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Tech Savvy for August 20, 2009

A failure to communicate

by Dan Harper

     Recently I went to use the internet and discovered… nothing.  My internet connection was not working.  While I am not the type to be emotionally distraught over being “unplugged,” I wondered what was going on.  In this week′s Tech Savvy we will examine what to do if your service is  interrupted and common things that make broadband internet connections die.

    The first thing to do when your internet connection goes away is what we do when the lights go out.  Check with your neighbors to see if they have service. This will allow you to determine the severity of the trouble and convey this information to your provider when you call.

    The second thing to do is to call your provider.  The good folks at Bresnan informed me that they were having an outage in my general area, and were working feverishly to restore service.  This let me know that it wasn′t my equipment or a billing issue.

    Finally, you know all that stuff you were supposed to be doing while you were online?  Now′s a good time to do it.  Given a choice of watching a light blink mournfully and picking up that book you′ve been dying to read, make use of your time in a constructive way and show those machines that they don′t control you!

    What causes these outages?  Weather issues are fairly common and interrupt our online lives with a crash of lightning or the efficient removal of telephone poles by a tornado.  However, sometimes it is much more subtle.  High speed communications rely on wire that has electrical characteristics within a certain criteria.  A little water in these lines or in splices can slow or even stop our ebay shopping sprees.  If you lose a significant amount of speed when it rains, you should inform your provider.

    Equipment failures are fairly rare, but sometimes the provider will update the software on their equipment and it screws up the works.  These issues are notoriously hard to troubleshoot since the hardware is actually working, just not in the way we want.  These sorts of issues separate the men from the boys in the tech world because they demand a high understanding of the underlying technology.

    The top killer of broadband connections is construction.  In the communication industry, we sometimes call backhoes “cable magnets” for their unerring ability to find buried communications cables.  When this happens, it takes a while to make the connection whole again, regardless if it is optical fiber or a whole lot of copper wire pairs.

    During an outage communication, workers try very hard to restore the service you pay them for.  Whether a person is in the field splicing fiber in driving sleet, digging through mind numbing log files to find the problem in a network ops center that looks like something out of Star Trek, or overworking at the help desk you called when Yahoo won′t come up, they wouldn’t rest until it′s all back up and running.   Help them out where you can by making your calls short, informative, and pleasant.

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