Archive for July, 2004

Now that we actually had some revenue coming in the focus returned to understanding what was going on with the wireless equipment. As with almost any failure, when we examined the situation we found a number of small problems were contributing to the wireless link not working.

In order to diagnose the problem I first made sure the wireless link was connecting at close range. With my notebook set up outside the house I verified I was connected and that could pass traffic reliably. Of course, I am standing 40 feet from antenna to antenna and I can see the access point’s antenna in the attic window from the ground.

Even at this range the wireless software was showing pretty good signal strength but not the 100% I expected. I shut down the notebook, removed the flat panel antenna with the 10 foot extension cable and screwed on the little rubber ducky antenna. When I powered up the notebook I was surprised to see the signal strength has actually increased!

Well, if that’s the case, I wondered what would happen if I were to replace the flat panel antenna in the attic with the little rubber ducky. When I got to the attic it occurred to me that perhaps the problem was with the 10 foot extension cable. I had previously verified it was a high loss cable (RG-58) and decided to see what would happen if I plugged the flat panel antenna’s pigtail directly into the PCMCIA card in the access point.

As I reached for the antenna, I realized that in my rush to set everything up for the initial test I had (without thinking) turned the antenna 90* sideways when I had placed it on the windowsill. This was done because the pigtail from the antenna came out from the bottom of the antenna and the antenna wouldn’t sit on the windowsill.

Since I was there I decided to remove the extension cable anyway. This meant the antenna would lose three feet of elevation but what’s three feet among friends, right?

With everything set back in place, the access point turned on and fully booted up I went back outside. When I checked for signal strength I saw that even with the rubber ducky antenna I was seeing a signal strength of 100%!

As it was almost time to pick my son up from school my wife and I jumped into the car (I had previously learned that hunting for signal by car wasn’t a very safe thing to do on one’s own) and off we went. At the house we had great signal strength and as we started heading down the hill things started to decay quickly. When we got to the bottom of the hill (roughly 1,500 feet away) we lost connection. This was right where I had lost the connection the first time I looked.

However, since the rubber ducky antenna was still attached to the PCMICA card I was sure if I used the 10db flat panel antenna things were bound to improve. So we shut down the notebook and exchanged antennas this time eliminating the extension cable. When the notebook powered back up we were somewhat surprised to find there was still no connection.

At this point we had collected more than a few strange looks. Picture this, we are stopped at an intersection on Main Street, pulled over to the side of the road with our notebook and flat panel antenna sticking out of the passenger side window of the car. (Keep in mind the pigtail on the antenna was only 6” long not leaving any slack for us to maneuver.)

Now, we were getting late and in a rather discouraged mood we pulled the equipment back into the car and set off for the elementary school. When we got there we pulled up in front of the school and waited for our son. Just for laughs, my wife decided to stick the antenna (notebook attached) out the window and check for signal. The school is a little over 1/2 mile from our home and after we couldn’t connect at 1,500 feet I wasn’t feeling very confident.

Surprisingly, when the notebook booted up, we have a solid connection. Signal strength was good and we could transfer data reliably! What a feeling.

But what was different? Why could we connect here and not at the bottom of the hill? The answer was simple once we understood. (Isn’t that always the case?) At the bottom of the hill from our house the signal was blocked by a few trees and additionally, the antenna was actually shooting over us. However, when we got father away and had clear LOS back to our house everything worked just like it was supposed to.

Some days things go a little better than others.

Since our initial wireless experiments didn’t provide the results we were looking for (and we were already paying for our connection) we decided to order a pair of back to back SDSL modems and a BANA circuit so we could give SDSL a try.

It took Verizon roughly two weeks to get the BANA circuit installed. We arrived at the customer site and spent more than an hour looking for the connection. As this was a large automobile dealership there was a 4’ X 8’ sheet of plywood hung on the wall where all their telephone wiring was located. After more than an hour we had to call the Verizon technician back to the site to show us where they had brought to wires to. Incredibly enough the circuit was installed behind a floor to ceiling set of shelves that took two people to move.

