Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Broadband Woes

At the end of November 2012 my until then rock-solid reliable Netgear DG834PN ADSL router started reporting being disconnected from the Internet. I know this because being a decent router it has the facility to email its logs to me periodically so I have a record of everything that goes on with my Internet connection going back for years. I eventually worked out that the disconnections were being caused by phone calls connecting to the house which can happen even when we're out because we have an answering machine. So then to work, on diagnosing whether the fault lies with my equipment or with one of the service providers (Plusnet using BT line).

First I tried connecting my Netgear to the master phone socket since usually it is connected to an extension running around the house. No joy. The Netgear exhibited exactly the same behaviour from both sockets and disconnected when phone calls came in or went out of the house (only on connection, not when the phone was ringing).

Next is to try some different micro filters. No joy. I was still getting disconnected in spite of trying a couple of different ones while connected to the master socket including a genuine BT micro filter I purchased specifically to get a decent quality one for this test.

Now I've got this far I'm starting to think it's a line fault and prepare to do battle with Plusnet to get them to assess my line and perhaps send out a BT engineer to fix the problem. I go on-line to their help system. Their phone system is OK being in the UK but you have to go through a million-and-one press this to do that options. In order to raise a fault you have to answer a bunch of questions to confirm you've made all the checks that I would take for granted. Master phone socket, tick. New micro filter, tick. New router, now hang on a minute here. To the best of my (comparatively extensive) knowledge this question isn't right, routers aren't effected by phone calls, the entire point of an ADSL micro filter is to filter the line so you don't get noise during phone calls.

It seems Plusnet would not allow me to raise a line fault with them unless I had gone through all of these questions. I thought I couldn't honestly answer that I had tried a new router in spite of the fact I couldn't see how a new one would solve the problem. I decided to humour the web page and try a different router. I put the call out on social media and quickly tracked down someone a few streets away from us who had a spare I could try.

The router I borrowed was a cheap and nasty get the job done type router sent out by TalkTalk to their customers when they sign up. No wonder the guy I borrowed it from didn't use it and preferred his trusty old Netgear much like myself. However, it worked! No more disconnections when the phone connected and that was the case for whichever micro filter I used and whether I was connected to the master phone socket or the extension. So then, problem solved, it's my router after all.

Unable to keep the router I had on loan I did a bit of research into which router I should buy next to replace my Netgear. I'm a bit of a Netgear fan-boy, I have a ReadyNAS as well so it was hard to admit, based on hundreds of reviews from dissatisfied customers, their routers are now crap. I thought about going straight to an FTTC connection but wanted to get something fixed in the short term so a cheap router to keep us going for a while is the order of the day. I couldn't decide what to get and noticed Plusnet “give” you a router for a small fee to cover the postage. I decided to go with one of these.

A couple of weeks later, after I had reminded Plusnet to send me the router, it seems they received the order and took my money but somehow forgot to put it in the post, I was the proud new owner of a router made by Technicolor (or Thompson) called the TG852n. Wow wow wow, it really is quite the most appalling box of circuits, wires and firmware I've ever had the displeasure of being insulted by. It's the sort of thing I imagine an electronics company something akin to Frugal Electronics Inc. would produce, corners cut everywhere which can only be to save development cost, and credits the user with absolutely intelligence whatsoever.

I tweeted about what a bunch of crap itis and Plusnet responded wondering what I thought the issues were with it. It was difficult to explain in a 160 character response so I picked a couple of annoyances amongst plethora of wrongness that is the TG852n and sent them back. Here's my top 5:
  1. The user interface is restricted, very restricted. You cannot change anything but the very simplest of options. The first thing I wanted to do was switch it over to using my usual subnet range, nope, can't do that, you're fixed at the address range you're given. That is, unless you use the command-line interface. Most people reading this will know that I'm a fan of the command-line more than most being Mr Linux, but I really don't want to learn another one just to configure my router at home, give me a user interface that works. This brings me onto...
  2. You can telnet to the router. I didn't have to do anything to do this, you can just log in with the admin user name and password. I don't want that port open on my router thanks very much although it is comforting to know the router is a capable device scuppered only by an incapable user interface. What if I were to accidentally route port 23 from the Internet? No, just no.
  3. On the subject of open ports, port 80 appears to be open from the Internet. I don't know why, I didn't tell it to do that. Stop it. I haven't checked what other ports might have been left conveniently hanging for someone to try and get in. Remember I said I have logs going back years, I know how often my IP address is port scanned and password cracked. It happens most days.
  4. Firmware updates are more or less not supported. You certainly can't update the firmware via the user interface (surprise surprise) and if you do want to manually update it then you have to do it via TFTP (presumably via PXE boot) from a machine on your home network. Nope again, no thanks, that's rubbish. It seems, however, that Plusnet can push firmware updates to your router. I don't want that either, get off my network[1], I'll manage my end and you stick to managing yours. Finding firmware updates is nearly impossible too, they're not supplied by the manufacturer so you're left to trawl the Plusnet forums looking for posts where someone has linked to a more up-to-date version than you currently have.
  5. It's a four port Ethernet router, it has one Ethernet light. Apparently, I'm too dumb to need to see whether traffic is being routed to a certain port on the router via the convenient mechanism of a green light provided by almost every router on the planet[2]. I'm left with one light that might wave about a bit if some traffic happens to pass through the router to the Ethernet ports at some point. Oh, and they're 100MB/s ports too, but what do you expect for a free router I guess?

The final straw for me in the TG832n story and why I've decided to stop using it is that it also disconnected when the phone rang the other day. It reconnected shortly afterwards and everything was fine. However, it's now in a state where sometimes it will disconnect if the phone rings and sometimes it will not. Any which way, it always shows a red “Internet” light and a green “Broadband” light which implies that I have an active ADSL connection but that I am not dialled through to Plusnet properly. Another victory for this router then, with the red light on and glowing brightly I've got full Internet access from any of my wired or wireless devices in the house. So the router is lying to me as well[3]. I could try a firmware update, but that would be difficult.

I appreciate I'm probably not the target audience for this router. Its cut down and simplified user interface that buries what it considers “advanced” options in completely unfathomable places is probably targeted more at the likes of the silver surfer, someone who just wants to plug it in and get connected to the Internet without worrying about it any more than that.  However, the TalkTalk supplied router I have on loan (a Huawei HG532) is also a little confusing to use but it blows the Plusnet one out of the water in terms of the configuration options offered via the web GUI and would surely confuse the heck out of all but the most technical users.

Before I decided to try the Plusnet standard router my research was leading me towards Asus and (as I said before) away from Netgear. I've not tried any Asus networking kit before but I've like their motherboards for years in my home builds and we have a Transformer Prime tablet at home which is excellent. I've yet to receive this one but hope it solves the disconnection problem as well as being something that doesn't exhibit quite so many of the things I've been ranting about above. If it doesn't solve my connection issues then there may be more to say here yet.

[1] I don't really expect that Plusnet would be able to get onto my network but it's a distinct possibility.

[2] Yes, I know it's just a hub and isn't switching the traffic so is effectively broadcasting all the traffic anyway in which case one light is sufficient but I'd rather have 4.

[3] Another possibility is that the light stays red to suggest there has previously been a problem. The wafer-thin documentation actually says when the Internet light is red “Connection to Internet failed. Restart your router and see page 7. if the problem persists, open your web browser and see page 12.”

<update 5th Feb 2013>
I'm now using an Asus DSL-N12U that I purchased and reviewed at Amazon.
</update>