Troubleshooting broadband connection problems

Call centre

This week I learned something important about technical support call centres: they can sometimes be more “call centre” than “technical support”.

Tuesday

On Tuesday I called BT Broadband Support (0845 600 7030) because I was experiencing connection problems (no, really, I was!), which were being manifest in three ways:

  1. My Broadband Talk connection (VoIP phone line) was disconnected.
  2. I would try to visit a website and it wouldn’t load until I’d hit Refresh a couple of times.
  3. I couldn’t connect to any FTP site, e.g. the server that hosts this blog

I got through fairly quickly and spoke with someone who told me that:

  1. She’d pass on my VoIP problem to someone who could look into it and they’d get back to me — fair enough!
  2. Each time I experienced the connection problem I should simply reboot the router — hmm, not great given that it was happening about every second site I was trying to visit.
  3. They don’t support FTP — what?! But half the internet is built on FTP!! That’s a bit like a car manufacturer saying “Yes, but we don’t support our cars driving on streets! Roads and motorways: yes; streets: no!” Crazy!

I hung up. They never called me back. My VoIP service wasn’t restored, the connection problems continued. I went to bed in pain.

Wednesday

I called back yesterday afternoon, having done some more tests to try to prove that — in the words of that favourite of ‘tech support’ phrases — the problem is not at my end!

Troubleshooting

As anyone who has done any basic networking will know there are a few immediate things you can do yourself to try to determine the problem when you are experiencing network connection problems. Or rather to eliminate what it’s not.

  1. Router
    I had to make sure that it wasn’t my router that was causing the problem. So it was back to that other favourite trick of tech support: switch it off and switch it back on again. It wasn’t that.

  2. PC
    Next I rebooted my PC to make sure that it wasn’t something conflicting with the network connection. On reboot I experienced the same problems.

  3. Other computers on the network
    Next step was to see if the same connection problems could be experienced using other computers on the network. And as it happened they could. Both Jane and my laptops were also experiencing these intermittent connection problems, and neither could either connect to an FTP site.

  4. FTP Server test
    On the off-chance that the FTP connection problems might have something to do with my FTP server I telephoned a friend to see if he could connect to my FTP server. He could.

  5. Networking tools
    So having made sure that it wasn’t immediate hardware problems at this end I used Windows’ built-in networking tools (PING and TRACERT) to do some basic online sleuthing.

Packets

The first thing to bear in mind is that all data transferred across networks is first broken down into small parts called “packets“. That way large amounts of data can be transferred more efficiently.

PING

The PING command is really useful for finding out if there are connection problems. What it does is send an ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) echo request to check whether the remote computer is available.

In other words, it says “Hey other-computer, are you there?” And if it is then it replies saying “Sure am, mate!” Or something like that. But better than that, it does it four times — by sending four packets — and counts the replies. A bit like Jesus asking Peter “do you love me?”, only one more time.

Open a Command Prompt (in Windows XP go to Start > Run… and type in CMD then click OK) and then enter the command PING followed by a space and then a URL (either as a web address or IP address), e.g.

ping www.google.co.uk

ping 64.233.183.99

What you should get in return is something like this:

>ping www.google.co.uk

Pinging www.l.google.com [64.233.183.104] with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=58ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237

Ping statistics for 64.233.183.104:
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 4, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
Minimum = 56ms, Maximum = 58ms, Average = 56ms

One of the most important things to note about the results is the bit that I’ve highlighted above: how many packets were sent and received. Ideally you don’t want any packets to get lost.

Unfortunately, I was consistently experiencing 50% packet loss. So I did a Trace Route.

Trace Route

Next in my handy arsenal of networking tools is TRACERT, short for Trace Route. Guess what that does!

Ok, I’ll tell you: it … erm, traces the route that the packets take across a network. Pull up another Command Prompt and type:

tracert www.google.co.uk

and you’ll get back a list of all the IP addresses (of routers, switches, and bridges) that the packets are routed through to reach the destination (plus a load of other information), e.g.

  1. voyager.home [192.168.1.1]
  2. esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net [217.32.78.140]
  3. 217.32.78.13
  4. 217.41.218.1
  5. 217.41.174.66 … etc.

