WiFi

Asus Wifi Router AiMesh Odyssey

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This post was rattling around in my head before the current stay-at-home situation arose. Somehow, it never found its way to my fingers, until now.

This will be a typical techie post by me, in that it will be long, rambling/meandering, and likely bore the people who used to mostly read my music blogs.

tl;dr

Most newer (even years old) Asus routers now support AiMesh, a method of turning normal routers into a mesh system. When configured correctly, it works remarkably well and has some serious advantages over pre-built mesh systems (like Google WiFi, Eero, etc.).

My start with Asus Routers

For years, I purchased cheap (often refurbished) routers. I typically flashed them with dd-wrt firmware to make them better than new.

On December 13th, 2013 I broke the mold. I purchased my first high-end router, the Asus RT-AC66U. It was my first “AC” router (now called WiFi 5) and the first time I ever spent that much money on a router of any kind ($179.99 before tax!).

It has a (theoretical and nonsensical) top speed rating of 1750 megabits per second (mbps). That’s still pretty good even by today’s standards.

Back then, this router was glorious. I was very happy with my purchase and it was my main router for many years. It only got replaced when I switched to Verizon FiOS which at the time came with their own branded router.

This router still gets firmware updates (what a credit to Asus!). More on that later in this (happy ending) saga.

The big move

In 2015 we moved from NY to VA. Our house in VA is large, but not that large. The layout puts our master bedroom far away from every other room (no centrally placed router would reach that room).

Mesh routers hadn’t exploded in popularity yet, so I never considered one at the time. Given that I was installing FiOS there (the previous owner had FiOS as well), I knew that my main router would be a Verizon branded one.

I had an electrician put in a hard-wired Ethernet port in three rooms, in addition to the closet where the FiOS router lives. There is an Ethernet port in the wall in our office, the master bedroom, and the basement (where the TV is). Each of the three rooms is a home-run back to the closet, so each of the rooms connects into one of the four LAN ports on the back of the FiOS router.

The office is very close to the closet with the main router in it, so to begin with, I didn’t put another router in there.

The master bedroom and basement each got routers. Those routers were put in AP mode (Access Point, or Bridged). That meant that the main FiOS router still handed out all IP addresses (no matter the room or which WiFi router our devices were connected to).

For simplicity, each of the AP routers got a separate SSID (the WiFi Network Name). Devices that were fixed in a particular room always connected to their local SSID/Router (e.g., the TV, or a Fire Stick/Roku, etc.). Our cellphones had to switch to a new SSID when we moved from one room to another.

Since the main router signal really doesn’t reach the master bedroom at all, the phones would switch pretty quickly (without any manual intervention), simply because they would lose the signal completely and immediately begin searching for a new signal.

It wasn’t instantaneous, so you would have to think about starting something before you walked out of a room, because the connection would definitely drop for a few seconds.

After a few months, the FiOS router started getting flaky on the AC channel (this eventually straightened out years later after some arbitrary firmware update). This led me to pull out my old Asus RT-AC66U router (which was in a drawer for a while by then) and install it in the office.

Even though the office was close to the main router, I could no longer trust the WiFi on the main router, so I used the wired connection in the office to hook up the Asus as an AP and all was well again.

Growing the Asus family

The above setup continued for a while and worked fine. In the master bedroom I had an old TP-Link router (another brand that I really like). It worked fine, but wasn’t the fastest thing and would rarely cause me tiny frustrations.

Six weeks before buying my first Asus router, I bought a Nexus 5 phone from Google. That marked my switch from Verizon (where I was using the Galaxy Nexus) to T-Mobile. I’ve been a happy T-Mobile customer ever since.

My house had effectively zero coverage on T-Mobile when we moved in (it’s marginally better now, though I rarely ever have to use it in the house). After a few months in the house, I saw an ad for a T-Mobile Cellspot. It’s a rebranded Asus RT-AC68U router (one step up from the 66U that I owned).

T-Mobile was selling them very cheaply (much cheaper than the Asus branded 68U). I bought it not only because the price was excellent (if memory serves me well, I think I paid $75 for a new one, when the 68U was going for $199 new), but also because it was (supposedly) optimized for T-Mobile WiFi calling (which given my cell signal at home sounded like a great addition).

I replaced my (rarely) flaky TP-Link router with a T-Mobile Cellspot one in the master bedroom.

The dreaded, complicated upgrade

The new router ran great for months, but I never used the WiFi calling feature (that’s a long story for another post that I will likely never write).

At some point I stumbled on a post about “Turning a T-Mobile Cellspot into a Full Blown Asus RT-AC68U“. If you skim that article, and more importantly the tons of comments with a lot detail in them, you’ll see that this is not for the feint of heart.

Fortunately or otherwise, this is exactly the type of thing I enjoy (hey, you get your kicks your way, I’ll get mine my way…).

With some twists and turns, and needing to read a bunch of comments when I got stuck, I eventually turned the Cellspot into a full blown Asus router.

Why bother?

That’s a fair question. The Cellspot worked perfectly (for some definition of perfect). There are a few good reasons to consider the upgrade. By far the most important one is that the Cellspot firmware was way behind, and while occasionally upgraded, pretty rarely.

That meant that when the various kracks that have been discovered in recent years against WiFi routers are revealed, a real Asus router will be patched months (or years!) before the Cellspot will. That’s reason enough to bother if you don’t require any special handling of the WiFi calling feature for T-Mobile specifically.

Another reason to upgrade is to flash different firmware, e.g., dd-wrt (mentioned above). That’s not possible from the base Cellspot firmware, but is from the Asus firmware.

Finally, if you want to run the AiMesh software, you need to be on the real Asus firmware.

