Miscellaneous Ramblings

Misadventures in ISP Land

Charles Moore - 2002.12.02 - Tip Jar

I had to make an unexpected expedition into real low-end Mac territory last week, necessitated by some ISP issues.

I live in rural part of Nova Scotia, some 50 miles from the nearest small town, and 150 miles from the closest Apple dealer. There are two dialup Internet Service Providers within toll-free calling range - and no broadband available. I was the first sign up with the first of the two that offered Internet access here back in October, 1997, and I've been with that company ever since.

The modem bank is located in the above mentioned town, which is outside local calling distance, but the workaround was to install a dummy dial-in number on an exchange within the respective local calling radii of my community and the ISP, which shunts the calls to the ISP's modems.

This system has worked pretty well for the past five years, but the wheels came off on November 19th, when the long-distance network company that had been providing the shunt number went belly-up, and the local telco, which owns the physical infrastructure, and to whom the bankrupt company owed money, pulled the plug.

My ISP, a third-party, was immediately deprived of toll-free dialup access for its customers on my telephone exchange, including several other small communities in sparsely populated Eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. They immediately tried to get the wheels in motion to have the telco restore the dialup numbers, but as of this writing, nearly two weeks after the cutoff, we are still without service.

For me, dependent on Internet access for my work and livelihood, this was a serious situation. My workaround for occasional, short-term outages of ISP service in the past has been to "borrow" a friend's account with the other ISP, which incidentally belongs to the telco (you don't suppose that might have something to do with the foot-dragging about getting the competitor's service up and running again?), and that's what I did this time, initially expecting my regular ISP service to be restored within hours or at most a day.

However, after more than a week of vague promises and no resolution, I reluctantly determined that I needed a real account with the other ISP. I happened to have one of their signup software installation CDs kicking around that I had picked up a couple of years ago as insurance against such an eventuality. Since it was therefore a bit out of date, I figured that the likelihood of it working with OS X - or even OS 9.2.2 - was slim to nil, so I fired up the old Umax S900 which normally boots from OS 9.1, and popped the CD into the drive.

The ISP's software package proceeded to install a customized copy of antediluvian Netscape 4.0.4 on my hard drive and then informed me that the signup program wouldn't run with the version of Remote Access in OS 9.1. Fair enough. I rebooted into OS 9.0 on another partition. No joy there either. This really was obsolete software! OS 9 has been around since 1999.

I also had a stuffed copy of OS 8.5.1 on the Umax's hard drive, so I unstuffed that, which took a long time, only to discover that there was some sort of extension conflict that made it hang on startup (it would boot up fine with the extensions off). Not wanting to digress further on any troubleshooting expeditions, I trashed the recently unstuffed OS 8.5.1 and started up one of my daughter's PowerBook 1400s, which has OS 8.1 installed, and tried the ISP software on it. The OS 8.1 version of Open Transport was acceptable, but the signup software wouldn't recognize the 1400's PC Card modem and kept telling me that the serial port was in use, which it wasn't. At least I had established that OS 8.1 would work - or so I thought.

I found my OS 8 and OS 8.1 updater installer disk images, and ran them to install OS 8.1 on the Umax, noting that the old system installs in jig time compared with OS X or even OS 9.2.2.

I booted into OS 8.1, ran the ISP install program again, which insisted on installing yet another copy of Netscape 4.04, and started the signup registration software, which had no problem recognizing the Global Village Platinum 33.6 modem I use with the S900 (in hindsight, it might have been easier just to hook up the external modem to the PowerBook 1400, but I didn't think of that at the time).

However, I was about three-quarters of the way through the online registration process when I discovered that I couldn't finish filling out the form because there were no Netscape scroll bars displayed. I had to assume that there was some incompatibility between the old software and the registration Web page on the ISP's server. Arrrrrrgh!

A PC laptop owning friend of mine had recently signed up with this ISP, so I called to ask if he still had his registration CD. He did. My wife fetched it. I stuck it into the Umax.

This time it ran happily in OS 9.1 and installed slightly less antediluvian Netscape 4.08 for the registration procedure, which went without any further hitches. I used the registration serial number from the obsolete installer package and was online with a new account in ten minutes. Sigh of relief.

Summary observations. The ISP obviously doesn't make Macs a very high priority in designing their registration software packages. Netscape 4.08? It would also be nice if they offer just a plain Website option were you could go and sign up from any Internet-connected computer and then enter the configuration particulars manually, rather than having to install 20 megabytes of unwanted, obsolete software on your drive. Maybe its Windows-think, were you must have an "assistant" or "wizard" to help you do every trivial little thing. The Mac is so easy to set up for Internet configuration.

Finally, having older Macs with outdated systems around can be useful for working around issues like this, although in this particular instance it was just an exercise in futility.

It was kind of fun to play with the old systems though.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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