Life Without Internet

“Isn't it nice when things just… work?” Garrison Keillor voice-over, in the Honda TV ad “Cog.”*

It can be challenging to get through a few days without access to the Internet. A lengthy 'Net outage will seem, to some, to be a trivial problem. I'm not sure who those people are. For many of us, Internet availability borders on critical, much like reliable access to electricity or clean water. Some of us make trifling use the 'Net: play games, chase one YouTube video after another, aimlessly wander from one linked Web page to another, laugh at conspiracy theories and their adherents, absorb misinformation we've failed to analyze, and of course, waste large chunks of our lives on social media and other vacuous entertainment. But we also pay bills, manage our finances in various ways, renew prescriptions, save a little money (or not) via on-line purchases, contribute, donate, advise, research, learn, and much more, all in the “necessary” category. So when our Internet service provider (ISP) fails us it really can be a problem, and if that failure continues for days, we are not amused.

ADSL or Nothing

Since late 2003 our ISP has been CenturyLink (Clink), formerly CenturyTel. When we arrived to our new home in Montana (from Ohio) we had asynchronous DSL with 1.5 megabit (down) service, and over the years that's increased incrementally to the current 10 megabit/second. Well below the FCC's definition of broadband, but it's what we've got. We've had our ups and downs with Clink; I had a small server farm and worked from home (for an employer in Ohio) for several years, and during that time suffered a multi-day outage. Inconvenient, but worse, it threatened my job. Eventually a technician named Dave came to the house, did yeoman's duty chasing faults in the buried wiring in my neighborhood, and in the 15+ years since our Internet service has been very solid. As the speeds increased I had to replace the original “modem” with a newer one that could provide the needed speed. That modem, a Westell marked with the AT&T logo, required a bit of hacking to make work, but it did, very well, for many years.

I should note that Clink, while not quite a monopoly here, comes pretty close. Until recently there's really been no reasonable alternative. Where I live the power, water, and telephone lines are all buried, and no other service (such as cable, or competing DSL providers) has any interest in burying lines in a neighborhood that covers a wide area but has few residents. There's a local wireless ISP, but coverage is spotty, and apparently weak here. There's cellular, which is pricey, has data caps, and is just, uh, consumer hostile. There's Dish TV/Internet, which I've always considered the choice of last resort. There's StarLink, which is interesting, but still in beta-test phase. So, Clink has been it for us.

Another thing that changed over the years was the monthly bill. It grew in small increments, inflating from the original 60-odd dollars per month to over one hundred. This includes telephone service, which seems to be where most of the creeping increases occur. And that brings me to the point of this story.


26 May: I called Clink's support number, waited on hold for 23 minutes. Twenty-three really annoying minutes of ads (for service I'm already buying, mind you) and pleas to use their support Web site rather than calling. When a person who's name I could not understand answered (let's call him Unpronounceable Name #1), I explained that the cost of their service had crept up to levels no longer sustainable, and asked if anything could be done to lower that cost. After several minutes of back-and-forth I accepted the offer of a slight discount. My total bill would vary a bit for the first couple of months and then settle at a rate about $8.00 (US) less than I currently paid. Not much, but better than a sharp stick in the eye, right? As it turned out, maybe not.

As we were about to wrap up UN#1 offered to increase our Internet speed to 15 mbps (megabits per second), at no additional cost. This is, apparently, the “standard” service now for what I'm paying. I asked if there'd be any issues with my current equipment, or, would I need to upgrade to a newer modem? The tech assured me that my current gear would work fine. Ever the skeptic I asked the same question again, “Are you sure there will be no problems with my current modem?” No, it'll be fine. In that case, why wouldn't I take that offer? So I did, and when I asked, was told the change would be completed by the end of the day.

UN#1 then said he'd just sent a confirmation email; had I received it? I hadn't, but assumed it would arrive within a couple of minutes. We ended the call. And I never received that email because, you guessed it, our Internet service had gone down. At the precise moment I agreed to the higher speed, and the tech submitted whatever he had to submit to make the change happen, we lost service. I did the usual troubleshooting here, rebooted modem, router, and switch, with no change. Still had a dial tone, so landline phone service was fine.

When it became clear the problem wasn't going to fix itself I called Clink again. After a significant wait on hold, during which I heard a hundred times how I should use their Web site for help (IF I HAD ‡µ(#ING INTERNET SERVICE I WOULD, DAMMIT!!) I finally reached a human, Unpronounceable Name #2, explained everything that had happened, and waited as the tech performed some tests. He could find no problems, so scheduled a technician to come here sometime on 1 June. Wait, what?? You can't get someone out here for FIVE DAYS?? Nope. Deal with it. Monopolies. Sheesh.

Here's a fun thing: I was told I could check the status of the tech, and determine his estimated arrival time by checking my email. These people really aren't clear on the concept.

Visit #1

After most of six days without Internet service, a Clink technician arrived mid-morning. Connecting his test box to the phone line outside the house he concluded the service was up, no problems found. Inside, he looked at my ancient modem, and said that was the problem. It seems the “upgraded” service was VDSL (Very high-speed DSL), a service incompatible with the old ADSL modem. You'll recall I'd been told by UN#1 that there'd be no equipment issues, that his test showed my modem was compatible with the 15 mbps speed. Per the visiting tech, that's simply wrong. He offered to sell me a Clink-branded Zyxel C3000Z modem/router for $200 plus a $100 installation fee. You can imagine my reaction, since the problem was caused entirely by Clink. After a bit of back-and-forth about that, he said he wasn't authorized to provide the equipment at no cost. I asked who was. He said I'd need to call Clink's support line. I thanked him; Mom raised a polite, if not always sincere, kid. Still, I knew the cause of the outage, and what had to be done to fix it.