A quick look ahead

I’ll deal with this later on, but there are newer (shorter, better) ways of upgrading a Cellspot, and very important warnings and caveats which didn’t exist at the time I upgraded my first one.

The point of this interlude is to tell you to read on rather than follow the instructions in the article linked above.

Another Asus added to the family…

A year later, my better TP-Link router running in the basement started to have some issues (again, I think it was a firmware issue that I later resolved). I decided to replace it with another upgraded Cellspot.

I bought one refurbished on Amazon for $48. I followed the same upgrade instructions linked above, and had another working Asus RT-AC68U router installed in the basement the same day it arrived.

I now had four routers in the house. The main FiOS one which was mostly acting as a wired router to the Internet (a few legacy devices, security cameras, etc., were connected directly to the 2.4Ghz channel on that router), plus the original RT-AC66U in the office, and the two upgraded Cellspots, in the master bedroom and basement.

What? Asus doesn’t make infinitely perfect hardware?

About six months ago, I walked into the office and the old 66U router was dead. No lights, no Internet (obviously).

I disconnected the cables and pulled out the TP-Link Archer C9 that had previously been running in the basement. That’s the one that I asserted was flaky only because of a specific firmware.

I reconfigured it to take the place of the old 66U, made sure it was current on firmware, and turned it on. Problem solved, we were back in business.

I decided to try and diagnose what went wrong with the old 66U (just out of curiosity, as it was 6 years old at the time and didn’t need to provide any additional service to make it one of the more outstanding tech purchases).

I connected it directly to my laptop using the wired port and fired it up. The lights blinked for a second and then went dead. It only took me one more try to realize what was wrong. The power button was broken. It simply wouldn’t click and stay on.

In typical MacGyver mode, I found a round hard piece of plastic, scotch taped it on to the power button, then put a rubber band around that to ease the pressure on the scotch tape.

Voila! A working 66U router, once again…

I swapped it back for the TP-Link, which was now perfectly configured to be an instant backup router should my MacGyver skills prove unworthy.

Wasn’t this supposed to be about AiMesh???

Oh yeah, though I did specifically mention that this would meander and ramble and I didn’t want to disappoint on that front either…

Unfortunately, a bit more meandering is necessary, just for historical accuracy, not to discuss the merits of AiMesh.

Getting into trouble

Before getting the second Cellspot router, I upgraded the first one using the built-in Asus firmware upgrade tool once, and it worked great.

When I got the second one, I (of course) upgraded it to the same version of firmware as the first one was on, with no issues.

Toward the end of last year, another krack was discovered, and I checked whether Asus had an updated firmware to mitigate it. They did.

I updated the old 66U first, and it upgraded perfectly.

I updated the first 68U and it reverted back to the original Cellspot firmware (which had even more issues than I was currently trying to fix!).

Whoah, what just happened?

A bit of Googling and I found that Asus decided that if they noticed that a Cellspot router was being flashed with Asus firmware (rather than a T-Mobile branded firmware), they would roll it back to the original.

Darn!

Silver Lining?

This caused me to find newer methods of turning it back into an Asus router, including ways to thwart Asus from rolling it back. The old method (linked above) still works, and has the appropriate warnings and methods to avoid the rollback, but it’s still more complicated than the new ones.

This is a link to the instructions that I used the second time around. It looks long and complicated, but that’s because there are three different (analogous) methods for accomplishing the upgrade. The key point is that this avoids the full downgrade which the original method requires.

When I did this and got my first router back to the new firmware, and made sure that it wouldn’t downgrade again, I flashed the second one as well, apparently successfully.

Apparently???

Wait, what? Either it worked or it didn’t. Well, yes (and no).

I was so smart (being a seasoned techie) that I was incredibly stupid (being a seasoned know-it-all).

The first time that I upgraded each router, I meticulously followed the dozens of steps in the original article linked above. Amazingly, following detailed instructions worked (can you believe it?).

This second time around, using the simplified instructions (which are 100% accurate and would work if you followed them exactly!), I skipped one crucial section (a few commands) because I assumed that they were unnecessary the second time around (meaning, I thought I had the correct files from the first time around just sitting in my folder waiting to be reused).

Again, why apparently then? Because I don’t end up using the router in the basement all that often, and it took trying to get AiMesh to work (still coming, I promise) to finally see what I had done so wrong…

AiMesh, finally!

Well, actually, getting closer, not there quite yet…

Now that everything was running fine (or so I thought), I decided to finally experiment with turning on AiMesh in all three Asus routers.

I really didn’t need it, my setup was working well enough, but I was curious and now that I was running the latest version of Asus firmware on all three routers, I was in a position to find out. I could always roll back to non-AiMesh mode if it wasn’t to my liking.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag immediately. It turns out that the old 66U is not capable of running AiMesh software. There is a newer revision (RT-AC66U rev B) that can run full AiMesh, but mine is too old and can’t do it.

So, I popped on to Amazon and ordered another Cellspot for $48 (this time, it was labeled renewed rather then refurbished).

Unfortunately, I compounded my error by skipping the exact same block of steps on this newest router as I had on my others, because I hadn’t yet noticed the problem that I had introduced into my network…

Turning on AiMesh, finally, really, this time

I flashed the real Asus firmware onto the newest Cellspot and retired the old 66U once again. I was now ready to flip the switch and turn the three routers into an AiMesh mesh network.

All attempts to get them talking to each other failed! After some searching, it seemed that some people had more success using the Asus Router App on their phones, than using the web browser interface.

I broke down and installed the app on my phone. I did seem to get a bit further, but if I got something going on one router, another would disappear, and then that would be flipped. It was maddening.

