An ISDN Fairy Tale

It Still Does Nothing,
Part II, I Still Don't kNow

Last updated: 23 Mar 96

Our experiences with ISDN, PacBell and the Internet ...

is it Fact or Fiction ?

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Chapter 1 - Summer 1995

Being somewhat computer literate and true believers of high tech, there was always a chuckle over the seemingly bad press whenever ISDN was discussed in print. After all, PacBell has been charging hard and fast to bring this technology to the masses (though not quite as well as RCA(r) or Sony(r) DSS) and into our homes. Every other week, a new seminar pops up to tell us all about the glories of ISDN as your 2nd phone line for the Small Office Home Office (SOHO) environment.

The first step in preparing for our journey into the ISDN black hole was to step from the cozy security of our home computing environment and to ease onto the on-ramp for the information super highway. Obviously, if you've bumped into this page, watch out, you have also taken this step. Therefore, be forewarned, you too could suffer the same fate.

Looking back at those early days of dial-up & PPP internet access, how quickly we were caught up with that ever pressing nemesis, the insatiable need for speed. We started off as many with the nearly universal speed of 14.4 kbps. Soon 28.8 v.FC modems were the rage. In weeks (it's hazy now, maybe months), lo and behold, our internet service provider (ISP) generously started upgrading to the newest analog modem industry standard, 28.8 v.34. How privileged we felt as we dialed up these new v.34 lines and sought for the 28.8 & v.34 to show up on the modem's LEDs, signifying that we had indeed arrived at the ever elusive 28.8 plateau. [editor's remarks: now it's v.34 plus and 33.6kbps!]

Those few moments of bliss and satisfaction, faded as quickly as the 28.8 digits dropped to 26.4 or 24.0 and then to 21.6 and, more often than we desired, to that slap in your face speed of 16.8 kbps. Even more foolish [for weeks thereafter] was to think, to cross our fingers, to hope, and to even pray that line conditions would soon improve and that our modem would adapt accordingly. Tell the truth, has your new v.34 modem progressively retrained back up to 28.8kbps ? Actually, it wasn't as staightforward as all of this, the ever constant busy signals to the 28.8 v.34 and 28.8 v.FC local dialup numbers was the biggest frustration.

Chapter 2 - Fall 1995

Now that we have committed to take the plunge into ISDN and the pursuit of NT-1, terminal servers, "digital" modems and LAN routers begins and there is no looking back. The first step for us was to choose appropriate ISDN equipment. Our ISP supported ISDN so any issues with them could wait. An adequate amount of ISDN equipment and information seemed to be available for home users but much less is packaged for the Mac market. The up and coming player in this market was the
Motorola Bit Surfer and Bit Surfer Pro. In late 1995, the Bit Surfer seemed to be the choice of many for 56Kbps access. "Rumors" of the Bit Surfer Pro were hot and heavy but few were available and those that showed up seem plaqued with initial production bugs. With this momentum, even some ISPs seem to be coming up to speed with these and have configuration instructions to help you out.

For our needs, the Bit Surfer Pro indeed seems like a prudent approach but our 3 year old ethernet LAN was wholly under utilized and was ready to try out those "real computer" WAN type TCP/IP packets, AppleTalk LAN packets surely had become mudane and chatty. The on-ramp to the information super highway was once more littered with the debris of obsolete technology.

Pipeline 25Our eyes opened and no longer Mac-centric, we looked to the ISP terminal server standard, Ascend Communications. Enter the Pipeline 25. What a product, designed for the small home office, with few of the compromises inherent in the "digital" modems (albeit, with an uncompromising price).

Eager to get our hands on this uncompromising product we ordered one fully equiped from our favorite Creative Computers / MacMall. After only 6 weeks of waiting, the unit finally arrived, with a registration card indicating it was made only a month before, hot off the assembly line...what a deal and a free T-shirt to boot. No more did we fret about 3COM Impacts, Motorola Bit Surfer Pros or Zyxel digital modems (and in at this writing, the Farallon Netopia). The Pipeline 25, equipped with IP routing (what a farce, IP routing is a $300 option but we've heard of no one who could use one without it - all the ISPs seem to required it) and the infamous Stac 4:1 hardware compression (another $300 option, does Stac still sell Stacker for your PC's harddisk?) was more than ready to gobble up those bits faster than could be imagined. Step 1 wasn't too bad, a little patience and a lighter pocket, now to step 2.

After thoroughly digesting the manufacturer's ISDN setup and Telco ordering instructions, we were ready to sign up with our Telco in early November. Too bad though PacBell was still evolving home ISDN access at that time. Though much of San Diego was covered by digital phone switches, many were stil only 56kbps. For full SS-7 clear channel access, our 30 year old neighborhood wouldn't be ready till early December. Waiting another few weeks was a let down and December was a month a way, but what the hey, life was good and 112kbps was certainly better than nothing (28.8kbps, that is). PacBell signed us up and another innocent user would have their $125 installation fee waived with a 24 month signup commitment / sentence. So popular was ISDN it seemed that a tremendous backlog did not allow us to scheduled until the first week of December. Fate has smiled (or smirked) and it turned out we would never even get a glimpse of the second rate access limit of 112kbps. When PacBell woudld finally gives us ISDN, we would indeed have full 128kbps! What more could we want or think of asking for ?