We went right to work and installed the Elastic Network modem on the customer end (there was already the other end of the pair installed back at our frame) and powered it up. After training for roughly one minute the modem synched up and we had a connection. But all was not well, the connection would only pass about 50Kbps of real throughput. We were told by Verizon that the length of the circuit was too long.

Reluctantly, we canceled the circuit and refunded the customer’s money.

The next customer we had lined up was two blocks from us and their circuit was installed a few days later. This time the circuit ended up right where the telephone wiring was in the building. (Of course, this might have had something to do with me being there when the technician arrived.)

This time, when the modems synched up we were able to move 4Mbps across the circuit, which was pretty good considering that we only had a 384Kbps connection to the net.

We were thrilled our first customer was online. The feeling of victory reminded me of the first time I fixed a dead car and got it running. What a rush!

Even better, when one of the tenants who had an office upstairs in the building saw the service he signed up too! This allowed us to bill two customers from one BANA circuit. I love MTUs.

Within a month we had four more SDSL customers and we were getting closer to a point where our connection was generating as much as Verizon was billing us.

During the several months prior to installing our fractional T1, I had been researching various ways of sharing to connection including “traditional” DSL (using a DSLAM) “back to back” SDSL (across BANA circuits) and wireless. After discussing the options it became clear the becoming a CLEC and collocating a DSLAM in the Telco’s central office was not a viable option.

That left us with the two most likely possibilities – wireless and SDSL.

Of the two choices wireless seemed like the best option because it allowed us to be independent of the telephone company’s network and (more importantly) the recurring bills. Naturally, the logical choice seemed to be finding the least expensive wireless manufacturer and buying some equipment to test.

After contacting several manufacturers to discussing pricing, performance and everything else I could think of asking I decided to purchase some equipment from Zoom Telephonics. Zoom was offering evaluation pricing on their 2Mbps DSSS equipment and was guaranteeing a free upgrade to their 11Mbps radios when they released their product. As an added attraction I was promised unlimited tech support plus they were located three hours away from us and if necessary we could drive there.

That was enough for me. I ordered just about everything that I thought I would ever need for testing. This included four PCMCIA cards, (complete with external connector) four PCMCIA to PCI cards, four RF extension cables, three flat panel antennas along with two copies of their software access point. The software was necessary because at the time Zoom couldn’t supply me with was an access point as they were out of stock. We also found another company (who will remain nameless) who sold us an omni antenna for way too much money.

The order took nearly two weeks to get to us and during that time we were inviting people over to try out our “high-speed” connection. The excitement was building and there were several people around town that had told us they were interested in our service. It seemed like nothing could stop us now.

The day the equipment arrived my expectations were somewhere near the levels of a six-year-old on Christmas morning. My wife and I opened the packages, read the manuals, installed on of the PCMCIA cards in our notebook and using the PCMCIA to PCI adapter installed another card into an old 486 we dragged out of the garage.

The entire process (including a few calls to tech support) took until midnight at which point we called it a day.

The next day was a Saturday morning and we were excited. I got up early and started trying to become familiar with the equipment. Now that we had a working connection it was time to see what we could do with it.

The “access point” got carried up to the attic along with a panel antenna. I mounted the panel antenna in one of the attic windows (actually, I leaned it there) plugged in the computer and started it up. Next I went outside with our notebook to see if I could connect. When the notebook booted up we had a connection. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I could open up network neighborhood and browse the contents of the access point’s hard drive. Better yet I could even copy a file across the wireless network. It was slow (perhaps 900Kbps) but usable.

Too good! Next up, into the car and let’s see how far this thing could deliver. Dreaming that I could connect all the way to Montana, I started down the street and made it 500 feet before the connection dropped. This was early spring and while most of the trees didn’t have leaves on them there were a few pine trees between the notebook and the house. To complicate matters I was only using the little rubber ducky antenna attached to the notebook. It was time to get the big antenna and see what a difference it could make.