Discovering the problem

Well, the problem was entirely created by me, so I was the problem. The crucial steps involved the following:

Upload original_cfe.bin to https://cfeditor.pipeline.sh/
Select 1.0.2.0 US 1.0.2.5 US for AC68P or 1.0.2.0 US AiMesh for AC68U with AiMesh as Source CFE
Download the new .bin
rename it to new_cfe.bin

I assumed that having done that once on the original router, I had the correctly modified CFE (now called new_cfe.bin). Meaning, I thought that all Asus routers (at least of the same model number, which mine were), shared the same identical new cfe.bin file.

You’ve all heard what the definition of the word assume is, right? I’ll spare the gentler ears/eyes from seeing it here again…

It turns out that the file is unique to each and every router. Why? Because among other things, it contains the MAC Address of the routers ports (both Ethernet and WiFi) embedded in it. So, by reusing the same cfe.bin file on all three routers, they were all running with the same exact MAC Address.

To be clear, they each had different IP addresses assigned, but that doesn’t make the problem better. The way local networking works, there is an ARP table maintained that tells the network how to reach the physical machine associated with an IP address, by translating it into the MAC Address.

So, when I tried to reach any of the three routers via their IP address, all of them returned (at a very low level) the same MAC Address, and therefore it was entirely random (perhaps based on distance in the house) as to which router would see my request!

Ugh.

The solution

Once I understood the problem, the solution was obvious and straightforward, but by no means simple. I needed to fix the individual cfe.bin files, but I could no longer follow the original instructions (uploading them to a website which would edit them) because I didn’t have the original files to upload!

Worse, I needed to figure out which MAC Address was correct for which router, which meant going to each of them and finding the stickers with the serial numbers and MAC Address printed on them.

Once I did that, I had to use a HEX Editor to load up each file, find the wrong MAC Addresses (yes, plural, since there are multiple interfaces in each router) and type over them (very carefully).

Then I needed to copy them over to the correct router, flash them, reboot the router, and pray.

Yes, that worked!

Are we there yet?

So, was I really done? Unfortunately, not quite.

I was able to get AiMesh going, but the speed in the bedroom was pathetic (reliable, but pathetic). The speed in the basement was great!

This one didn’t take long to diagnose, but it did take a while to fix…

By default, AiMesh sets the backhaul (how the mesh routers communicate with each other, rather than with the client devices or the Internet) to auto.

In the case of the basement router, that ended up using the wired connection over the Ethernet cable (which is exactly what I expected the default to be).

In the master bedroom, even though the router is fully wired like the basement one is, auto defaulted to wireless backhaul.

If you recall from a few days ago, when you started reading this post, the master bedroom is too far away to get a reliable signal, so the backhaul was awful (amazing that it worked at all!).

The solution is simple, force the backhaul to be wired. Yes, simple, in theory, but I couldn’t find any way to do that!

More searching on the Internet and I finally found a single forum post where someone linked to the official guide with highlighted screenshots.

Bless that individual, and Google, for surfacing the correct post (after much tribulation).

Here is a link to the guide, with step 6 being the secret sauce to finally see where the default backhaul could be changed/

Conclusion

So, was it all worth it? Yes, of course.

First, I love technology puzzles, even ones created by me. Once I screwed up the settings really badly, I just had to figure out how to get myself out of it. It wasn’t fun (on any level), but it was instructive, informative, and satisfying (in the end).

Much more importantly, I am now running a full mesh network and I like it. Our phones don’t drop when walking from our office to our bedroom. All three routers are effectively managed from the one main AiMesh one.

Why AiMesh is really cool

Most importantly, it’s a mix and match network. You don’t have to buy kits. You don’t have to have identical routers at each node. As long as a router supports the AiMesh firmware (which many Asus routers do!), it can be a node (or the master) of your AiMesh network.

This is crucial. Today, I don’t own a single WiFi 6 (AX) device. So, it would be overkill for me to buy a WiFi 6 router, let alone a WiFi 6 Mesh Kit.

However, if/when I get a new laptop (I’m typing this on a 6-year-old one) that has WiFi 6 in it, or a new phone (mine is 2.5 years old), I’ll be able to get an Asus WiFi 6 router (any of them!) and use it as my main AiMesh node (and place it wherever I use the laptop most frequently, which now, is in the office).

I won’t have to change the other routers, or change any settings on the other routers either. They will all just work. My laptop (and phone) will work with WiFi 6 when they’re connected to the new router, and automatically and gracefully downgrade to WiFi 5 when they roam to another AiMesh node that’s still on WiFi 5.

Further, I can even do the WiFi 6 upgrade piecemeal. For example, I could get a lower-end WiFi 6 AiMesh router first, and make that the master. Then, as I have more devices that can take advantage, I can get a higher-end WiFi 6 router, make that the main one, and move the older WiFi 6 router into the bedroom.

The ultimate beauty is that each of the routers can always be instantly returned to be non-AiMesh routers. So, I can pass them on to friends when I replace them with a WiFi 6 one and those people can use them as standalone routers, AP bridges, or create or augment an AiMesh of their own.

That’s what makes these more flexible than full-time mesh systems.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that the models I’m running can be picked up for $48, if you’re willing to be super careful and avoid the stupid mistake that I made.

Happy New Year

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For the past six years (2002-2007) we’ve spent New Year’s Eve in Richmond, VA. There are four couples there who get together each year and cook a very special (and sumptuous) dinner at each others houses (rotates each year), and we hitched our wagon to their tradition back in 2002. Of course, we were invited this year as well, and had originally accepted the invitation.

