This article first appeared in the Closing the Gap Newsletter. I updated it in summer, 2002 to include more information on AirPort.
Cable Internet Finally Hits the Woods
I’ve been supporting a number of web sites and dealing with hundreds of emails a week for many years, all with a dial up account and a modem. Here in the northwest corner of Connecticut we may be one of the last places on the east coast to get any kind of high speed access to the Internet. Not only did we have to dial up for a connection, but the connection wasn’t and isn’t all that stable: ice on phone lines, wind, trees knocking down lines, and dampness offset some of the benefits of living in “the country.”
Our phone company, SNET (Southern New England Telephone) is not a great phone company and was recently bought by Bell Atlantic. They’ve been promising residential DSL service for years now and the scuttlebutt is that the entire state will have DSL by the end of this (2001) year. I’m not holding my breath although when it comes I will undoubtedly want it.
Meanwhile our local cable company has also been slow to offer cable internet. Their cable infrastructure wasn’t in place nor did they have the server infrastructure in place to offer it. Along comes a large East Coast cable provider (Optimum Online) and viola, our company offers us Optimum’s cable internet service.
So, I now have access to the internet via cable and even though some of you have been down this path already or have been down the DSL path already I thought it would be useful to tell you what I’ve done in my house and how it works.
What is Cable Internet?
Cable TV companies have put coaxial cable (on poles and in the ground) into most communities now. Almost the entire United States is wired for cable TV and finding people who have good enough reception to only watch broadcast TV is starting to be as rare as finding people who use rotary dial phones (I know, some you reading this have rotary phones but the real question is, how many of you use acoustic couplers to get on the internet?!).
There are two competing infrastructures: phone lines and coaxial cable. There is overlap in ownership of these infrastructures and we won’t go into the deregulation of the phone company in this article but those of you who are as old as I am (or older) remember the days when there was a single phone company and cable TV was Ted Turner’s wild experiment. Now Ted Turner works for AOL/Time Warner and that “convergence” is yet another story.
The kind of information that can travel or live on these two kinds of “lines” is varied and confuses the issue in many ways: phone lines can handle video as well as voice and coaxial cable can handle phone calls as well as video (TV).
Best to think of the two infrastructures as competing “pipes” that can handle any kind of information. The big question five years ago was which one would win, but now the question is, which one will set up reliable service to your house first. In our case, the answer was cable as our phone company still has not offered DSL here in Warren, Connecticut as of the posting of this article (10/15/01).
When I heard that our local cable company was offering internet service I got in line in their phone tree to order it. Because I spend so much of my time supporting web sites the cost was less important to me than just getting it.
Because we’re already cable TV subscribers with a level of service just above basic, we were offered internet service for $29 a month. We were also offered a “deal” on a cable modem which we took knowing nothing about them. From what I’ve heard, $29 a month is a very good deal. I’ve heard of people with cable or DSL paying as much as $60 a month for the same service we have.
What Came in the Box
A week after signing up two boxes arrived. In the boxes were:
- a Motorola cable modem with power supply
- a cable splitter (for turning a single cable into two: one for the TV, one for the computer)
- a 50′ piece of coaxial cable
- a 10′ piece of 10 base T ethernet cable
- a CD with software and a setup installer on it (including a two year-old copy of Netscape Navigator, etc. with little Mac support), all close to useless
- various manuals, all close to useless
I opted to do the installation myself. For $150 I could have had the cable company come out and split the cable and mess with my computer. No thank you, they rarely know anything about Macs and I figured I’d call them if I messed it all up (which was a distinct possibility).
I did was go to Radio Shack and buy the following:
- a cable stripper
- a box of cable connectors (BNC cable ends)
- a crimping tool for putting the cable connectors on the raw or cut cable
- two boxes of clips for nailing the cable to the wall in the attic
- 50′ of cable (I found the Radio Shack cable easier to strip and put ends on than the stuff the cable company sent me)
I had to pick a place to cut our cable so I could add the splitter and run the line to my office. I picked the attic where the cable comes into the house.
