Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting internet working in our new home

We just moved to a new home a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, Verizon FiOS is not available in the new neighborhood. The next town over is just getting wired now, but that’s there, not here. Rumors of local political problems between the town government and Verizon tells me that although FiOS might be available in 6 months, it’s also possible that it won’t be here for 6 years or 60 years. Needless to say, transferring the FiOS service from our old house was not an option. Verizon’s only internet offering for this location is DSL, which isn’t sufficient for my needs (telecommuting, including VoIP through our corporate VPN.)

For TV service, we subscribed to Dish Network. Mostly because the previous owners used it and the dish was already on the roof. That installed quickly and after three weeks I’m quite happy with it. But that’s for TV only. Dish does offer satellite internet service, but the latency inherent in a geostationary satellite link (over half-second round-trip packet times) makes it useless for interactive services like remote-logins and VoIP. Since both my wife and I require interactive services (distance learning, telecommuting, FaceTime, etc.) satellite internet is a no-go.

Which leaves Comcast internet as the only possibility for high bandwidth and low latency. We subscribed to their 25Mbps internet-only service. Due to the fact that we were involved with moving and closing on two houses (buying the new home and selling the old one), I was in no state of mind to research and buy a modem, I elected to rent Comcast’s modem, at least for the first few months, just to keep it simple.

The installer arrived on schedule. Due to the fact that this house never had Comcast service before, he had to run a new cable from a box on the curb to the house. Fortunately, the house was already wired with a “smart panel”, and there was a spare feed on the side of the house (Dish only used one of the two feeds.) The installer hooked up to the feed and connected it to the line that goes to my office. The outside wire was buried a week later.

I was hoping he would be able to fish an Ethernet wire through the wall from my office (an upstairs bedroom) down to the basement, to allow me to hook up a second Wi-Fi access point there, but they don’t do that anymore, not even for an extra fee. Oh well.

The standard Comcast modem is an Arris model T862G/CT. This is a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem with built-in router, Wi-Fi base station and VoIP telephony interface. I used it for about three hours before I decided I wanted to be rid of it.

Using the Comcast-provided cable modem, the Wi-Fi signal was pathetic. It worked OK for devices in the same room, but in our bedroom (two rooms over) the signal was extremely flaky. Devices would connect, but sessions would hang randomly, sometimes for minutes (or even hours) at a time. This was seen with two different Mac laptops and all our iOS devices. On the main floor of the house, it was worse. There was no signal at all in the basement, which was annoying, but completely expected. Since our media room is in the basement, it means the Dish Hopper and our PS3 have no connectivity - so no on-demand programming, no Netflix, etc.

The Comcast modem also has a stupid firmware bug where you can only configure Wi-Fi once before you have to reset it. I configured it for the same SSID and password that I used in the previous house, in order to allow our devices to connect without reconfiguring. While troubleshooting problems, I wanted to change the Wi-Fi channel. It wouldn’t let me change it (it complained that the password is invalid, even though I didn’t change it.) As it turns out, the Javascript on the web page was flat-out broken. If I reset the Wi-Fi configuration (going back to the factory settings, and then reconfigure everything, the changes would be accepted, but no subsequent changes. What an annoying bug. You would think somebody at Comcast or Arris would have tested this, but what do I know. I’m just a software developer with 20+ years experience and they are ... idiots who don’t test software before shipping it. *sigh*

Anyway, the first priority was to get connectivity to the basement. Since fishing an Ethernet wire two stories and three rooms over was out of the question due to all the drywall that would have to be cut and patched, I decided to buy a pair of powerline network adapters. These use the power lines in your home to transmit data. After investigating several different brands/models, I selected a pair of TP-LINK TL-PA511 adapters. These communicate with each other at up to 500Mbps over the power lines, they have Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and they are inexpensive (under $60 for the pair.)

Pairing the powerline adapters (to secure the network) was simple. Plug both in to outlets. Push the pairing button on one, then on the other. Wait a few minutes for the blinking lights to stop blinking and that’s it. I plugged one in to an outlet in my office, running an Ethernet wire from the adapter to the room’s Ethernet switch. I plugged the other into the basement’s media room, attaching its Ethernet port to my spare Wi-Fi access point (a Linksys EA2700 configured for bridge mode). Voilá! Lots of connectivity in the basement. And on the main floor. This Linksys router provided a much better signal than Comcast’s device. And now the Dish Hopper and my PS3 have internet access.

Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem of connectivity on the upstairs floor. Two stories up is too much for the Linksys router to reach, and the Comcast modem was still acting flaky. The Wi-Fi keeps on failing intermittently for devices not in the same room and even the Mac attached via Ethernet would occasionally lose connectivity. In other words, that modem had to go. I was hoping to wait a month or two until we finished moving in, but with flaky internet service, waiting is not an option.

Acting on a hunch, and after reading blog articles from other people, I suspected that Comcast's DNS servers may be flaky. I reconfigured our devices (and my own DNS server) to use Google Public DNS instead of Comcast's DNS server. That improved connectivity a bit, but didn't completely solve the problems.

When shopping for a new modem, I selected a Zoom 5352. This is a cable modem with built-in router and 802.11n Wi-Fi. Hookup was simple. Attach it to the cable and power-on. After several minutes of blinking lights (as it downloads firmware updates from Comcast), it went on-line. Of course, in order to get internet access, Comcast needs to know your modem’s MAC address. Fortunately, there was no need to call customer service. After the modem goes on-line all web pages get redirected to a Comcast activation page. Sign in to the page using your account information and then wait several more minutes (during which the modem rebooted twice) and it’s done. I was actually very surprised that it worked so smoothly.