Unfortunately, our good friends in Leesburg, VA are going through a very rough time. The Dad has an aggressive form of cancer, and this week was undergoing a particularly aggressive round of chemotherapy. He was being treated daily, for a minimum of six hours of the life-extending poison being pushed (their term, not mine) through his veins.

As much as we knew we’d enjoy our annual New Year’s Eve get-together in Richmond, we also knew that helping our friends-in-need was the right thing to do, and we had no hesitation in offering our help. There were two things we could do directly:

  • logistics (driving the Dad to/from the hospital)
  • entertaining the boys, who clearly feel stressed worrying about their Dad

They have three kids, two boys ages 10 and eight and a girl, 2.8 years old. All three are adopted. We met the family when the 10-year-old was 18 months old, and they lived two doors down from Lois’ Mom’s apartment in NYC. We’ve remained very close to them even after they moved to VA seven years ago. So, we know the boys really well, and their various likes and dislikes.

We headed there Tuesday after working all day at Zope in Fredericksburg. On a whim, we stopped for dinner at Five Guys in Warrenton, VA. We’ve eaten at this Five Guys a number of times, because it’s roughly half way between Fredericksburg and Leesburg, and we occasionally meet our friends there on a weekend when we’re working at Zope. On Tuesday, it was just a convenient (and delicious) stopping point for us.

In an incredible small world story, a few bites into our meal, both Lois and I recognized a 10-year-old boy going over to fill up his drink. It turns out that really good friends of the friends that we were headed to visit had also stopped at Five Guys on their way to spend New Year’s in the Outer Banks! We were headed in opposite directions, with neither of us having planned to stop for dinner there. In another irony, they had visited our friends earlier that day!

Small World

Small World

On Wednesday morning, I drove the Dad to the hospital, and spent three hours keeping him company while he was undergoing the chemo. That turned out to be beneficial for him in another way. The hospital has free WiFi, but his work laptop needed to be coaxed to connect to it. In his condition, he was unable to get it going on Monday or Tuesday, but I was able to connect him, and he felt better about getting some work done on Wednesday.

Boys Only Moment

Boys Only Moment

At lunch time, I left him to join the rest of the family (Lois included) at our favorite local Chinese restaurant where we all enjoyed a buffet lunch. After lunch, Lois and I took the boys bowling. I haven’t bowled in years, but I love it every time I go. They had each bowled only once before (at a birthday party I think), and really liked it. We all had a blast and the boys played some video games afterward.

As you can see, all three boys had perfect form. Of course, my form is also over-flowing. I guess I need to get serious about that in 2009. So far, not so much…

Hadar Bowling

Hadar Bowling

8-year-old Bowling

8-year-old Bowling

10-year-old Bowling

10-year-old Bowling

A typical moment between me and the 8-year-old (this one, at the Bowling Alley):

Head Stand

Head Stand

Two best friends, sharing a moment:

Best Friends

Best Friends

We are prone to spoiling them over the years (often to the consternation of their parents), but we weren’t about to deny them much this week. So, after bowling and video games, we drove to Baskin Robbins (which is housed inside a Dunkin Donuts), and got them ice cream (well, one of them got ice cream, and the other one a smoothie). I had an excellent Lite Latte, quite delicious.

Chocolate Sprinkle Cone

Chocolate Sprinkle Cone

Smoothie Delight

Smoothie Delight

You’d think that this would be a jam-packed day, but you’d be wrong! From Baskin Robbins, we headed to the local movie theater to see Bedtime Stories. Of course, the four of us had to split a large popcorn. You gotta do what you gotta do. 😉

Keeper of the Popcorn

Keeper of the Popcorn

The movie is excellent. I highly recommend it. What sets it apart from most movies (including other kid-friendly ones) is that no one tries to sabotage anyone else. There is a nemesis (and you might even consider him an evil nemesis), but he doesn’t do underhanded things directly to Adam Sandler (our hero). It’s refreshing. The story itself is creative, while still being predictably formulaic. A very sweet movie. The boys loved it, so did we.

When we got home, we found out that another of the Dad’s friends stopped by to visit him in the afternoon, and was kind enough to bring him home. We had a lovely dinner together, followed by a little too much rough-housing between me and the eight-year-old (he loves to wrestle). I also played a ton with the little girl (more on that later).

Even though it was New Year’s Eve, we all went up to our rooms by 9:15, and Lois and I watched TV for 45 minutes, and hit the sack (completely exhausted)  at 10pm. No complaints about not ringing in the new year at midnight!

The clinic (attached to the hospital) was closed on New Year’s Day, so the Dad had to be checked in to the main hospital. I drove him in and watched in amazement as they couldn’t find him in the system, even though he was told in advance what room he would be in. The normal registration desk was closed so we had to navigate a maze to find the ER registration, which likely explains why they didn’t know how to do a normal admission.

I stayed with the Dad for two hours and then picked up Lois and the boys and we went bowling again! Everyone improved their scores from the day before, so it was a satisfying outing. We then headed to Cici’s Pizza Buffet. It was our first time (the boys love it) and we thoroughly enjoyed it (very tasty in addition to being a very good value!).

From there, we headed to the movies again. This time, we went to the giant multi-plex to see The Tale of Despereaux. On the way there, in the middle of a conversation, both boys excitedly starting yelling look over there. It took us a second, but when we looked at the divider, there was a hawk sitting on top of the wrong way sign. Very cool!

Hawk

Hawk

Of course, another round of popcorn for the four of us. We all enjoyed this movie as well, but all four heartily agreed that Bedtime Stories was significantly better. In fact, the 10-year-old claimed that Bedtime Stories was his favorite movie.

