DSL – The Dark Side of Broadband
Today’s technology meets the real world topic is installing a DSL modem. Specifically, it’s what happens when a member of the tech support generation has to help Mom & Dad install a DSL modem based on a suggestion from James Earl Jones.
Our story begins with an error on my parents’ Verizon phone bill. When my father called to have the error corrected, some CRM system probably noticed that he had two phone lines in the house, and that the second line dialed the same, toll-free number repeatedly every month (a modem line).
Armed with this knowledge, the customer service rep made a pretty convincing argument for Verizon DSL. The second phone line was costing them about $20/month, and America Online was costing around $15/month. Verizon DSL, the rep explained, would only cost $29.95/month, and it would provide a faster internet connection with no dial-up hassles, such as dropped lines, busy signals, etc. The rep also promised that installation would be easy (“just take it out of the box and plug it in”) and that he’d be willing to offer the first month for free. Mission accomplished – another DSL customer is born.
A few days later, the box arrived. Instinctively knowing that there’s no such thing as “just take it out of the box and plug it in,” Dad promptly put it on the computer desk and awaited my next visit home. Soon after that, James Earl Jones called the house (well, a recording anyway) and intoned, in his best Darth Vader voice, that their DSL connection had been activated and was ready for use. Now, all that stood between my parents and faster, cheaper internet access was my (very reasonably priced) installation services.
Before we go any further, I feel the need to point out that I have a cable modem in my own home. When I called the cable company to sign up for internet service, they sent a man to the house. Granted, I had to be home between 8am and 8pm, but when the guy arrived, he drilled a hole, ran a cable, plugged in the modem, tested it and left. The whole process took less than one hour, and at the end of it, I was surfing the web at high speed. Now, back to our story.
Episode IV: Card Wars
Upon removing the DSL modem from the box, I noticed right away that there were two cables available – USB 2.0 and Ethernet. When I ordered my parents’ computer for them (several years ago now), Windows98 was the predominant operating system, and NIC cards cost around $100. Since there was no way my parents would ever be running a home network (it was enough of a battle getting them to use the one computer), I didn’t spend the extra $100 for the NIC card.
Well, that decision had just bitten me in the proverbial behind. Windows98 did not support the USB 2.0 device (you need the now ubiquitous Windows XP for that), and the Ethernet cable was, of course, useless without the NIC card. So, it was off to Radio Shack, which had the advantage of being both nearby and open on Sunday, for a $30 NIC card (remember – we’re doing this to save $5/month, so there goes the first six months of savings).
Cost of NIC card: $30. Verizon DSL sales rep asking his potential
In any case, after buying the card, popping open the machine, asking my dad for a screwdriver to remove the protective plate from the slot, installing the card, and re-booting the machine, I was ready to install the DSL modem. That is, after assuring my dad that this is what they meant by “just take it out of the box and plug it in.”
Episode V: The Phone Jacks Strike Back
The welcome letter in the box said to put the CD-ROM in the drive and follow the instructions (“Instructions? Didn’t they say you could just plug it in?”). Instruction number one was to install the enclosed DSL filters on every device in the house that uses the DSL-enabled phone line. This was problem number two: including the fax machine in my dad’s office, there were seven devices on that phone line, and the modem only shipped with five filters. Additionally, one of the devices was the wall mounted phone in the kitchen, which required a special filter, also not included.
And so now, we add to this easy installation, our first call to technical support. After telling him what we thought of his “just take it out of the box and plug it in” claims, the tech support guy was more than happy to ship us five additional filters and a wall filter without charging us the standard $37 (or, as we had come to think of it, another 7.5 months of savings). In the meantime, he said, you can install the modem. Just make sure no one picks up the phone while you’re online, and you’ll probably be OK. The confidence swelled within me...
Episode VI: Return of the Phone Guy
The rest of the modem installation went off without incident - a fact that, as you can imagine, was totally lost on my folks. Especially when I turned the modem on and the DSL light did not come on. No internet access at all. Nada. Zilch. Zero.
What was wrong? Well, up until that day, the computer had been using a modem. The modem, of course, was plugged into the modem line (that second phone line that was costing them $20/month and was the majority of the reason behind doing this in the first place). Since the cost savings plan involved turning off the second line, the DSL service was installed on the primary line, which had no jack in the computer room.
This prompted tech support call number two. Can the phone line in the computer room be switched to the primary number please, so we can finish taking this @#$^* thing out of the box and PLUGGING IT IN, ALREADY!?!? Tech support guy number two explained that Verizon Online and Verizon are two different companies, and that Verizon Online was not in the business of maintaining phone lines. He told us we’d have to call Verizon (the phone company) to switch the line, but that a) their support lines are not manned on the weekends, and b) someone will probably have to come to the house and make the change there.