With the Zoom modem, connectivity on the upstairs became significantly more reliable. Sadly, still not perfect. The wired network (including connections from the basement over the powerline) became really fast - clocking at the full 25Mbps downstream and 5Mbps upstream. Wi-Fi in our bedroom became much faster, but still with occasional pauses.

This tells me that there’s something significant blocking the signal. Between our bedroom and the office bedroom, there is a bedroom and a bathroom. I suspect that the plumbing in the bathroom walls and/or the HVAC ducts in the ceiling are blocking the signal.

Which means we need another access point. I bought a second pair of powerline adapters (pairing them with the first two) and another Linksys EA2700 router to be configured into bridge mode as an access point. Strangely, it is significantly less expensive to buy a router with Wi-Fi than to buy a plain Wi-Fi access point. I set up the third access point in our bedroom, with an extra Ethernet cable so my wife’s laptop can be on a wired connection while at her desk.

And now we’re done. Between the three access points (one in the modem and two via the powerline network), I’ve got high speed connectivity throughout the house. It even reaches to the back yard and into the garage now. And with all three APs configured for the same SSID and encryption credentials, my devices can roam from one AP to another throughout the house with a minimum of interruption.

And about Comcast’s modem? Fortunately, I didn’t have any problem returning it. I chose to do it in person, because I hate phone support in all its forms. I drove over to Comcast’s local office and brought the modem with me. I returned it, got a receipt and was out of there in 15 minutes. They refunded 20 day’s rental (about $5.50) on the modem (since I’d pre-paid for the first month already), but imposed a $3 “service change” fee. Oh well. At least I wasn’t fighting a telemarketer for 20 minutes to get him to process the service change.

I love the Linksys EA2700 router as an access point. It's fast. It's highly configurable. It's got good range. And it's a fairly inexpensive router compared to other reliable models with 802.11n and Gigabit Ethernet.

I am very pleasantly surprised with how well powerline network adapters work. The only annoying part here is that TP-Link's management software is only available for Windows. They don't have a Macintosh version. The adapters still work, and I can pair them without using any software, but I have no way to configure any advanced features. Fortunately, I don't need those features.

The Zoom cable modem works much better than Comcast's modem. Its Wi-Fi isn't as configurable or feature-laden as the Linksys routers, but its capabilities are acceptable. Sadly, Linksys doesn't make cable modems. I think the network could be more perfect if I'd replace the modem/router with a modem-only unit and get a third Linksys router, but that would cost significantly more than what I spent, and what I've got now is working well, so I'm not likely to be changing it any time soon.

Final analysis? I paid about $350 (cable modem, extra router, two sets of powerline adapters) to get the house wired up. More than I was expecting to spend up-front, but less than it could’ve been. But it's well worth it because I've got good Wi-Fi coverage on all our property and our internet access appears to be fast and stable. With luck, it will remain stable until my 2-year commitment expires, and after that, hopefully Verizon will be able to install FiOS internet. But only time will tell if that ever happens.


Drew said...

Sounds like a fun time! Surprised it wasn't cheaper to bundle TV & Phone with Comcast instead of going with Dish. Have you had your TV reception go out during those bad thunderstorms? Good luck with Comcast, they are horrible around here. I'm glad you had success with the powerline adapters, I have been interested in them for a while but I though they might be a little flaky.

Shamino said...

Well, I know too many people who despise Comcast so I really don't want to do business with them. If we decide we need a voice line, we'll get that from Verizon.

The dish has gone out briefly (less than a minute) during the worst of the storms, but it's mostly been reliable.

Believe me when I say we're using Comcast because we have no viable alternative. So far, it seems to be stable (after setting up all the access points), but I'm not jumping to any conclusions yet. On the third day, we had a network-wide outage (confirmed by their web site's system-status page - which I had to access from my phone) that lasted a few hours. That's never a good omen, although I will also have to add that it hasn't happened again the past three weeks.

When Verizon finally/someday makes FiOS available, I plan on switching over. Whether I do so immediately and pay early-termination penalties or wait for our contract to expire will depend on what I think of them at the time.

WRT powerline adapters, it depends on the standard. The original HomePlug standard (and pre-HomePlug devices) were slow and a bit flaky. The modern "HomePlug AV" and "AV2" standards seem to be pretty fast and reliable.

Another possible option we could've used is HomePNA, which is a standard for running high-speed data over in-home phone lines. Since our phone lines are not attached to anything outside the house, that would be a pretty clear channel to use. And if we'd get a voice line, HPNA is supposed to coexist with voice in much the same way that DSL does. (HPNA can also run over coax lines, but it can't share a wire with the DOCSIS protocols used by cable modems.)

A third alternative would be to run MoCA over the coax cables, since it can coexist with DOCSIS. MOCA is actually how the Dish Network devices (and FiOS routers and set-top-boxes) talk to each other. The only problem with MoCA is that I've got two separate coax networks - one for Comcast and one for Dish. Simply combining them with a splitter-like device would likely end badly for all networks. So I would need something like an Ethernet switch with two MoCA interfaces to bridge data between the two networks. I suspect that would end up costing significantly more than the HomePlug AV devices I bought.