After the movie, we dropped Lois and the eight-year-old back at home, and the 10-year-old and I headed to the hospital. Originally, we were told that the Dad would have to stay in the hospital for two nights, not getting out until Saturday morning. During the day, they changed their mind and decided he could come home each night. So, we headed there to keep him company until they released him, and watch some bowl games in his room. Shortly after the Rose Bowl started, he was released, and we brought him home.

We had another excellent dinner together, followed by watching the second half of the Rose Bowl. It didn’t get exciting until the last seven minutes, but it was a good distraction nonetheless. I was strong and successfully resisted all attempts to wrestle again. I was quite sore from the bowling and the wrestling up to that point. I did end up playing a bunch with the little girl again.

Mother and Daughter

Mother and Daughter

Previous to this trip, she hadn’t been all that verbal. While we’ve spent a reasonable amount of time around her, she was more of a remote cutie (like a doll) than like a real person. I was completely blown away this trip by how verbal she is. Not only does she talk up a storm, but her vocabulary is extensive (it’s almost frightening, seriously). If she pronounced all of the words better, I would swear she had the conversational skills of a 13-year-old, no kidding!

How many nearly-three-year-olds do you know who can form the following sentence (I’m not changing a single word!)?

Ho-dar, can you come to the family room and play with me and my toys?

OK, so she doesn’t always pronounce my name perfectly, but otherwise, pretty incredible. Here’s one other example of an actual conversation between us:

her: Ho-dar, I have my own telephone!

me: Really? Do you talk to people on the phone?

her: No, it doesn’t have any batteries in it, so I can’t!

Wow. Pretty cool to watch a personality come to life between one visit and the next!

Here I am with the kids, right after breakfast:

Pajama Gangstas

Pajama Gangstas

This morning, I took the Dad back to the clinic. I stayed with him for a few hours again and then headed back to pick up Lois and the boys. We had lunch at Chuck E. Cheese (a first for the two of us). We had no idea what we were in for (of course, the boys knew exactly what the deal was). We were surprised that they wanted pizza two days in a row. As you all probably know (and we didn’t), it wasn’t about the pizza at all. Chuck E. Cheese is all about the games.

They had a blast playing a ton of games and won roughly 300 tickets between them. Still, they couldn’t find a single prize that they wanted, so they saved their ticket receipt for the next time. We had hoped to see Madagascar 2 after lunch, but it was no longer playing in any theater near them. So, we headed to Walmart and let each of them pick out a DVD to watch at home.

When we got home, the Mom told us that she was going to pick up her husband when he was done. We already knew we would be leaving today, since the boys had Tae Kwan Do tonight and tomorrow morning again. Given the updated schedule, we decided to hit the road while it was still light, and we stopped by the Zope office before heading to the hotel to settle in for the night.

All-in-all, a very successful visit in every respect. In addition to accomplishing our mission, our friend also received very good news that his tumors appear to be responding to the chemo. He is incredibly nauseous all the time, and he is weak as can be, but hopefully, he’ll start feeling substantially better soon. He’s completely bald as well, but we both think it looks pretty good on him. We’ll see if he chooses to keep it that way. 🙂

For us, ringing in the new year with such good friends is as good as it gets! Thanks for hosting us. 🙂

Cable Woes Resolved

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On December 13th I wrote about my long-standing cable Internet woes. At the end of that note, I mentioned that I would update everyone if my solution worked.

Today is the first day that we are back in the apartment, and I can now report that we’ve had zero drops in the past six hours. That seems to point the finger squarely at the old Netgear FVS318 ProSafe VPN Firewall. While it was working, it was also flaking out unbelievably.

Here’s a big bonus: the WAN port on the FVS router was a 10Mbps port, even though the eight LAN ports were 10/100. The Netgear WNR854T N router that I replaced it with has a 100Mbps WAN port, and GigE LAN ports (purchased re-certified for $40!). So, my download speed was topping out at around 8Mbps on the old router (when it wasn’t dropping packets), but the current one is reliably downloading at 18Mbps! Awesome!

The upload speed is still a very pokey 490Kbps, but you can’t have everything, at least not all the time. 😉

So, I’m now back to 60/40 as to whether I prefer the house to the apartment. Purely due to the Internet connection, I was closer to 90/10 for the past six months!

How little it takes to make me happy. 🙂

Cable Internet Woes

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A long time ago (I can’t remember when), we had a stable, reliable connection in the apartment (provided by Time Warner Cable). It was never super fast on the download (when it was stable, it was roughly 3Mpbs downstream). It was always pokey on the upstream (used to be roughly 360Kpbs). Now, it’s typically 7-8Mbps down, and 490Kbps up.

Unfortunately, while both up and down have gotten faster, the experience has deteriorated. I wish I could point the finger directly at Time Warner, but I can’t. Not because it’s not their fault, but because I have no idea, and that’s been hugely frustrating…

I may be slow to fix things at times, but I’m typically pretty good at diagnosing. I’m completely lost at the moment.

It’s been bad for such a long time, that I’ve come to accept it on some levels, and that’s just silly on my part.

Here are the symptoms: regular disconnects from the Internet. Those drops can last between a few seconds to a minute. The most sensitive applications (the early warning systems) are IM clients (Digsby for me, Trillian for Lois, but Pidgin used to behave identically before I switched to Digsby). Email clients hang if they are fetching or sending at the moment of the drop. When the drops last a bit longer, ssh connections are lost, but not on the short drops. The Poker client disconnects every 20-30 minutes.

Here’s my setup. I had (more on that in a moment) a seven year old Toshiba cable modem (provided by Time Warner). I have a Netgear FVS318 ProSafe VPN Firewall that connects to the cable modem. Years ago, I used it in VPN mode to connect to the office, but now it’s just a plain old router. Connected to that are three devices: an Asterisk server, VoIP ATA (Sipura) and a WiFi router.