Which you can then PING to see where in the route the problem might lie. If any of those IP addresses are dropping packets then it’s a strong possibility that that’s where the network connection problem lies.

So that’s what I did, and discovered that packets were being dropped somewhere between esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net and core2-pos8-1.edinburgh.ukcore.bt.net. So I gave BT Broadband Support another call.

Support centre or call centre?

This time I was a little more assertive than the day before. I told them about the dropped packets, I told them that the lack of FTP connectivity was indicative of packet loss and that 50% packet loss was not good, I told them about the Trace Route and that it seemed to be somewhere on their network that the problem lay.

So the tech support bod put me on hold to consult their supervisor. And came back and asked me what anti-virus software I was using.

“THE PROBLEM … IS NOT AT MY END!” I told them. Quite firmly.

Forty minutes later, after jumping through their hoops I was transferred to the Line Faults Team. “The problem is not the line,” I assured them. And then I started to explain to this second person about my Ping and Trace Route results.

“I can tell you between which IP addresses I was experiencing packet loss,” I said. “I did a Trace Route.”

There was a silence.

“Do you know what a Trace Route is?” I asked.

“No. No I don’t,” the Line Faults tech support team member confessed.

Computer says No!

And at that point I realised that I wasn’t speaking to a networking expert who was there to help me diagnose my networking connection problem, but a call-centre employee who is paid to be polite (and they were delightfully polite to me, even during my wildest rant) and follow a pre-defined troubleshooting path on their computer.

I knew there was a problem, I knew where the problem was. Trouble was I had to get my problem past the front-line call centre team to an IT-trained networking engineer who understood what the hell I was talking about.

Conclusion

After an hour (60 minutes no less) on the phone, having threatened to leave BT unless the problem was fixed today I was promised that the local exchange would be contacted and the problem fixed; they’d call me back in three hours.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later the phone rang. It was BT: they’d fixed the problem. Turns out there was a problem at the exchange.

Who would have thought?!

I just wish there was an easier and quicker way to get these problems sorted.

Utility company charts

Here are the Saunders’ household utility company charts for the week ending Saturday 17 March 2007:

#3 Home Delivery Network Limited

Crushed box

In last place this week, and not strictly a utility company, are Home Delivery Network Limited who delivered my replacement laserjet toner cartridge from Dabs.com.

The package arrived on Wednesday morning in a bright green bag. Inside was a box: a crushed box. A very crushed box. Almost open, in fact. And with a large footprint on the top of it.

Edward de Bono in his book How to Have a Beautiful Mind suggests that trying to explore possible alternative explanations for a particular situation is an attractive quality.

The easy thing would be to get upset about this and blame the laziness or clumsiness of a parcel handler. But maybe there is another explanation about why my box got crushed and ended up with a boot print on it.

Maybe the delivery van driver had stopped to drop off another parcel. There he was in the back of the van, trying to extract a particularly bulky box — maybe it was a bicycle for little Johnny’s birthday, or a giant tea cup for eccentric Uncle Quentin’s garden display.

Then all of a sudden the van suffers an almighty shudder. It’s a bear. A big grizzly bear has just attacked his van mistaking it for a giant bee hive. The van driver yelps in fear. He maybe even swears a little. I don’t know; I couldn’t hear him above the roar of the bear.

The door swings open and the bear appears. There is now nothing between the frightened driver and the bear. The bear swings his enormous paw. The driver takes a step back, stands on my laserjet toner box, and slips just in time to see the bear’s paw pass overhead.

Had he not stepped on my box he might have been crushed by the mighty fist of the grizzy bear. My laserjet toner box pushes against two boxes, which fall from the van. The first spills open; it’s a box-full of honey-flavoured ice popsicles which distracts the bear long enough to allow the driver to make his get away.

That’s what I think happened. The second box, by the way, contained a complete collection of back issues of The Oldie, which didn’t interest the bear in the slightest.

#2 BT broadband

BT Broadband Line Status

Credit where it is due: after my two months of almost tireless complaining about intermittent broadband connections, my connection has now been up without interruption for 10 days now. So my number two place this month goes to BT Group, formerly known as British Telecom.

