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Broadband snafus

Many broadband providers were caught off-guard by Windows XP.

With the recent demise of [email protected] Internet service, delivered over the AT&T cable broadband network, many PC users are leery of committing to broadband. Sure, AT&T replaced the network within a week, but many hours of productivity were lost while waiting for the fix. Even if your provider isn’t about to go under, there are lots of problems that can happen between whatever flavor of Windows you’re using and your broadband connection. And while you might not be able to stop the next Excite from going belly-up, there are things you can do to diagnose, solve, and prevent high-speed snafus on your Windows PC.

Driver problems

First and foremost, there are driver issues with Windows XP and certain DSL and cable modems. While most Alcatel modems, for example, are compatible with Windows XP, the Alcatel SpeedTouch USB modem is not. And of course, the problem doesn’t limit itself to Alcatel modems; many different brands come with drivers that aren’t Windows XP-ready.

If you recently installed Windows XP and are having problems using your DSL or cable modem, the first thing you should do is check the manufacturer’s site for driver updates. (Alcatel recently posted a new Windows XP compatible driver for the Alcatel SpeedTouch USB.) Upgrading a modem driver is usually easy and painless, and the Alcatel site (as well as most other modem manufacturers’ sites) offers explicit instructions for doing so.

Interfacing with your modem

Driver problems are not limited to modem. Network Interface Cards (NICs) also can cause speed bumps. Under ordinary use, the NIC will rarely be the cause of a connection issue. Windows operating-system crashes, however, can cause the NIC’s drivers to become corrupted, keeping them from working to optimum capacity.

One quick and easy method to check whether the NIC is affecting your connection is to look at the lights on your modem. If the green “PC” or “Link” light isn’t on, then the cable that connects your card to your modem might not be connected properly. Disconnect and reconnect the cable at both the card and the modem.

If the cables were connected properly and the light still isn’t on, you more than likely have a driver issue and will have to reinstall the NIC drivers that came with your card (or download new ones from the manufacturer). Reinstalling NIC drivers is relatively easy. In fact, upgrading modem and NIC drivers regularly can help you avoid other incompatibility issues down the road, nipping them in the bud before they develop.

Security issues

Much has been made of the security issues inherent in a broadband connection. The fact is that a broadband connection isn’t really any less secure than dial-up; because it is a permanent “open” connection to the Internet, however, it is more attractive to hackers and other folks wanting to use your connection for nefarious means.

According to a report on security at speedguide.net, when you’re working in Windows and you are not running a local area network (LAN)–and your PC has File and Print Sharing turned off–you should be comparatively safe on the Net. If, however, you are using a LAN, or even a proxy server, you might be in for some trouble.

You can check to see if File and Print Sharing is turned on by checking under Control Panel/Network/File and Print Sharing. If it is on, and if you’re sure that you’re not using it, turn it off. If you are on a LAN and need to share files, make sure that everything is password-protected and that you’re running a firewall.

A firewall can help you secure your Windows PC broadband connection. A firewall is software or hardware that filters network traffic and blocks vulnerable ports in order to protect your LAN or Windows PC from being accessed by the wrong people. Firewalls vary in what they can do (some, for example, will allow you to log and track unauthorized attempts to enter your system) and the one you install depends entirely on your needs. Windows XP comes with a built-in basic firewall that you can install to protect any outside connection on your PC. Symantec also offers an inexpensive firewall program that’s easy to install and use for beginners and advanced users alike.

For more information about DSL and cable modem security, check out speedguide.net’s fantastic guide to DSL and cable modem security.

Find your way home

Is someone accessing your PC or network via a broadband connection without your knowledge or permission? Homing Pigeon, from ZeaSoft, can help track down the offender and keep them from harassing your system ever again.

The software starts every time the machine is booted, running invisibly in the background. It waits until it senses that a connection to a network has been made, either through the dial-up networking or a LAN, and then e-mails the owner the information, including the offender’s location on the Internet. At the user’s discretion, the PC can also place a call to the user’s pager to immediately identify the breach in security.

Homing Pigeon reports the ID of the person logged into Windows, as well as any Dial-Up Network (DUN) settings on the machine and the ISP IDs associated with those DUNs, further giving you the proof you need to prosecute the offender.

If you feel that someone is illegally accessing your system and a firewall doesn’t seem to keep intruders out, Homing Pigeon is definitely something to consider. The software costs $25 (available from SeaSoft’s site) and runs on all flavors of Windows with a cable modem, DSL, T1, or dial-up connection.

Getting up to speed

Sure, your broadband connection is supposed to run at a minimum of (for example) 256Kbps, but do you know at which speed you’re really connected? A plethora of sites exists to help you determine your real-world connection speed; one of the quickest and easiest to use is 2wire.com.

The test is easy–2wire.com simply checks how long it takes your connection to download data and reports back the results. For example, my cable modem rated a speed of 449.8Kbps on the site. But does that tell the real story? If you want to delve deeper into the issue of speed, visit testmyspeed.com. The site lists dozens of different sites that do what 2wire.com does, divided up into regions. Some perform simple speed tests like 2wire.com, while others perform more complicated tests that give you a better idea of what your average speed will be over an entire session. If you’re getting significantly different speeds than were promised by your ISP, and you have already checked your drivers, it’s time to get on the phone and make sure your provider gets you up to speed.

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