After working great for years, when the trouble started, I suspected the wireless router (at the time, it was a Linksys WRT54G). I swapped it for a US Robotics spare that I had sitting around. The US Robotics device exhibited different problems. It went for longer periods without drops, but then would drop for longer periods (rebooting it seemed to always work). Since it was a bit older, and only a B router, I bought a Netgear WNR854T (an N router). I bought it re-certified.

It behaves just like the Linksys did, more frequent drops, but of shorter duration, that always auto-correct. I know, it’s re-certified, but still, three WiFi routers in a row? Yesterday, while at the house, enjoying my fantastic Verizon FiOS connection (30Mbps down, 5Mbps up), it occurred to me that the only thing all three WiFi routers have in common is the port they share on the FVS318 router.

I was actually excited to have a theory to test. When we got to the apartment mid-morning, I fired up the laptop, and swapped both the cable and the port that connected the WiFi router to the FVS. No Internet connection at all! What? We were just here on Wednesday, and it was working (albeit with the stated problems).

Rebooting the cable modem indicated that the cable modem just decided to die. I marched to the Time Warner service center. The one thing Time Warner does extremely well (and, unfortunately, I’ve taken advantage of this good service way too many times!), is staff a service center and swap devices quickly, with no questions asked.

I got there at about noon on a Saturday, and there were roughly 15 people working the service desks. It took less than five minutes to have my number called, and less than two minutes to swap the cable modem. 15 minutes later, I was back in the apartment (at least I got a bit of exercise). The new cable modem worked right away (still using the new cable and new port from the WiFi to the FVS).

A quick speed test gave me the sense that all of my problems were done. I got 8Mbps down and 492Kbps up, but with no jerkiness in the numbers. A smooth connection, it seemed. All joy died about 20 minutes later, when I had my first IM drop out.

So, in theory, it could still be the cable modem (or the cable company, at the head end). But, I left out a major detail which makes me believe that this is not the case. All of our phone calls are VoIP, so they use the cable modem as well. Whenever we experience a drop on the IM client, if either of us is on the phone, there is no drop on the call. At least, it’s not discernible (which doesn’t mean that a packet isn’t dropped along the way).

I am at my wits end. I have two things that I can try. One is to bypass the WiFi with a PowerLine connection (the cable modem is not in the room where we work). That will work, but if there are any drops, it won’t be clear that it isn’t the PowerLine adapter. The second thing is more painful. I just did the second one this minute. I reprogrammed the WiFi router to completely replace the FVS318. Since we’re leaving now, I won’t know until the next time we’re back whether this will solve the problem. If it does, then it means that the FVS was flaking out in general, somehow.

While it’s possible that three WiFi routers in a row are all bad, in a similar (if not exact) way, somehow, I doubt it. It is ironic that the cable modem just up and died, but the new one is exhibiting the exact same problem, so I don’t think it’s the problem either. For completeness sake, I should report that we are both using brand new laptops, with built-in N WiFi cards. Before that, we were each using Netgear N Cards. Before that, we used different model B and G USB-based WiFi adapters (with the old Linksys and US Robotics), all with the same drops, so it’s most definitely not the client devices!

If any of you have any suggestions out there for what else I can try, I’m all ears!

Internet Connection Sharing

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Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) has been around for a long time (formally, and through hack-like methods). I have never had a need for it (slightly amazing) until now. Yesterday I wrote about our current hotel WiFi woes. In that post, I wrote that I wouldn’t need to worry about it today, given that I would only be in the hotel for two waking hours.

After a very early breakfast, I decided to try ICS for the first time, just for yucks. There are a number of ways that I could have set it up, each as easy as the next, but I had one specific scenario in mind.

I set up Lois’ old laptop on the desk in the outer room (we’re in an Embassy Suites, so we have two rooms). I pulled out my small Linksys travel router and plugged it in there as well. I set my laptop up in the bedroom.

On Lois’ machine, I turned on ICS (there is a simple wizard) and told it that the Sprint Broadband Connection (through the USB cable to her Treo) was the real Internet connection. I then told the wizard that the wired port was the shared connection. I then plugged in the Linksys router to the wired port, with the Internet (WAN) port on the Linksys rather than the Ethernet port. So, the Linksys would be getting it’s IP address from the laptop.

Since my laptop is already configured to connect to the travel router, I didn’t need to make any changes to my machine. I went into the bedroom, and poof, I was on the Internet! This time, the Treo had a better connection than the day before, and I was getting 757Kbps downstream and 124Kbps upstream. That’s a faster downstream connection than I had yesterday on the paid WiFi!

I have heard that ICS on a Mac is brain-dead simple, and I have no doubt that it is. I can now confirm that it’s pretty darn simple on Windows too (Lois’ laptop that was serving the connection is Windows XP). You have to pick which network device is the real one, and which is the shared one, but other than that, nothing else to do.

I now don’t need to consider the hotel WiFi dilemma. Once Lois changes to the new laptop, I’ll have to consider getting an Express Card version of the modem, now that I know we can easily share that connection when necessary. It will still end up being an insurance policy, since we almost always have a free wired or WiFi connection wherever we are.

Victory! 🙂

Hotel WiFi

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This post is inspired by my current hotel WiFi woes. I’ve likely mentioned this gripe before, but since I’m living it at the moment, I’ll repeat it, vigorously. It’s insane that high-end hotels charge for Internet use (WiFi or wired), while their low-end chains (owned by the same company!) give it away for free!

Sure, some people pay for it (including me, last night), so you could argue that it’s smart. It’s not. It’s brain-dead stupid.