It took a while to get there, nagging and nagging about it via telephone calls and firmly-worded e-mails, but it would appear that BT have now successfully fixed whatever problem there was at our local exchange. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

One of the main reasons for going to BT in the first place was that they own and maintain the infrastructure. Or as Wikipedia puts it:

BT runs the telephone exchanges, trunk network and local loop connections for the vast majority of British fixed-line telephones.

So if there is a problem with the exchange then it’s BT that deals with it, regardless of which ISP you might be with. So I wanted to be as close to the folks who deal with the communications infrastructure as I could, even if it meant paying that little bit extra.

As it is the package I’m on has already come down in price since we joined in April 2006 and the imposed download limit has now been withdrawn completely and we are free to enjoy unlimited usage. Meaning that I could download the entire internet if I wanted. I’d zip it, of course, to save space on my hard drive!

#1 Scotia Gas Networks

Gas meter box

However, it’s Scotia Gas Networks who are my number one utility company this month.

Shortly after moving in to the house in November I discovered that the gas meter box lock was broken, meaning that potentially anyone could switch off the gas supply to our house. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, isn’t terribly festive.

I e-mailed my friend Roger the other day for advice. He works for … I’m sure you can guess.

Roger replied on Tuesday, and I sent a photo of the box by return e-mail. This evening I returned home to a new gas box lid and a key posted through the letter box. Yay!

Three cheers for Scotia Gas Networks! and three more for Roger.

My toast to the weekend

Two slices of toast.

I enjoyed a quiet and blog-free weekend these last few days, largely because I also experienced a largely internet-free weekend (see previous posts about broadband connection woes for details).

Broadband update

I spent a total of about 3.5 – 4 hours on the phone with various BT support personnel on Friday and Saturday (1.5 hours on Friday, 2 hours on Saturday) to try to get to the bottom of the problems. I won’t go into details but I essentially went round the loop of BT Broadband Support > Line Fault Team > PSTN no fewer than six times over the two days!

On both days I was told by Broadband Support and Line Fault Team that there was a fault on the line, but PSTN (the local exchange) swore blind that the line was okay, so I’d be passed back to Broadband Support and the loop would begin again, again, again.

In the end, on both days I was told that someone would call me back within an hour. Friday evening’s call-back didn’t arrive, Saturday’s “within 1 hour” call-back arrived 25 hours later on Sunday evening, by which the connection problem was still happening but not so frequently, as far as I could tell.

Our broadband connection is set within the router (Voyager 2500V) to be always on, and to reconnect automatically when it drops out. Do you know how often it should healthily drop out and reconnect? In our old property I was never aware that it did, but here it appears to reconnect about 2-3 times a day, at least.

Saturday

On Saturday around lunchtime I was sick. I’d been feeling tired and as though I was fighting something all week and it culminated with a few minutes staring into a small ceramic pool of water while emitting more than a few primitive, gutteral sounds.

However, on the up-side it did mean that I didn’t have to go through that emotional roller-coaster of high expectation leading to disappointment, anger and despair that I’m used to when watching the rugby. Instead, through the whole 80 minutes of play, I maintained a steady feeling of disappointment, discomfort and sadness. I can thoroughly recommend it as a coping strategy for watching rugby!

Meanwhile Jane was in Edinburgh, working this weekend.

Sunday

On Sunday we entertained friends from Edinburgh. The lovely Dusty and Joy visited for lunch, and then while Jane and Joy took the dogs for a walk Dusty and I played guitar.

Our Sunday evening was spent watching an episode of 24, series 2 on DVD before watching David Tennant and Sarah Parish in the BBC drama Recovery. What a wonderfully powerful and poignant story about the impact that brain injury has on a family.

I found myself more than once in tears as scenes reminded me of our family’s fifteen years’ experience of living with brain injury between 1983 and 1998. For those who don’t know, my dad suffered three sub-arachnoid brain haemorrhages on the Ides of March, 1983 which left him with what would become progressively worse brain injury.

