How to wrestle with a home network and win

I sometimes wonder how the average consumer avoids going crazy when confronted with modern home networks. Things can get especially ugly when you add consumer-grade networking hardware and buggy firmware into the mix. Here are five self-defense tips every home network administrator needs to know before the wrestling match begins.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

I sometimes wonder how the average consumer avoids going crazy when confronted with modern home networks.

If you're lucky and your network is simple—a wireless router and a couple PCs—everything might just work. But if you're not lucky, or if your network is more complicated, then good luck. Weird, unpredictable problems arise when networks are involved, and things can get especially ugly when you add consumer-grade networking hardware and buggy firmware into the mix.

My home/office network is not average. Right now it comprises at least four desktop PCs, a couple of laptops, one Mac, two servers, two smartphones, an Xbox 360, a Drobo FS, a VOIP adapter, and two orphaned but still functional Media Center extenders. I have wired Gigabit Ethernet adapters wherever I can, with one wireless access point handling devices that can't conveniently connect to an Ethernet port.

That might seem a little extreme, but I’ll bet a lot of my readers can describe home networks that are almost as complex. And in an age of proliferating mobile devices, digital living rooms, and connected appliances, the challenges are only going to get worse.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to experience some of those inscrutable network problems firsthand. I switched our slow but reliable Qwest DSL service for a much faster Comcast cable connection. I bought a Motorola Surfboard DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem, got the self-install kit from Comcast, and set aside a weekend for the transition.

Roughly three weeks later, everything seems to be running right, finally. It all took longer than expected and hasn’t been without incident. Some of the bumps were a bit smoother than they might have been otherwise, thanks to lessons I learned during previous network wrestling matches.

Here’s how my experience went, along with five self-defense tips that every home network administrator needs to learn before the wrestling match begins.

1. Stuff happens. And it isn’t necessarily your fault.

I don’t believe I’ve ever done anything network-related that worked properly on the first try. There’s always something that goes wrong, with equipment or configuration or on the network itself.

That attitude saved me a little time two weeks ago, when the new cable modem stopped working right after lunch. I checked the network thoroughly to ensure that the problem wasn’t local. Eventually, I figured out that Comcast was giving the cable modem an IP address, immediately revoking it, and repeating the cycle a few minutes later.

So I called Comcast support, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I have VOIP service. When there’s no Internet access, the landlines don’t work and I have to use a mobile phone to reach a support tech. AT&T service is terrible in my office, so I got disconnected five times during the course of the first hour.

I finally grabbed a flashlight, a magnifying glass, a Sharpie, and a clean sheet of paper and wrote down all the pertinent details from the hardware. Then I relocated to another room where the GSM signal is stronger. By staying in that sweet spot I was able to stay connected for an entire call, during which a support rep determined that someone at the local Comcast office had simply canceled the work order and removed all traces of the cable modem’s configuration from their database. Once the information was re-entered, everything started working again.

I wasn’t exactly impressed when Comcast did exactly the same thing again earlier this week. This time I was able to get things resolved in about a half-hour. My account has been escalated up the Comcast customer service ladder, and I’ve been assured that it won’t happen again. We’ll see.

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2. Be patient.

Networks are complex systems. When something doesn’t work quite right, it is tempting to just start changing stuff—tweaking hardware options on the adapter and futzing with the firewall and editing keys in the Windows registry and changing DNS servers. That rarely ends well, in my experience.

Do one thing at a time, no matter how much you might be tempted to take a shortcut. If that doesn't work, put the setting back where it was and try the next item on your list.

This advice applies at every step of the way. It goes double when troubleshooting. After I promoted the Linksys (Cisco) WRT310N from its role of secondary wireless access point to full-time router, things worked fine for a couple of days. And then the network ground to a halt. Through methodical troubleshooting, I determined that the cable modem and all cables were working fine, but the router had simply stopped working. I could make it work only with a complete reset.

A little searching turned up plenty of similar reports from other owners of the WRT310N with, unfortunately, no solutions. The general consensus is that this device has overheating problems. I give that theory extra weight when I note that its design is visually similar to Cisco’s more recent SOHO router, the E3000, whose overheating problem has been well documented by my colleague Jason Perlow.

Rather than waste time with a trouble-prone device, I elected to replace it with a D-Link DIR-615, which was sitting on the shelf. It’s working fine as a stopgap solution. I have a brand-new Netgear WNDR3700—which earned rave reviews from network-savvy friends—that will take its place soon.

3. When in doubt, check for updates.

PCs aren’t the only devices that need regular updates. Firmware updates often fix bugs in routers, and you can’t rely on the manufacturer to deliver those updates automatically.

After I replaced the defective Linksys router, the Internet connection and the local network seemed to be working properly. I checked both VOIP lines, heard a dial tone, and scratched that item off the list as well. It wasn’t until 24 hours later that I realized our phones weren’t working after all. The phone rang, but neither the caller nor I could hear one another when I answered. Outgoing calls didn’t work, either; the phone didn’t respond to any input on the keypad.

The VOIP adapter was getting a good strong signal, and all the lights were normal. Resetting and restarting did no good, and I confirmed with Qwest’s excellent VOIP tech support that the rights ports were open on the router. This post from the Cisco Home Community boards described the exact same problem, with no resolution.

When I narrowed the search to include the model number of the router, I found a nearly identical report on D-Link’s support forums. That post was from August 2009. A reply, posted nearly six months later, suggested that a firmware update for the router would fix the problem. That turned out to be correct. After I flashed the firmware, the VOIP adapter started working properly again.

When I first set up the router, I had clicked the Check for Upgrade button in its configuration utility. It told me, incorrectly, that I had the latest firmware. A manual check of D-Link's support website turned up not one but two updates.

Note to self: Never trust auto-updates.

4. You can’t RTFM if you don’t have the manual.

There is no such thing as a standard interface for networking equipment. As one example, different routers use different default subnet addresses. Without a manual, you have to guess. And if you’re having problems with your network, it might be difficult or impossible to reach the support website to find the information you need.

That’s why I routinely download and save PDF copies of manuals for all equipment in my office. It’s handy for basic setup procedures, including how to reset the device, and for looking up obscure error codes.

For this project, I was very grateful I had saved the manual for the Cisco VOIP adapter. I couldn’t reach Its web-based interface because I had no idea what its IP address was. Resetting it involved a handset-driven setup interface with an interactive voice response menu (press **** to access the setup menu, then press 73738 to reset it to standard defaults). Without the manual I would not have had the slightest idea how to use it.

5. Spare parts are essential.

I was fortunate that I had a second router to swap in when I determined that the first one wasn’t working. Obviously, that’s a luxury most people won’t be able to afford. But Cat 5e and Cat 6 cables are cheap, especially when you buy them from a reliable discounter like monoprice.com. I’ve found it really helps to have a few spares, of different lengths to handle occasions when you need to make a physical connection.

And that ends this chapter, with things working fine—at least for now.

Have you had similar wrestling matches with a home network? Share your stories in the Talkback section below.

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