We are on a mini-vacation visiting our godson in Birmingham, AL for the long Thanksgiving weekend. We left the office on Tuesday and drove to Durham, NC where we stayed in a Hampton Inn for the night. We picked up a mutual friend the next morning and drove all day to Birmingham, where we are spending five nights in an Embassy Suites (owned by Hilton, which also owns Hampton Inn). We head back north on Monday morning.

Since it’s a vacation, we’re using Hilton HHonors Points to stay for free this trip. We stay in Hampton Inns nearly 100% of the time, both for business and for pleasure. We like them, they provide good value, a predictable experience, and free Internet access.

There is a Hampton Inn not too far from our godson’s apartment in Birmingham, but there is an Embassy Suites closer, and we’re having Thanksgiving Dinner at the Ruth’s Chris in that Embassy Suites tonight (getting closer, the mouth is already watering…), and, most importantly, it was the same exact number of points to stay there as to stay at the Hampton Inn.

So, I got on to the site, and thought I saw that the Internet Access was free. I was wrong… When I logged on last night, I paid the $9.95 for the 24 hour period. I was annoyed. No, I’m not cheap, but yes, I’m value oriented. Lois has a laptop too, so are we expected to pay $20/day for access? Yes. Never mind connection sharing strategies (which I can employ, but most people can’t).

I actually could go into great detail about that, and intended to, but I’ll pass and spare the poor readers. Our new laptops use Vista x64, and as I’ve noted in other posts, the only thing I don’t have working is the USB connection to our Treo phones (in fact, I can pair with Bluetooth, but I can’t get BT to work for syncing or phone-as-modem either).

So, I can’t use my Treo as a modem to connect to avoid the WiFi fees, which is what I would have done in the past. But, Lois hasn’t switched yet (another very long story), so I did whip out her Treo, and connected her laptop instantly via Sprint. That’s why I didn’t need to hassle with connection sharing. She was fine immediately.

Since I couldn’t use my Treo, I paid. But, whereas the average Hampton Inn gives me a 1.5Mbps connection, upload and download speed, this for pay connection was 537Kbps download and 236Kbps upload. Wow. Charge me, and give me an inferior connection. Real smart. Just for comparison, Lois had a bad connection (perhaps because we’re on the eighth floor), and she was getting 236Kbps download and 126Kbps upload (not much worse than my crappy WiFi connection!).

But, I paid (you say), so they are smart. Wrong. First, if I had realized that they charged, I would not have stayed there (forget that I’m using points, the same would have applied if I were paying with cash). If it wasn’t points, that could have put me in another chain as well, not necessarily a Hilton. Second, they are ensuring that my stay isn’t as pleasant as it might otherwise be. Tomorrow, I will only be in the room for two waking hours. No way I will pay, so I will be using only my Treo for email, and I will blame Hilton.

Next, while I made this mistake this time, I’m not likely to make it ever again. So, Embassy Suites has likely lost all future business that they might have gotten from me. Considering that I’m a Diamond VIP HHonors member, that loss might not be insignificant!

To be clear, everything else about our stay is very nice. The people are delightful. The breakfast was wonderful, The room is gorgeous. And yet, instead of making me want to pay up a little in the future (over a Hampton Inn), they are guaranteeing that I will be running back to Hampton Inn (at least they have won my business for their other chain) rather than spending more for an Embassy Suites stay. That’s why it’s dumb.

Aside from the above, there is a business center downstairs, and also two Internet Kiosks. I didn’t check, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the Business Center offers free Internet usage (for browsing on their machines). If that’s true, it makes it even more stupid to charge for the use in the rooms.

In this hotel, and others, there are other opportunities for the hotel to charge money (typically food, via restaurants or room service). If you encourage me to stay in the room, then I’m likely to use hotel amenities. If I feel ripped off, I’m likely to avoid anything that’s in that specific hotel. Free WiFi will tend to keep people engaged in their room, and therefore hanging around in the hotel.

Anyway, once this trip is over, and definitely once Lois switches to her new machine, I’ll be canceling the phone-as-modem options on both of our Treos. That will be a big loss for Sprint. We pay a huge premium (yes, it’s purely insurance, since we rarely use them in this mode). Since we rarely use the service, this is essentially free money to Sprint. But, since they haven’t pressured Palm to support Vista x64, and haven’t done anything about it themselves, they will lose this revenue.

Second, since the phone will no longer be a multi-purpose device, it will be slightly less useful to me. Also, since it doesn’t sync with my laptop any longer, it will be even less useful. That means that in the next few months, I’ll be in the market for a new phone, even though I like my Treo 755p a lot, and I am perhaps the only happy Sprint customer, and I pay them a small fortune every month, and I use next to zero services.

Yes, I’m an idiot, but I’m a happy idiot, and they are driving me away! More stupidity, but this time, not by a hotel chain… I believe that my next phone will likely be an Android-based one, on Verizon. I might have to wait six months to see a model I’ll be happy with, but once it exists, I’ll be switching.

I’m reluctant to go the extra step and get an express card data modem (or USB one), because I now know from experience that I will use it 3-4 days a year. It’s just a stupid premium to pay for that small amount of usage, but that too could still happen…

Wake up people, in this economy, these kinds of customer alienations will be even more damaging than they otherwise might be…

Internet Connectivity Update

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In this post, I discussed my emergency backup system for when my house or apartment Internet connectivity goes down. In that report, I mentioned that my WiFi connection in the apartment was getting reasonably flaky.

We’re in the apartment all week this week, so I was bracing for the experience. As I mentioned before, the WiFi router wasn’t far from our laptops, roughly 21 feet. There is a bathroom in between the two rooms, so there are two walls for the signal to travel through. Still, most of the time, it works well.

