Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What a nightmare

This weekend was an internet nightmare for me. It's all over now and fixed, but I'll repost my story here from my poker blog:

Early in the weekend:

A few days ago, Randy came to me and told me that he had messed up our network somehow by installing Azereus, a bit torrent client. (This may be completely coincidental and unrelated to the problem). It sucked up huge CPU/memory resources on his machine, so he uninstalled it. Since then, though, every computer on our network is experiencing frequent "connection timed out" errors when browsing the web. Non-web-based internet access, however, seems unaffected (ie. I can still play on Party Poker and Full Tilt Poker with no problems). Yesterday, I could hardly do anything online. Today, the time-outs are spotty and random. Refreshing a page 2 or 3 times seems to do the trick to get it to connect. When things DO connect, they do so perfectly - full speed ahead, no bandwidth issues. This problem occurs in both Firefox (my primary browser - I'm using version 1.5 RC2) and in Internet Explorer, so I don't think the problem is browser based. It happens on all 3 computers on the network.

All 3 machines are wirelessly connected using 802.11g and WPA security on a Linksys router, which exits through a Toshiba cable modem to Comcast. All are running Windows XP Pro with SP2. All 3 machines are getting good signal quality.

Things I've tried:
  • Updated the router's firmware, which coincidentally had a fix for a WPA security issue. Glad I did that.
  • Checked for Comcast outages in my area. None have been reported, though that doesn't really mean anything. When Comcast screws up in this area, it's usually huge.
  • Ran spyware and virus scans on all machines (clean).
  • Tried disabling firewall and antivirus/worm checking to see if either were blocking traffic. No effect.
  • Cleared cache and cookies in the browsers.
  • Power-cycled the cable modem and router.
  • Rebooted all computers.
The fact that yesterday was awful and today is a bit better makes me think that the problem is with Comcast, despite them insisting on there being no problems in my area. Here's another thing:

If I hop off of my own wireless network and jump on my neighbor's network (they have satellite internet and not Comcast), things work fine. That makes me think that the problem lies in Comcast somehow. Take this as a tip, too - don't leave your wireless network with the default settings. Anybody in range can hijack your connection and steal your bandwidth.

Usually, when Comcast craps out, it's their DNS servers going all whack. I have my DNS servers hard-coded to non-Comcast servers for this reason. This time, though - it's not a DNS issue. I can't access web sites via domain name OR IP address.

Anyhooo... if this is a Comcast issue, then I'll just have to wait till it starts working again. Anyone else in Chicagoland having similar troubles on Comcast this weekend?

Last night:

Hallelujah - I'm back online.

For anyone interested in the solution to my network dilemma... I wish I could tell you. I know what fixed the problem, but couldn't tell you what the problem was. I went to my mom's house yesterday for her birthday (Happy B-day, Mom!), and used her computer to do some more research. She, too, has Comcast, but lives about a half hour away from me, so is not on the same cable trunk as I am. I found a new entry on Comcast's "network health" page that indicated weekend maintenance that may cause disruption of service, with an affected area of "nationwide." (Thanks, guys - that's helpful). Hmmm. Then, on a completely unrelated note, I decided to do a speed test on my mom's connection. I set her up a few months ago, so her equipment is all brand new. She was getting a solid 8000 kbps downstream! D'oh! I thought my connection was fast at 3500, but a few students of mine told me of much higher speeds, and it made me curious. Well... what could this possibly be?

I decided to go on Comcast's site again and look up their list of "approved" modems. I'd read on their forums that some people had to trade in their old modems for new ones in order to receive last summer's speed upgrade. My Toshiba modem (which is 4 years old) was listed as approved, but not for new installs. It recommended NOT purchasing it new, but if it was already on the network, it could stay. That made me think that it should be just fine. But, I'm a speed hog, and my mom's Linksys cable modem was listed as approved with no special notations. I decided to take the $50 gift card to Office Depot that was burning a hole in my pocket and go get a new cable modem.

I bought the same Linksys one my mom has, and went home and hooked it up. After spending a good hour on the phone with Comcast's tech support trying to give them the new MAC addresses (of my new cable modem, and of my old router, which they should have already had), I got the new cable modem working. That too was a fiasco, and I ended up having to connect my laptop directly to the cable modem to get it working on the phone with the guy (Comcast doesn't support home networks unless you buy everything from them), so they had the MAC of my laptop registered as the live machine. Thank goodness for MAC address cloning. Once I got off the phone with the cable guy and set that up on my router, I was good to go.

Network, up! Speed, blazing!

So what was wrong with my old modem? My theory is that since my old modem was so old and only supported the DOCSIS specification version 1.0 (whereas this new modem supports 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0), the upgrade that people were talking about on Comcast's forums must have made obsolete my cable modem. I don't think it was dying, because the connectivity problems fell right in line with this "maintenance" upgrade on Comcast's end. Too bad that Comcast doesn't communicate very well with its customers, and when they do, they fail to give any useful information. I may never know what the problem actually was.

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