The drama was very, very well acted — absolutely full-marks to David Tennant — with some powerful insights and issues raised. What complicated beings we humans are, who perform the most complex of tasks that we categorize as “simple” and “every day”, such as making a piece of toast, which are much, much more than that. (In the drama Tennant’s character Alan sets fire to the kitchen while trying to make a couple of slices of toast.)

An emotional weekend all-in-all, and not quite as relaxing as I might have liked. But there were more than a few elements that made me smile and feel that life was indeed good.

More BT Broadband connection woes

BT Voyager 2500V upside down

I’ve been having more ‘fun and games’ with BT Broadband, hence my online absence (my offline presence) last night. I’d e-mailed them last week when service started to deteriorate and then magically things cleared up shortly after I’d contacted them, but last night things got much, much worse: connection dropping randomly about every 30 – 300 seconds.

BT Public Switch Telephone Network

The e-mail reply I’d got from BT support suggested that I call PSTN (Public Switch Telephone Network). So I did.

I followed the voice prompts, made the appropriate selections and was told to call another number … which turned out to be the number for the original people who’d told me to call PSTN!!

BT Broadband Support

So I called them — which turned out to be a call centre in India — and spoke to a very polite man for about 30 mins, who asked me the same bunch of questions that I’d been asked last month.

But. Nothing. Has. Changed. Here.

So why is it all of a sudden dropping out again? I’ve not done anything other than fit a new, better microfilter and if anything that improved the connection. For a while.

So he said that they needed to run a line test. A few minutes later he returned to say that they had indeed found a fault, could I hold again and he’d speak to the Line Fault Team.

I held and told Jane that they were consulting the Fault Line Team. So now she thinks that not only do we have trouble with broadband there is also going to be an imminent earthquake.

After a few minutes I was passed on to the Line Fault Team, just about the time that I was beginning to feel that I was in need of a Life Fault Team. And the loo!

BT Line Fault Team

“I bet they just ask you exactly the same questions that the last person asked you,” said Jane.

Which is exactly what happened, and I was left with the following advice:

  1. Unplug your router and plug it into the master socket test point.
  2. Move your PC into the hallway and connect it to the router (do they think that everyone’s main PC is a laptop?!).
  3. Monitor the connection for the next two hours and call them back on 0800 731 8578.

“Only, you can’t,” she said, “because we’re only open from 09:00 – 21:00 and we close in 30 minutes.”

Only, thought I, I can’t because I want to go to bed now, I’m exhausted!

I plugged it in to the test socket and left it overnight in the hope that it might magically work by the time I got up in the morning.

It didn’t: I’ve been monitoring it for the last two hours off an on and it has dropped out and reconnected at least 6 times in the last 20 minutes alone.

The trial continues…

So … we still have a dodgy broadband connection, a Voyager 2500V Configuration Manager screen filled with interesting facts that I don’t really understand (noise margin, line attenuation, output power — are high numbers good? are low numbers bad?) and a frustrated user (me) who just wants a stable connection enough to update a few websites and write my blog.

I suspect that the problem may lie with the telephone line from the exchange to the house. I also suspect that the internal phone extension wiring in the house may need checked — but whom do we ask to check that?

Whatever happened to the good old days of British Telecom sending out a human to check these problems?

Update on broadband connection problems

BT Voyager 2500V modem router upside down

The good news is that BT technical support telephoned me when they said they would. The bad news is that I missed Ross Noble Live on Radio 4 as a result of the call. Oh yeah, and I still have a broadband connection problem.

Here’s what happened. I received the call from someone from BT support, I didn’t catch her name, she sounded Indian, was very well spoken, polite and courteous. After the initial introductions she got down to business.

Customer Support #1: Are you still experiencing the same problem of an intermittent broadband connection?

Gareth: Yes.

Customer Support #1: I have an e-mail here from you to say that you followed all our instructions and you are still experiencing the same problem.

Gareth: Yes.

At which point I’m thinking, well if you know that already why did you ask me?

Customer Support #1: Now, can you tell me, does the power light stay on when you have this problem?

Gareth: I don’t know.

Customer Support #1: Can you please take a look and tell me.