Returning home, I grabbed the panel antenna and an extension cable. I connected the cable and antenna to the notebook’s PCMCIA card and headed out the door. Once the notebook booted up I found I did have a solid connection with the new antenna (at 100 feet I would hope so) and off I went.

Should anyone here decide to try this I would like to say it is a really good idea to not try this alone. As I headed down the street, notebook on the passenger seat, holding the antenna out the window with one hand, steering with the other I quickly realized this was a formula for disaster. Making the best of a bad situation I decided that I would drive down to the bottom of the hill, park and check for signal.

Arriving at the bottom of the street I parked the car and pointed the antenna out the window. Quickly glancing at the notebook I saw there was no connection. No connection? This is only 1,000 feet from my house and while I couldn’t see the house (one huge pine tree was obscuring it) I was rapidly losing faith that this technology was going to allow me to take over the world.

Feeling somewhat defeated (and a little confused) I drove home to report my results. I knew there were people who were getting 10 plus miles with this equipment and I had no idea what I was doing wrong.

I decided to wait until Monday and give tech support a call. Over the weekend I read everything I could find online, rechecked all my cabling and walked around with a mystified look on my face.

Next up – Reality check.

I have always believed that you can’t learn anything by playing with it in theory, you have to put the knowledge to work in practice. While this can be expensive, I like to think of it as tuition to the University of Hard Knocks as it helps ease the pain.

The first thing we came to was the realization we couldn’t justify a full T1 leaving a 56K frame and a 384K (fractional T1) as the remaining choices. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a 56K frame wouldn’t allow us enough bandwidth to resell. However, the fractional T1 was $720/month based on an 84 month contract. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound (adjusted for inflation, of course.)

But wait, there’s more!

We would also have to absorb a $275 installation fee along with purchasing a CSU/DSU and a router. Alternately, I could rent a CSU/DSU and router from Verizon but it was priced so high that I couldn’t justify it. Aside from the expense the other issue was I wasn’t an expert in routers (heck, I didn’t even know what one was used for) let alone how to set one up. At this point it didn’t make a difference because I had already signed the contract and within 30 days I was going to have an installed circuit in my living room that I was going to be paying for.

After looking around I found out that a Cisco was way out of my price range and that I would have to pay (an arm, a leg and various other appendages) for support. This lead me to find a suitable non-Cisco router with the CSU/DSU built in. The router cost roughly a third of what the comparable Cisco would have cost and it came with free tech support for life! A mere $800 plus shipping later I was on my way to becoming connected.

As promised, five weeks later, a Verizon tech pulled up in his van and knocked on the door. We chatted for a short time, we discussed where I would like the frame to be installed and he went to work. A couple of hours later I had everything I needed to go all set up – except the router. No problem, I thought, I have free lifetime unlimited tech support.

Fine, I have the connection now I call the router company and quickly find out that free, unlimited tech support is a term I must have misunderstood when I spoke to the salesperson. For some reason, I didn’t understand their definition as I just assumed that the usual English definition would fit.

Now, I’m in trouble, I’m paying $25/day for a connection I cannot use. I called a good friend of mine and he agreed to stop by “when he had a chance” and help me set my router up. It just so happens that he showed up around dinnertime on Halloween night. After the both of us managed to get into the router (reading the manual) he explained to me how to set up the static routes and a few other things and all of a sudden we were on the net.

For someone like me who was rapidly becoming addicted to the net, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was able to have a page load fast enough that I could remember what was on the previous page I had been reading when the next page loaded. This had been a problem for me on dialup that I had cured by opening all the pages in an article and minimizing them on the task bar so I could keep continuity. And download speeds – they were incredible. With dialup the best I ever saw were speeds approaching 4Kbps and now I was seeing 45Kbps!

This was great, I had to tell people but how could I share the connection? The answer was easy, I had read all about it. Wireless was going to be the medium of the future and I was going to own the entire world as soon as my equipment showed up. Look out world, there’s a new communications sheriff in town.

Next up, the wonders (Did I say wonders? I meant frustrations.) of wireless.