Monday, April 16, 2007

Clearly No Wire

Earthlink did it again, now having been Earth-No-Link for five days. The company also provides us with one phone line, which went dead five days ago and obviously the dsl connection with it. I have been on the phone to India and the Philippines again, trying to understand sometimes very heavy accents. It seems to me that with the increased demand for outsourcing customer and tech support, language skill requirements have been lowered. Normally I teach students whose parents come from many different countries and I'm comfortable communicating with them even when a native might have trouble. Being a foreigner has its benefits: understanding other immigrants is easy.

So, after telling the first two people (in different countries, based on the accents) that the problem was local in origin, and that they would have to contact their contractor here in Seattle, Washington, the United States, the phone came back to life after 12 hours. No dsl though, and I was back on the phone between students and playing. At some point on Friday the dsl light on the modem lit up and the activity light blinked, both to disappear then altogether. This would happen again repeatedly. I had seen this problem earlier when Earthlink first became our phone/long distance/internet provider and knew the reason: our house is too far from the central office to handle the kind of speed (6 mbps) they had initially promised. I told the tech rep to contact their people here (Covad?) to have it lowered. This was on Friday and the person on the phone said that this problem would be taken care of on Saturday morning. Of course this didn't happen and due to the busy weekend, and knowing that nothing would happen on Sunday, I called back this morning, Monday, to inquire how the issue was progressing. Again, the representatives seemed more interested about my father's middle name and my mother's maiden name than in solving the problem. I have been promised now that I should have a dsl connection in two days, making it an interruption of a week.

For a while I was able to connect to a neighbor's unsecured wireless network, but then got kicked out, probably by their firewall. I had to come up with another solution and was able to establish a connection using my Cingular 3G phone as a wireless broadband modem (it isn't quite as straight forward as it sounds). Early in the weekend, while my daughter was having her guitar lesson, I quickly drove to the nearest shopping mall where I had seen a Clearwire booth. When the company initially started service in Seattle I had been interested, but due to our location on the 'wrong' side of the big Queen Anne hill, their signal didn't reach us. Sure enough they've adding antennas and I found out that our address is now being served by no less than three transmitters. I quickly took care of the paperwork, got the rather big but lightweight antenna and was on time to pick my little one up from her lesson.

Back at home I set up the antenna (it requires to be powered) and connected it to a computer and – bingo – I was online. My wireless router was set to connect with Earthlink's PPPOE settings and I didn't want to alter them, so we were down to two computers, one using Clearwire and the other my cell phone. Printing and other network problems existed, however, so after this morning's call I reset the Linksys router, connected the Clearwire cable, renamed the wireless network and gave it a strong password, and we are back in business. When I hear back from the Earthlink people, I'm going to find out if we are stuck in a long term contract or if we can terminate the account. However, getting a second phone line with unlimited long distance would cost almost as much, so we might for the time being keep things as they are but not use the dsl, unless we decide to hook it up to a single non-essential computer, as a backup.

I have read a lot of pro and con opinions regarding Clearwire. Obviously many people have had trouble, but equally many have loved the service. I belong in the second group. At least in my case nothing could have been easier to set up. I get a download speed of over 1600 kbps; upload speed is slow, around 300, but since I'm not running a business server, it will do. What they have managed to do is to provide the first truly simple broadband connection. There is no software to install, no settings to worry about; in other words anybody could set it up. That can't be said of any dsl or cable provider. Also, although I haven't done the actual math, they seem to be priced lower than the competition, especially if you stick with the slower connection offered, plenty fast enough for most needs.

And I didn't forget to ask them about an important issue: their customer service and support. They used to be overseas but now they are located back here, in Las Vegas. It didn't hurt that the sales person at Northgate mall was as pleasant and helpful as I've ever encountered.

Look Ma, no wires!