Gareth: Well, not really because the problem is intermittent. Sometimes it drops the connection every two minutes, other times it’s up for 3 hours before it happens, and it is on just now so I can’t tell you.

Then she went through each of the points on their original e-mail once more just to make sure that I wasn’t a complete numpty who couldn’t read English or be bothered to actually try anything that they’d suggested.

Customer Support #1: So did you try it with a different microfilter? … blah blah blah … changed cables … blah blah blah … offered a sacrifice to Mercury the god of communication … tried the test socket on the master phone socket?

Gareth: Yes.

Customer Support #1: So your router is now currently plugged into the test socket, is it?

Gareth: No. Oh, sorry I didn’t realise that it had to be plugged into the test socket.

Customer Support #1: That’s ok Mr Sanders (sic). If you could please plug it into the test socket now. I’ll hold while you do this.

And that’s where the real fun began.

The master socket, as its name suggests, is where the phone line coming into the house terminates. Any other phone sockets that we have scattered around the house (there are another four!) are slaves to this master socket. Unscrewing the face plate of the master socket reveals what’s called a test socket, and as soon as you remove the face plate the slave sockets are disconnected — this is presumably so that the master socket can be tested without any interference from the satellite sockets. It’s quite a clever design really.

Our master socket is in the hallway, so assured that my nice Indian customer service lady would hold while I moved camp to the hallway, Jane gathered up the Voyager 2500V, power and DSL cables, while I set to work spilling the entire contents of the shredder beneath Jane’s desk on the way to unplugging the microfilter.

Seconds later we were in the hallway. I plugged in the cables, Jane plugged in the power cable and switched it on. As it began the boot-up sequence I picked up the wireless phone.

Gareth: Hello? … hello?

Nothing!

Gareth: Hello? … hello?!! Are you still there?

Still nothing.

And then I realised that I’d unplugged the base unit from the microfilter, so the phone cable was sitting on the study floor and not actually connected to the phone line at all.

D’oh!

A few seconds later I was on my hands and knees once again beneath Jane’s desk plugging in the second microfilter and the phone’s base station.

Still still-nothing!

I phoned our phone with Jane’s mobile. It rang. Only it didn’t ring, if you understand me. It was ringing in the earpiece of Jane’s phone, but the actual telephone on the desk in front of me wasn’t ringing.

My second epiphany of the evening. Remember that thing I said about when you remove the master socket’s face plate it disconnects the satellite phones? Yeah! …

When the customer service lady rang back I was sitting comfortably in the middle of the hallway with an old school, wired phone plugged into the microfilter that was hanging out of the test socket.

Customer Support #1: Hello Mr Sanders (sic) well, it would appear that you’ve carried out our instructions but are still experiencing the same problem.

Gareth: Yes.

Yes! YES! I’d noticed that too. Which was why once I’d tried what they’d suggested I’d e-mailed them back to tell them that. Clearly this was the kind of bad news that they needed to hear for themselves.

Customer Support #1: I’m going to pass you on to our Faults Deptartment, if you could please hold.

Gareth: Sure.

I held.

I’m remarkably patient sometimes.

I continued to hold.

Blimey the cat’s litter tray doesn’t half smell just now.

Customer Support #1: Hello Mr Sanders (sic)?

Gareth: Hello.

Customer Support #1: Thank you for holding. I’ve managed to speak with someone from our Fault Department …

Gareth: Great! (Thinks: what with that being what you set out to do.)

Customer Support #1: I’m going to pass you on to him now.

Gareth: Er… okay. Erm … Thank you?

Customer Support #2: Hello Mr Sanders (sic)…

And do you know what? I had to go through the same thing all over again, at the end of which I was told that he’d have to pass the matter on to the telephone exchange who could test the line and call me back within 24-48 hours.

Twenty five minutes to answer the same questions that I’d been e-mailed and had replied to, passed on to two people in two different departments only to be told that neither of them could help me. I’d have to be passed on to the Wizard of Oz himself who lives in another department. But at least I’d managed to pass the test and be granted an audience with him and his magic line-testing equipment.

The trial continues.