I used the wire-cutter part of a large pliers to cut the cable, then used the cable stripper I bought from Radio Shack to strip the insulation off of the cable. Don’t try to do this with a pocket knife, the Radio Shack cable stripper is worth it, even for one job.
I pushed the cable connectors onto the now cut-in-half and stripped cable and crimped them on with the crimping tool. Now I had my original cable, cut in half, unconnected with “female” cable ends on each piece. No TV until I got this thing back together and working. We don’t watch a lot of TV but I felt a bit nervous at this point.
I took the cable splitter, a cast aluminum thing, and took the end of it with one connection sticking out and screwed the cable coming from the street into it. I took the other half of the cable (the one running downstairs to our TV) and screwed that into one of the two other connectors on the other side. We now had working cable TV again. Whew!
I took the 50 foot piece of cable I’d bought at Radio Shack and used the stripper and crimper to put a cable connector end onto it, then screwed it into the third male end of the splitter (the last one).
I ran the new cable connection back along our attic to the back of my office (where the cable modem was going to live), drilled a hole in the wall, pushed the cable through (it took a while to get it through the insulation and find the other side of the wall) and out into the office.
I pulled it all through, then used the nail-clips to attach it to the exposed rafters of our attic, up out of the way.
I used the stripper and crimper to put yet another cable connector on the end of this new cable and I was now ready to either watch TV in my office (not), or connect the end of the cable to the cable modem.
You should know that once your cable provider offers cable internet, it’s everywhere in the entire cable system. It’s not like they turn a valve in the main office to run it to your house; it’s at everybody’s house all the time. Just like HBO is on the cable on your road and the reason you don’t have it is because the cable guy put a filter in-line with your cable on the pole. HBO is everywhere and you need to have the filter pulled to get it. The internet is everywhere and you need a cable modem and a registered IP address to get it.
So, I plugged the power supply of the cable modem into the wall and it lit up like a Christmas tree. I screwed the cable connector into the back of the modem and the lights blinked a bit (something was on that cable that the modem liked). I took the length of ethernet cable they sent me and ran it to my PowerBook and plugged it in.
Now I had all the physical connections in place to be online all the time. Now I just had to get the computer to recognize the cable modem.
This part of the setup goes like this for OS 9:
- AppleTalk Control Panel: Ethernet built in
- TCP/IP Control Panel: Ethernet, DHCP
This part of the setup goes like this for OS X:
Preferences: Built-in Ethernet
- Configure: Using DHCP
Now I could get on the web and cruise around at warp speed. It was simply amazing.
The only thing left was setting up email. I have a domain (ldresources.com) and get my email through my web provider and I did not want to use the email address the cable company gave me. However, I had to use their mail server (an SMTP server) for my outgoing mail so it was simply a matter of changing my Internet Control Panel to use that server name, or, I could change my email program if that’s where I was storing that information.
I must admit that this entire process took about a day and I was on the phone with a good friend in Oregon who’s a Mac expert and who has DSL for which the setup is much the same.
I was the first person in my area which is very rural to get this and when I went online to test the speed of my connection it was remarkably fast, faster, in fact, than DSL.
Two weeks later, as more people had signed up, the connection speed dropped some. And this is the one big downside of cable internet access: the connection speed is determined by local traffic: the more traffic the slower the speed. DSL, on the other hand is constant and isn’t affected by local traffic.
Does this speed issue bother me? Not at all. I can’t imagine how I lived without it and now I end up sending 2 meg jpeg files to friends forgetting that they have 56K modems and I’m tying them up for hours. Just two months ago I cursed people who did this to me and now I’m doing it to others.
The next step for me was twofold: to get my wife’s computer online and to put in a firewall so our little network couldn’t be hacked from the outside.
Every device on the internet has an IP address (IP = Internet Protocol). An IP address looks like this:
When I signed up for cable internet service I was sent a cable modem by the service provider. The cable modem, when connected to the coaxial cable from the road, has a way of getting assigned an IP address. I was told when I signed up for this service that I would have a dynamic IP address (it would change from time to time) as opposed to a static or fixed IP address.
