Mac Lab Report

Comcast and Netgear Hell, AirPort Heaven

- 2003.08.21

I've been put through home-networking hell by Comcast, and it took an AirPort Base Station to save the day.

In the old days of about a year ago, I had a hub connected to my base station, which was serving as a DHCP server and router. My wife's PC, my two Macs, and a Lexmark printer were happy.

Then AT&T Broadband bought out @home, and we were still okay. Everything worked fine after I changed the network information in the base station.

Then Comcast bought out AT&T Broadband, and my trip through hell began. I didn't do the auto upgrade they offered because (a) I didn't use Outlook Express for email and (b) I don't use Internet Explorer for anything. They sent me a new cable modem and asked that I install it, so I figured, why not.

Problem was, the cable modem didn't work with my hub-and-base station configuration. I tried and tried, followed all the steps, called Comcast tech support, and finally tried the old modem again. The old modem worked, so I quit trying.

Then two weeks after the official switch date, it stopped working again for no apparent reason.

I went to Comcast support on the phone, and they made me hook up my old beige G3 without the hub or base station, using the new modem. That worked, at which point they said, "Not our problem, pal, good luck," and booted me off tech support.

I then decided the problem must be that I was using a hub instead of a "real" router, so I sprung for a Netgear RP614 4-port router, set it up according to the instructions, and got no response. Each individual computer worked, even a laptop with a base station, but anything run through the router didn't.

On to Netgear support, where a tech explained to me that I would have to get the ISP to "release" the MAC address (this is a permanent network address hardwired into everything that uses TCP/IP - it isn't related to "Macintosh") of the old router (the base station) so it would accept the new MAC address of the new router - or the PC that was connected to it when I registered with Comcast's secure computer registration page. This is the one they use to verify you're paying for all the computers connected to the network.

Why the PC and not the Mac? Imagine using your best Apu accent with some bored guy sitting in a warehouse of cheaper-than-Appalachia* tech support techs in the middle of the night in India saying, "I am sorry, sir, we cannot assist you with a Macintosh connected to the Internet. We can only assist you if you have a normal, regular PC connected, because that is all that we provide technical service for you see."

If you're a customer, you got the email; if not, you don't care.

Didn't work. The PC surfed fine by itself, but not connected to the router. "I am sorry, perhaps you should consider upgrading to the Windows XP," I was told. I understand they give these folks training in 'merican vernacular, but apparently it hasn't filtered down to Netgear yet. It's not the tech's fault, I imagine; they have to follow scripts laid on by bureaucrats that forbid them talking about anything that's not in the Online Database of All Knowledge and Wisdom, at least according to my sister.*

* My sister, who used to do tech support for MSN in eastern Kentucky, says all of the phone tech support jobs have been moved to India because they will work cheaper than the most economically depressed area in the whole United States. Somebody needs to go over there and introduce those folks to Your Local Labor Union.

Learn by doing. I got the router to spoof (imitate) the MAC address of the base station, the laptop, both desktops - zippo. I updated the firmware of the router. Then I downgraded it, too, just in case.

As the not-native-American Indian fellow suggested, I turned everything off for 3 minutes, then 24 hours, then 2 weeks, and tried again in the proper order: cable modem, connect PC, get PC online, register PC MAC address as legal, wait 24 hours, configure router to use PC's MAC address - zippo. Nada. Nothing. Null set.

Since my wife and I use wireless laptops, the desktop machines were not connected to the network. However, I noted that both of us could use the wireless connection simultaneously. Thus, I decided to take an end-run around the problem and get a Linksys PCI wireless card for my wife's PC. This device plugs in an available PCI slot and has an antenna out the back.

For a PC install, it was relatively painless, requiring only a trip to the HP website to figure out how to open the (expletive) Pavilion without slicing my wrists followed by a neat balancing act cradling the opened computer in my lap holding a cable in my teeth and undoing a PCI cover with one hand using a magnetic screwdriver because I sure as heck couldn't touch the screw with my fingers. And three restarts. Maybe four. (For the record, the wife hates Windows XP, still uses Win 98, and all instructions are written for XP. But the other versions are "very similar," according to Linksys. Yup. Sure.)

The only trick to get the computer online from the base station side was that I had to use the WEP code displayed on the AirPort Admin Utility's opening screen as the password for our encryption key - this has to be done for anything that is not using AirPort software through a base station - and then I had to add the new device's MAC address to the base station's list of restricted users, an added level of security that you should use if you're wireless.

Voilà, three computers up and running wirelessly, while the wired connections are essentially worthless. Bite me, Comcast and Netgear.

Now this could be some simple thing I'm not doing right, but I've been through it dozens of times and tried every logical combination of settings I could come up with. I know I'm setting up the router's network correctly - when not connected to the cable modem, machines get their local addresses just fine, can print, share files, etc.

Recently Netgear posted an update for some of its routers that fixed a problem with the internal self-setting clock, which uses a public time server. Apparently so many routers were hitting the server at once that it causes the server to go down; so Netgear set up its own server and posted a fix for the 614 V2 router. The original 614 router was on the list, but the update page disappeared on Monday. I don't think this was the problem anyway, but why didn't they post the update as previously advertised?

It just goes to show you, "It's always something."

My wife has a friend who has three or four computers. She (my wife) informed me that her friend needed to take my Memorex Thumbdrive over to the friend's house to move some files to our house. Her friend couldn't move the files from one PC to the other one (connected to the Internet) because the files wouldn't fit on a floppy. Sneakernets still exist.

The reason is networking is still too hard for people not stubborn enough who never know when to give it up as a bad job. I ask people all the time what kind of networking they use at home, and in the majority of cases, the answer is none.

As for me, it is now a contest between my patience for Netgear to get it's rear in gear and post a new firmware update and my temptation to try a wireless print server I saw on sale at CompUSA for $50.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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