Well, at this point, I’m still at my parents’ house and it’s approaching dinner time, but dammit – I’m going to find out if this modem works or not. So, I run the phone wire from the DSL modem, down the hall and into another bedroom, where I plug it into a jack that uses the primary phone line. Back to the computer to test: still nothing. Rein. Nichts. Niente.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to tech support call number three. It turns out that DSL requires the modem to be within fifteen feet of the phone jack, so as to avoid signal degradation. This is a much bigger problem, since even within the computer room, the phone wire runs along the wall around half the room, and is more like 30 feet long, not 15. Tech support guy number three suggested putting the modem near the phone jack, and running the Ethernet cable along the wall instead. The only problem there is that the Ethernet cable they sent us was about five feet long, and a 30-ft long Ethernet cable runs about $50 at Radio Shack (that’s right – another 10 months of savings…)
Perhaps sensing the exasperation in my voice, or perhaps reading my ever-growing log of support calls on his CRM-enabled screen, tech support guy number three had another suggestion: when the Verizon guy comes to change the phone line, have him install a phone jack right near the computer, so that neither wire needs to be more than a few feet long. It was a good idea, but we’ve now moved from “just take it out of the box and plug it in” to “have a guy come over and drill holes in the walls.”
Recognizing at this point that there was no way I was going to have this modem up and running, despite working on it all afternoon, I gave up and left my parents specific instructions. They were to call the phone guy on Monday morning and make an appointment. He was to make sure that all of the phone jacks in the house used the primary phone number, and install a new phone jack right near the computer. He was also to do this all for free, given that a similarly named, albeit different company promised that this would be an easy way to save $5 per month.
Episode 1 – America Online, the Phantom Menace
I returned home to my lowly job managing technology projects on Wall Street, leaving this high-tech problem in the capable hands of my father, a retired printing salesman an occasional AOL user, and my mother, a fourth-grade teacher. Sure enough, the Verizon guy came over and switched the phone lines, but then proceeded to tell my parents that they didn’t really need another phone jack, because that rule about keeping the modem within 15 feet of the jack was nonsense. He did not mention anything about intermittent service, slower response time due to dropped packets, etc., but did manage to avoid a relatively difficult task that his company wasn’t going to get paid for. On the other hand, he did install the remaining DSL filters (which had arrived at this point), including the tricky wall-mounted unit, so I guess he wasn’t all bad.
At any rate, the following weekend, I returned to my parents’ house to complete the DSL modem installation. We now had a phone jack in the room with DSL service, appropriate filters on all the phones and fax machines in the house, and enough cables to connect everything together. The DSL modem worked, and while my parents don’t particularly care, I know that the first problem they have with it is going to be written off by tech support guy number four as being caused by the distance between the modem and the phone jack. But, we’ll cross that bridge another day.
Then there was AOL.
In order to achieve the $5 per month savings, we now needed to cancel my parents’ America Online subscription. As it turns out, when they signed up for the “special, one-time only” $15 per month deal, they also committed to keeping the service until March of 2005. So, rather than paying $35 per month ($20 for the phone line and $15 for AOL), they would have to pay $45 per month ($30 for DSL and $15 for AOL) for the next three months.
Adding it all up, switching to DSL and saving $5/month only required the following: two Sunday afternoons of work on my part, an extra shipment of parts from Verizon DSL, three calls to technical support, a visit from the Verizon man to work on the phone lines, $30 for a NIC card, and an additional $10 per month charge for the next three months.
On the upside, they did manage to avoid the $37 of cost for the additional parts, the Verizon guy's normal service charge, and are living with the 30 foot phone cable, which would cost $50 to fix (with an Ethernet cable – I don’t know what another visit from the Verizon guy would cost). Also, Verizon DSL gave them a second month for free, since they didn’t have access to DSL for most of the first “free” month.
“The council has granted me permission to train you. You will be a Jedi, I promise.”
Of course, there was still the matter of the software. America Online, for all of its drawbacks, is a single application that provides e-mail, news, stock quotes, weather, and other content to the user, all in one place. For this reason, my parents had never separated the concept of “The Internet” from the concept of “America Online.”
The number of changes this introduces to the casual user is significant. First of all, they now need to run at least two programs to use the Internet – a mail program and a web browser. Explaining why there were two, and when to use each one, was a daunting enough task. It became even more confusing as soon as a URL appeared in an e-mail, and clicking on it (from within the mail program) launched the web browser in a separate window.
On top of that, the absence of America Online exposed them to the entire World Wide Web for the first time. Gone were the convenient “channels” of AOL, which silently and reliably directed them to password-protected, AOL-run web sites. Now, when dad wants to check his stock quotes, he has dozens of options for where he can go, rather than just using the "Finance Channel."
I was able to solve most of this by making use of the standard Verizon DSL portal page, which has some of the same channels, and through liberal use of the page's “My Favorite Links” section to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless, I’m still expecting quite a few calls of the “How do I find X?” variety in the coming months.
The Saga Continues
Many years ago, I wrote about the Mom & Dad Test, where I pointed out how advances in technology can fail if they are too visible to casual users (like my parents) or require too much extra effort to achieve the benefits.
My parents experience with technology over the past several years has improved their resiliency to this phenomenon, and I wonder if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it opens the world up to new and exciting possibilities for them. On the other hand, it signals our willingness as consumers to endure sub-optimal user interfaces when we feel like we have no choice.
My cable modem was significantly easier to setup and use than my parents’ DSL Modem. It also provides faster internet access and ironically, it only costs an additional $5 per month. Every time someone goes through a painful DSL install like the one described here, they lessen the pressure on the provider to make the process free of cost and frustration.
Obi-Wan once said, “Don't give in to hate. That leads to the Dark Side.” Maybe he was wrong…