Most people who connect to the internet via modem, cable modem, or DSL modem are assigned a dynamic IP address by their provider. Static IP addresses are used by companies with direct connections to the internet and users who request (and pay for) them from their providers. They cost more because theoretically (and actually) they allow you to “serve” a web site from home or wherever the static IP address is. You can’t act as a server with a dynamic IP address because each day your “location” could change.
There is a database of static IP addresses (web servers) and domain names (closingthegap.com, ldresources.com, apple.com, etc.). Various servers around the world called “dns servers” (domain name servers) provide the lookup information so that when you type “http://www.closingthegap.com” into your web browser a message is sent to CTG’s IP address (a number like the one above). Network Solutions (ugh!) and others allow you to register and pay for domain names and as part of this, you have to give them the IP address of the server your web site is on so they can add it to the lookup tables on all the dns servers around the world.
With a single dynamic or static IP address, how can we get more than one computer to share a single cable connection? If each device needs its own address, my computer is using the single IP address provided. My wife Anne’s computer can’t share that address.
To share a single address we needed to make a small network in our house so the network itself acts as the single device rather than each of our computers. To make this kind of network one needs a device called a router. A router is different from a hub in that it has software installed in it that allows any device on its network to share a single IP address.
Technically speaking the routine this software runs is called “NAT” or Network Address Translation. This is the tricky scheme that translates from local IP addresses (on your home network) to your single external IP address (your cable modem) and back.
The router has a power supply, a port for an ethernet cable that comes from the cable or DSL modem and numerous ports to connect computers and printers on its network. The router automatically assigns each device an internal (to your network) IP address and quickly translates and “routes” information coming in and going out to the appropriate place.
With a router, both Anne and I can be on the internet at the same time and many other folks could share our single cable modem connection.
Interestingly, cable companies won’t tell you about getting a router, they’d rather sell you another cable internet subscription. Read this and thumb your noses at them.
We also have an Apple LaserWriter and we have it connected to the router with an ethernet cable. This allows Anne to finally print from her computer on the printer in my office.
Most routers have a port that can act as an up-link port so that you can daisy-chain a hub onto it to get even more ports.
So, now Anne and I are both on the internet surfing the web and sending and receiving email. If you come over with a Mac (we don’t allow Windows-based machines in the house although if one did sneak in it could also be on our little network) you can connect and surf in a matter of minutes.
If all of your computers are pretty close together or you already have ethernet cables in your house or office, you probably don’t need to consider a wireless network. Anne’s computer is in a place in our house that’s near impossible to string ethernet to without doing some serious snaking in the walls. We knew there was a better and easier way.
IEEE 802.11, What is it?
802.11 is a wireless standard invented by Lucent and adopted by most of the computer industry. It was not invented by Apple or IBM or Compaq, but all of these companies make devices that use it, like USB or ethernet.
Wireless is a broadcast signal, like FM radio, running at a different frequency.
The current 802.11 standard runs at about 11 megabits per second (11 million bits per second). This sounds pretty fast if you’re a dial up modem user (56,000 bits per second) but many corporate, university, and even K-12 networks run at 100 megabits per second over ethernet cables. There is now gigabit per second ethernet although I’ve read that gigabit is approaching the speed limits of the ethernet standard.
Simply, a wireless network is a network that exists by broadcast without wires but all the same rules I talked about above (namely: NAT) exist. If you’ve not used or seen this kind of network I highly recommend that you find someplace to experience it. One of Apple’s new retail stores would be perfect and there’s one opened in the Mall of America. I’ll bet that if you brought your AirPort-equipped iBook or PowerBook to the Mall of America you’d be on the internet within 100 feet of the Apple store.
Apple’s implementation of 802.11 wireless is called AirPort. In typical Apple fashion, they made AirPort the easiest to install and use wireless technology in the industry.