When the link is up, tests show an average download speed of roughly 3.6Mbps. Upload speeds of roughly 364Kbps.

On Monday and Tuesday, we had a few drop outs, but they were relatively short lived. Yesterday morning, we lost connectivity, and it didn’t come back within five minutes. I could have put the emergency plan into action, but I decided to try something else.

I have tons of extra (mostly ancient) networking equipment. In both the house and apartment, I have a pair of old Netgear XE602 Powerline Adapters. The pair in the house never get used, because the one place I could have used them yielded a near-zero signal. In the apartment, I have used them on rare occasion, but they worked reasonably well.

So, yesterday morning, I grabbed the pair, plugged one end in next to the main router (in the remote room) and brought the WiFi router into the bedroom, and connected it to the other XE 602. We immediately had a connection. It’s possible that the reboot of the WiFi router (even remotely) would have corrected the problem.

More important, when I did the speed test, I got 5.2Mbps down and 494Kbps up. After a while, even though I didn’t have a problem, I switched to a wired connected (since the WiFi router was close enough to my machine to just plug in directly). Lois remained wireless the rest of the day.

We never lost connectivity, but at least two times, there were instantaneous blips that would be unnoticed by humans (normally), but occasionally cause my SSH client to drop the connection to the server. I think it’s the Powerline devices (they are no longer sold new, and perhaps newer generations ones wouldn’t exhibit these problems). No worries though, this is way better than what we were experiencing.

For now, I’ll leave it set up this way. We have company coming in tonight, and staying the weekend. I don’t know if they will bring their laptops, but if they do, I may need to relocate the WiFi back outside, to give them a workable connection. We’ll see…

Internet Connectivity Insurance

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In the house, we have Verizon FiOS service (triple play, Phone, Internet, TV). In the apartment, we have Time Warner Cable (Internet and TV). Both services are very reliable (in terms of availability). Beyond that, Verizon FiOS is so dramatically better, I keep praying for when they’ll figure out how to deploy it to large apartment buildings in NYC.

The biggest difference in the service is the speed. On the FiOS link, I have 30Mbps downstream, and theoretically, 5Mpbs upstream (though no site seems to accept data at that rate, so it’s somewhat meaningless). On the TWC link, it’s between 4-5Mbps downstream, but a poky 364Kbps (yes, K, not M) upstream. Most of the time, that’s OK, but when sending large attachments, or updating a large blog posting 😉 it can be reasonably painful.

The other difference (for me, not between the services) is that at the house (on FiOS), I’m wired the entire way. At the apartment, I use WiFi. Lois uses WiFi at both places, and it’s rock solid at the house.

At the apartment, the WiFi is often flaky, even though we’re not all that far from the access point (it’s in another room, and there’s one wall between us, but it’s not more than 20 feet away). At some times, it’s rock solid, at others, it can drop out completely.

It’s possible that the router itself (a Linksys WRT54G) is flaking out. On the other hand, sometimes, it can go for days on end without a problem. Slightly more likely is the fact that we live in a heavily populated area, and there is likely a crazy amount of interference of all types on the 2.4ghz band.

So, this past Wednesday we drove in from the house to the apartment because we had tickets to see Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood at MSG that night. (Completely unrelated to that post, here is my review of that concert…)

We got to the apartment mid-morning and immediately logged on. The weather was horrible outside, and it’s possible (though I can’t imagine how) that it affected the WiFi signal as well. Within minutes of being logged on, we were experiencing tons of dropouts on the WiFi. The TV signal was fine, and I was able to make VoIP calls (which bypass the WiFi) without a problem, so the basic Internet service was definitely up as well.

After about an hour of complete frustration on our part, I decided to put the backup plan into action. As the name of the post implies, I have insurance for just such situations. For a few years now, I pay for an unlimited data plan with Sprint to use each of our Treos (I have a 755p, and Lois has a 700p). It’s not cheap, and I would probably save a ton of money if I paid only when I used it (because it is, after all, just for emergencies), but I really hate metering, and getting smacked with out-sized bills, even if overall, it would be cheaper.

Years ago, when few hotels had free WiFi, it was a very good deal, as we often both used our phones as modems for hours on end. Now, it’s actually rare that we stay at a place that doesn’t have free WiFi. Therefore, it’s also rare that we use the Treos to connect our laptops to the Internet.

On Wednesday, I pulled out both phones, connected them with USB cables, and connected via Sprint. We both stayed connected for at least six hours, never had a single drop of the connection, and neither of us felt that it was sluggish in the least. I didn’t measure the speed that day, but in the past, in the apartment, it has averaged roughly 400Kbps downstream and 100Kbps upstream.

I would hate to see what that one day bill would have been, which is I pay the set amount each month. Ironically, this is the second time this month that we’ve used the service. When we were visiting my folks on February 6th, Lois needed to do a ton of work (thankfully, I didn’t). She was using the WiFi in their apartment, and it was working fine for everything, except sending mail. Obviously, it was critical that she be able to send emails.

I realized fairly quickly that Bellsouth (excuse me, AT&T) was likely blocking outgoing SMTP that wasn’t going through their servers, but I wanted to visit with my folks, and I didn’t want to dork around with her machine, or my server. So, I just plugged her in to the Treo, and connected to Sprint, and she was fine for hours.

The next day, I just changed her settings to send through Bellsouth and that worked fine too.

So, while I’m definitely overpaying, I’m very happy to report that at least on the rare occasions when I need it, it not only works, but it works flawlessly, and provides a very satisfactory experience in terms of speed as well. That’s exactly how all insurance should work. 🙂