gentleman I spoke with earlier already verified that the settings are fine. And as I've tried to point out, if there were a configuration or a software problem then the connection would still be active under Linux."

"Yes, that's a very good point," she said. "All right, Sir; let's right-click on 'My Computer'...."

So we go through all this nonsense, and of course my connection is still dead. I try to reason with her. I say, "now, if there were a configuration problem, I'd be able to connect with Linux. I can't. And if I had a bad Ethernet card, then I'd be able to connect with my laptop which obviously uses a different one. I can't. So it's either my modem or your server that's got a problem; and my modem seems to be working normally and detects that it's connected to an ADSL line."

"Yes," she said, "but we don't support the modem you're using." (Verizon didn't offer ADSL/Ethernet modems when I got the service a couple of years ago so I bought my own.)

"Well," I replied, "according to the activity lights on the modem, it's getting a signal. It's just not able to connect to the remote machine -- exactly as the error message says. So I think we can take that message literally. I believe there's an issue with the server."

"Yes, Sir, that may well be the case; but we can't do anything further for you because the modem isn't supported. I've asked the supervisor and he says that we can't go any further than to check your Windows settings."

You can imagine where my blood-pressure was heading at this point.

"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're saying that if the issue is indeed on your end as I suspect, you're simply going to refuse to look into it? You mean I'll never get this fixed?"

"You see, Sir, your modem is an unsupported model...."

"But I'm still your customer! I'm still paying $50 a month for this service! What you're really saying is that I'm not supported!"

"I can appreciate how you feel Sir; but we can't escalate this. We can't go beyond this point. I've asked the supervisor, and that's what he told me."

So that was it. I was going to have to ring back, deal with a third techie, and lie.

Lying to get at the truth

I'd made my initial call at 9:30 am. It was now 3:30 pm. Six hours I'd wasted on an otherwise pleasant Saturday, learning nothing I didn't already know and getting punished for having a modem of my own choosing.

This time it would be different. I'd lie to the level-one techie, telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. When I got one on the phone, I recapped the previous two sessions and said, most untruthfully, that I'd re-installed the old Speedstream modem Verizon had originally equipped me with.

"I wanted to eliminate the Ethernet card and the ADSL/Ethernet modem as potential causes," I explained. I said I'd re-installed the WinPoET bugware Verizon had originally supplied as well.

This call would turn out to be the longest, but by far the most productive. The techie was someone I could reason with, and one who didn't need a flow-chart to tell him what was painfully obvious -- that there was a hardware problem, and that the signs pointed to Verizon (I believe I detected a west-African accent).

It took some time for us to review all that had passed before, but he didn't ask me to submit once again to the troubleshooting flow-chart treatment. Instead he asked intelligent questions and drew intelligent inferences from the answers.

He kept me on hold a great deal of the time while he repeatedly consulted one of the network technicians, whose input in turn led to progressively better questions, and eventually, to the prize -- the conclusion that something was off somewhere upstream of my modem.

After forty minutes or so the third level-one techie passed me off to the network technician. Finally, I was speaking with someone who knew more than I did. It was 4:15 pm.

The problem, he explained, was that the Verizon router had locked me out permanently, so I'd have to be associated with a different one. He switched me over, and that was that.

The cause of this problem, however, originates in Windows-XP. As anyone who uses PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet) with ADSL will tell you, the MTU (Maximum Transmission Unit) has to be set to 1492 or less. On Win-XP, it's set by default to 1500, which causes your machine to irritate a naturally anti-social router, which may then shut you out.

Microsoft has instructions for editing registry settings relevant to networking here. The bulletin offers a registry hack for MTU; as there is no longer a GUI network-setting dialog which enables the user to change it conveniently.

Win-9x requires the use of third-party PPPoE software, and this (should) automatically set MaxMTU correctly. The problem is peculiar to XP, which insists on setting up PPPoE on its own, and gets it wrong. Linux is also not affected, as the Roaring Penguin RP-PPPoE package handles MTU properly as well.

So long as I stay away from Win-XP -- and that's hardly going to be a problem -- I shouldn't experience further difficulties with my DSL connection.

And as for the third and final level-one techie I dealt with, I'd gladly publish his name, but I'm afraid he might get into trouble with his supervisors, or perhaps even get sacked, for being considerably more helpful than he's permitted to be. ®

Website security in corporate America

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