Apple makes an AirPort Base Station which looks like a flying saucer and AirPort cards that can be installed in newer Macintosh computers: iMacs, iBooks, G4 PowerBooks, and G4 Towers. Some of Macintoshes come with AirPort cards pre-installed (the G4 PowerBooks).
You connect the AirPort Base Station to your cable modem with a short ethernet cable, plug the Base Station into the wall, install the AirPort cards in the various computers on your network and turn AirPort on in its control panel or on the Control Strip. Viola, everyone’s on the internet with no wires.
In doing my (skimpy) research before I bought the components of our network I read in TidBits http://www.tidbits.com about the need for a firewall when using a cable modem either with a single computer or with a network of computers.
The word firewall in this context is a metaphor for a barrier between the contents of your computer and local network and the prying eyes of a hacker out on the internet looking for IP addresses that are unprotected (the firewall in a car is the metal between the engine and your legs and lap). Anyone who has a cable or DSL modem without a firewall should know that you’ve probably been “sniffed” if not hacked numerous times already. A firewall will prevent most (but not all) attacks from the outside. It’s something to seriously consider, even for a home network.
Norton makes a firewall that’s software that you install on your computer but my reading led me to believe that hardware firewalls built into routers would be better.
So, I knew I wanted a wireless router with a built-in firewall to share my single IP address with Anne. Apple’s first generation AirPort Base Station did not have a firewall so I bought and used a Farallon (now Proxim) Netline Wireless Gateway first, then sold it and bought a second generation AirPort Base Station after Apple added both an extra ethernet port and a firewall to their product.
There are numerous vendors who make these wireless routers so don’t feel like you have to get an AirPort Base Station, however, I found the software that came with the Netline Wireless Gateway inferior to Apple’s AirPort administration and configurating softare for its Base Station.
I have two computers: a G4 PowerBook and a late model iBook. Both have slots under the keyboard for an Apple AirPort Card ($99). The G4 PowerBook came with one pre-installed.
The iBook has an antennae built into the housing for the LCD screen which makes reception excellent from quite a distance. The spec is up to 150 feet but sometimes one can go further and sometimes certain walls make even 50 feet difficult. The G4 PowerBook’s slim screen housing prevents this so its antenaes are built into the keypad area (left and right) and reception is terrible, much worse than the iBook. This is a serious flaw in what is otherwise an excellent computer.
I ordered an AirPort Card for both my wife’s and my iBooks and installed them in less than 10 minutes (for both). Un-clip the keyboard and flip it over, take the extra doohickey (for iMacs) off the AirPort card, plug the antennae cable into the card and slip the card into it’s slot making sure it’s well seated. Put the keyboard back in place and you’re done.
Placement of the base station is something you can play with to affect reception so when you’re designing these kinds of networks do your best to get the base station as centrally located as possible. Apple has an excellent document on their web site called Designing AirPort Networks that generalizes well to any wireless network. Go to http://www.apple.com/airport/ and look at the bottom-right of the page for a number of useful PDF files.
For home networks, I highly recommend going wireless and if you’re a Mac user AirPort is the way to go for simplicity. Between our cable modem keeping us connected at (relatively) high speed all the time and our wireless network, and our PowerBook and iBooks (our only computers these days) the way we use our computers has changed completely. Being online all the time allows you to use the copious resources of the web the way you would local software, and of course, allows you to spend more money faster at one-click enabled web sites!
This is the way everything should work in the computer world. We can only dream. Apple rarely receives credit for this kind of thoughtful design work but I know that Windows users do not have it this good.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the possibilities when you couple this image (using a portable computer anywhere and being connected all the time) with the image of someone sitting in a wheelchair or someone who, for any reason can’t get to the computer that’s connected to the internet.
For what it’s worth, I’m sending this article to Closing the Gap from our backyard, trying to soak up the last rays of summer (2001).
Summer’s over. Bummer.
Richard sitting in his backyard under the apple tree (no pun intended), using an older G3 PowerBook connected to the internet via an AirPort wireless network.