Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Wireless LAN Misery

Tale of woe with a happy ending

A few months ago I bought a new PC. Obviously it needs to be connected to the internet, and since I had a Netgear wireless router on top of my broadband connection, I decided to buy a wireless USB adaptor. Now I already had a Linksys wireless G USB adaptor on one of my other PCs, and I was as fond of it as it is possible to be for a small blue plastic box. Most loveable of all was how easy it had been to set up; I plugged it into the USB cable, Windows prompted me for the installation disc, I clicked 'Next' a few times and it was working. It found my wireless network, connected to it all by itself, and never gave me any bother again - it just worked, straight out of the box.

So for the new PC, choosing Linksys was a bit of a no-brainer. Sure, some other adaptors were a tad cheaper, but my time is precious to me, and I was happy to pay a few extra quid for something that I could reasonably expect would work straight out of the box. I ordered exactly the same device as the one I already had from a well-known online retailer. While I waited for the new one to arrive, I sneakily detached the old Linksys adaptor from the old PC (well, the kids could survive without internet access for a day or two) and installed it on my new one, so that I could download service packs and so on. Once again, the installation was painless and it just worked.

Two days later the new one arrived. I unplugged the old chap, uninstalled the driver, and installed the new one. The software and the bumf in the box seemed to have changed a bit, but that didn't seem to be a major problem. The installation still proceeded smoothly enough. But - horror! - it refused to connect to my wireless network, even when I typed in the SSID and told it where to look. Of course, it could see all five of my neighbours' wireless networks, and connect to three of them.

After half an hour of fruitless re-boots of both PC and network, I gave up and called Linksys technical support. Relatively few steps into the automated voice menu, a nice man somewhere in India answered, gave me his badge number, and started listening to my problem. He asked me whether security was turned on in my network - it isn't, because a previous set of problems between PCs and the router could only be resolved by turning it off. So he suggested that I set the new PC to use a static IP address instead of a dynamic one, and left me to try this.

The static IP address made no difference, so it was back on the phone to Linksys technical support - this time the support guy was in Manila, where it was 3AM. We spoke for a while about configuration and version number stickers that should have been on either the device itself or the packaging material, but weren't there.
Between us we tried every possible configuration change that we could think of. We uninstalled and re-installed multiple times. Using one of my other PCs, we downloaded a new version of the drivers for the USB adaptor from the Linksys site, carried them over on a flash drive, uninstalled the old driver and tried the new one. No luck there either.

Then we fiddled with the settings on my router. My last vestige of security - the router doesn't broadcast its SSID - was stripped away, but this also made no difference. We confirmed that the new PC could still connect to the neighbours' networks - most of them don't have security enabled either.

Eventually, one and a half hours after we began the call, Chris in Manila and I admitted defeat. The previous version of the adaptor works happily with a Netgear wireless-G USB, but the present one doesn't. All I could do was return my new Linksys adaptor to the retailer and ask for a refund - minus the cost of recorded delivery postage in both directions, of course. The postage and the phone charges will work out about half the cost of the device, and I still needed to buy a new adaptor that will actually work.

The funny thing is that isn't the usual woeful tale of crappy offshore customer service. The Linksys technical support was really exemplary; few menus, a real human early on in the process, and one who understood the product and its environment.
But I was still out of pocket, frustrated and fed up. My computer still couldn’t connect and real experience has given the lie to claims that WiFi is an easy, customer-friendly technology.

So I escalated the problem. I know some PR people at Cisco, which owns Linksys, so I made it their problem too. Sure enough, a fiendishly clever engineer called me, said that this was not a ‘known issue’, and resignedly offered to find an ‘old’ version of the USB adapter at the back of a warehouse somewhere. He was as good as his word, and a new ‘old’ one duly arrived. Sadly, it worked no better than the previous one. I was decisively beaten.

I arranged for my ISP, Blueyonder, to move my broadband cable point. Two big South African guys came, climbed all over the roof, drilled holes in the wall and left. The router went upstairs, I connected via a wire, and happiness reigned.

Then, a couple of weeks later, in the middle of the night, the source of the problem revealed itself to me. My Netgear router had been set up for me by Vince from over the road. Vince didn’t really think much about whether I might change my computers over, or at least didn’t have a clear vision of me needing to do this but not knowing as much as him. So with the best will in the world, he had turned something called MAC access filtering on in my router’s settings. This meant that it would only ever talked to devices that it already knew about at the time that the filtering was activated. So all my new Linksys adapters – old and new – were locked out because the router was actively barring them.

I probably would have found that out if I had ever tried Netgear’s customer support, but the only experience I had ever had with them had put me off for good. So I had to wait until my unconscious mind dredged up a memory of Vince burbling away about how he was protecting the security of my network, and me saying ‘yeah yeah whatever…’
It took me five minutes to fix the problem, and I felt ten feet tall – but still a bit embarrassed that it taken me so long to ‘remember’ what the problem was. And angry that no-one else had ever thought to suggest MAC access filtering might be the problem. And ashamed that I needed someone else to suggest it. I can afford the kit for my wireless LAN, but I am not sure I am going to be able to afford the therapist’s fees.