Back To The Phone

Once again on hold, listening to Clink's awful music repeated a zillion times, and the recorded ads for additional services, and the increasingly frustrating suggestions (again, a zillion times) to get help via their Web site, I reached a human (Unpronounceable Name #3) within 15 minutes. I explained the issue, and said I wanted either a compatible modem at no cost OR the service returned to ADSL so I could continue to use my old modem. I no longer cared which. UN#3 insisted he couldn't help with free hardware, and after 34 minutes of, uh, discussion about that he offered to transfer me to someone who could arrange to switch me back to ADSL.

More music, ads, and pleas to use their Web site, and 20 minutes later Chris (!) picked up the line. She assured me they could switch back to ADSL, and that it would be done by 5:00 (my time) this evening. By now you won't be surprised to hear that that didn't happen.

2 June: I called again. Imagine my shock when Tawana picked up after only four minutes! Starting from scratch (again) I explained my situation. After twelve minutes of discussion (and unbelievably, an attempt to sell more services!) Tawana offered to transfer me to Mark, and I found myself back in the phone tree, forced to navigate my way in, again, to reach a human, and explain everything yet again. I never got this guy's name, but he promised things would be fixed by 5:00 my time today. They weren't.

3 June: Starting early in the morning, after a brief hold (five minutes) I found myself talking to someone who's name might be Aumand, or might not. We spoke for 20 minutes. In that time I (of course) explained everything that had happened, explained what I wanted to happen, and was (again) assured it would. Aumand (or not) scheduled another technician, who would be authorized to replace my modem, if necessary, at no charge. He could not guarantee it would happen today. It did not.

Clink had, so far, made a major mistake (telling me I'd have no equipment compatibility problem), failed several times to perform as promised, refused to do the thing that would have solved the problem unless I paid (way too much) for it, and wasted hours of my time. Remember, all I really wanted was a price break on the service. Call me royally pissed off.

I'd given Aumand (or not) my cell number. I received a text from Clink saying the tech had been scheduled for Tuesday, 8 June, another five days without Internet access. Holy crap.

Visit #2

8 June: A Clink technician I'll call DC arrived mid-morning. I explained everything (again). Pointing to his big white Clink truck he said, “You will have Internet service before that truck leaves your driveway.” I could tell he'd done this before. DC checked the outside line just as the first tech had back on 1 June, and again found no problems. He then came inside. I think, when he saw my structured wiring cabinet with the DSL modem, the Netgear Nighthawk router, the SMC 16-port network switch, and the 24-port cat-5e patch panel, all neat and tidy, he concluded I knew at least a little bit about this stuff.

More testing, rebooting and at one point a hard resetting of the modem, a couple of phone calls back to the Clink mothership, and a texting session with someone there who could see the status of the DSL, found no problems with the service. Except that it didn't work. It was ADSL, and should be working with my old modem. Confused, DC tried a couple of silly things, and then sat back to think about it a while. I should mention that this tech wasn't a newbie; he'd been on the job for years and knew his craft. After a bit of thought, DC went out to his truck, and then came back with the new Zyxel C3000Z modem/router previously noted. He set that up and it worked. I asked if the thing could be set up in bridge mode, which means its internal router would be disabled and only its modem would be used. I could then connect it to my Netgear router, which I preferred. Sure, he said, but after15 minutes of messing with its settings via its Web UI, he gave up, and left it set up as modem/router as the typical customer would want.

It begs the question: How likely is it that my original modem would magically fail, apparently permanently, at the instant Clink switched me over to VDSL?

Tidying Up, And What's Next

Two old DSL modems, and the new Zyxel C3000Z modem/router

A tale of three modems; 'Old reliable,' Westell, used for years, center. Right, a Motorola that worked, but wasn't reliable. The new Zyxel modem/router at left. It just works (in bridge mode, in my case).

After I made sure DC knew how much I appreciated his efforts and the new hardware, he left. Pat and I had some on-line business to take care of, a couple of things that had become urgent in the nearly 14 days we had no Internet service (note that we DID do a few critical tasks using Pat's iPhone as a hotspot; this worked nicely, but our plan has minimal data and is not a long-term solution). I also finally updated my Web site and posted a new PotD. Hardly important, but part of my on-line routine, if nothing else. I also tried, with limited success, to capture lost data from my Tempest weather station.

I spent a little while poking around in the Zyxel's settings, got bridge mode set up, and reconnected my router. With its four external antennas it has much better wi-fi range than the C3000Z, and also allows setting up a “guest network” with Internet but no access to our internal network computers and server. I use this as a security measure for our IoT devices, such as smart plugs and switches, smart clock, the weather station, and a couple of other gizmos. Everything is working fine, our 10 mbps is solid. If nothing else fails this will serve as long as I need it to.

We expect to move to a new house, being built now, early next year. I will drop Clink then, cancelling both landline and DSL service then. I may cancel the landline sooner, as it's just an expensive magnet for calls offering extended warranties on my cars, unwanted surveys from Dynata (and their SSI sister nuisance), fake warnings about my computers' security, etc. I'm a little afraid to mess with Clink until we move, because clearly any change they make can prove, uh, frustrating when it goes wrong. The more it becomes part of everything, the more life without Internet, even for just a couple of weeks, sucks.

The good news is, I'm now saving a whopping eight bucks a month on my Clink bill, and they credited our June bill $12.50 for the time the DSL was out. Somehow I don't feel well compensated for the hell I went through dealing with their incompetence and their horrid phone “support” experience. I'll be delighted to bid them farewell in a few months.

*This Honda commercial, which premiered in April, 2003, is among the more entertaining two minutes of TV advertising. Per Scopes and other sources, no special effects or CGI were used in producing the ad.

July, 2021

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