Naive and overconfident, the first week of December arrives without a hitch and the PacBell truck comes up to the drive way. This installer begins the inside and outside wiring while another truck is bringing the new digital line to the house. At the end of the day, as the truck rolls a way, the words "we'll be back tomorrow" echoed in our ears. Weeks and weeks and half a dozen installers later, no digital line was yet to be seen. Christmas break was closing in and how in vain we had hoped we'd be surfing by New Year 1996. No ISDN trinkets under the XMAS tree for the Barr household in 1995.

Chapter 3 - Winter 1996

January 2, 1996 - Virtual ISDN works as advertised but reality is a bit too much for PacBell ISDN to live up too. Vacation at
MacWorld in San Francisco is coming up next week and no progress is in sight. PacBell must take extended XMAS breaks also...

January 15, 1996 - The line is finally provided to me by PacBell. The next few nights are spent configuring the Pipeline 25. Problems pop up with my ISP's setup instructions and their DNS server. By week's end, some progress is seen. 56kbps & 112kbps operates though 64kbps clear channel access is elusive. After a day of being up, the first of a long line of cable problems surfaces. PacBell spends days of not showing up and finally replaces both lines (digital and analog) from the side of the house to the nearest telephone pole.

One more try, and it's up for a few more days but like clockwork, the techs come again...we are getting to know our all 5 or 6 field techs on a first name basis and telephone support is beginning to know us and ask, "didn't I take your call last night?" Third time is the charm as they say and PacBell is convinced the NT-1 termination equipment is bad. A call to Ascend the next morning receives prompt and hassle-free acknowledgement of a bad Pipeline 25. (I'm not really convinced but Ascend support is so gracious about FedEx-ing us a replacement the next morning, it's too good to not accept.)

January 31, 1996 - A new Pipeline 25 is received just as promised, by 10am nonetheless. After configuring the first unit a dozen times, frustration mounts as setting up this new unit doesn't seem as straigthforward. As it turns out, fatigue and a mind dulled by staring at my non-back lite monochrome TFT portable display for way too many hours has block normal congnitive processes.

February 5, 1996 - Wonderfully, the ISDN line has been up for a solid week, the longest ever. We're beginning to think that all is stable, the replacement Pipeline syncs up with the telco switch and the line works like a dream. The image of a blinking light indicating a bad BRI connection is fading fast. But then, in ever-sunny San Diego, just a day or two after a couple of days of rain, everything go dead and the incessant blinking returns.

The first attempts at PacBell troubleshooting indicate that the line tests fine except that no NT-1 is active and the test terminates abruptly. After three days of run around, a knowledgeable support tech from Los Angeles (not locally in San Diego) examines the trouble report history and says that there is no way that the trouble ticket should be closed, the test obviously indicate a problem somewhere, probably past the mid-span repeater installed in my designer circuit (because our home is too far from the local switch).

February 13, 1996 - Will the saga continue ? Tune in later and we'll all see if ISDN can survive the real world of plug and play in the home environment.

February 28, 1996 - It appears that the ISDN line has been up and stable for two solid weeks now. It has survived 2 minor rain storms without a glitch. We were crossing our fingers after the storms, knowing that glitches were most likely to occur as the lines dried out. Hip hip hurrah, all's dry and still connected with BRI service!

Just as we thought digital technology was going to live up to its billing (thus far), as if driven by a conscience all its own, the steady and sure analog cousin steps up and makes itself be known. As it turned out, the rains did little (we're still hoping, that is) to degrade the ISDN but it played havoc with our normal POTS. Sure enough, six hours after calling up PacBell from the ISDN line (those POTS outlets on the Pipeline 25 sure come in handy at a time like this) the repairman pleasantly tells us that he's done all that he can today and that he's called up a cable maintenance crew to deal with bringing in a good line in tomorrow. To serve, or be served, by Technology, is surely to be humble(d).

March 23, 1996 - Well, all phone lines, digital and analog, have been trouble free for several weeks.

Now if only our cable TV was only half as trouble free. But then Southwestern's cable signal quality has always been sporadic and we've resigned ourselves to their monopoly in central San DIego. Seriourly, how do cable companies think they can deliver cable modems to the masses when the quality of their TV services doesn't meet customer (at least all the ones I've talked with) expectations of reliabilty and quality. Cheap multi-megabit (per second) internet access would be wonderful but will ring pretty hollow if they can't properly support the service.

Just when we've got the upper hand on ISDN and internet, along comes another obstacle in our journey on the information superhighway. It appears Telcos across the nation are seeking to significantly raise the tarrifs for home ISDN service. PacBell is no exception. I hear that one of PacBell's justifications is that supporting home ISDN has been much more costly than expected. Certainly, given our experience, we would agree that PacBell was not at all well prepared to offer this service in my immediate community of Clairemont.

I guess I'll have to wait for AT&T's WorldNet to mature and offer an alternative access to local ISDN and internet. We've certainly seen the signs of this over the last six months as AT&T has dug up all the main cross streets installing cable to allow AT&T to offer cable TV and other broadband services. As a consumer, options are always welcome...good luck to you, AT&T. We hope that you are prepared to offer other services better than the recent introduction of WorldNet on March 14th when most of us who signed up will have to wait for another month to even try it out.

If ISDN is still in your future check out Microsoft's ISDN campaign.

NOTE: All references to products and services on this page are wholeheartedly endorsed by the authors, just ... be careful what you wish for, you just may get it!
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Copyright 1996 W. W. Barr

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