Reconfiguring a Plusnet ADSL router (Sagemcom 2704n)

I’ve been trying to improve my Skype call quality at home and the guys I work with who know about this sort of stuff have suggested that my cheap ISP-supplied router may be part of the problem. Put simply, the Technicolor TG582n that Plusnet shipped me last year is fine for a bit of web surfing, it even streams video from iPlayer, etc. OK, but it’s not up to the task for P2P or real time media.

I was playing around with some of the settings and found that the router wasn’t behaving reliably (when I applied changes, and they weren’t applying) so I called PlusNet, who gave me two options: factory reset and a new router. I went for both.

The factory reset got me back up and running until the new router arrived. Plusnet’s current “Hub Zero” router is a Sagemcom 2704n and, whilst I’ve yet to see if my Skype for Business call quality improves, everything else about it seems to be a retrograde step:

The hardware design is flawed – when fixed to the wall, the router’s Ethernet ports are inaccessible (there isn’t enough room for them to turn through 90 degrees!) and, despite having a Gigabit Ethernet switch the ports are only 10/100 (yes, the ADSL connection is much slower than that but the cheap Ethernet ports reduce the speed of the local network).

Then, there’s the firmware that Plusnet have applied to the router which takes dumbing down to a new level. At least with the TG582n I could make a telnet connection for advanced configuration; Plusnet have blocked telnet, SSH and SNMP so there’s no way to manage the device. They’ve also removed the ability for ICMP to be enabled so my broadband ping trace flat-lined when I plugged in the new router:

PlusNet router blocks ICMP
No ICMP, no ping test

Worst of all, the Plusnet firmware hides the ability to change the IP address of the router, or to turn off DHCP. Given that I have a business account and that the paperwork with the router says “Welcome to Plusnet Business”, I’d have thought that almost any business with more than a handful of users would have its own DHCP server and may want to control the IP range in use (as I do – my Raspberry Pi does runs the infrastructure here). Luckily, after some hunting around I found a forum post with the details I needed:

Log into it using http://192.168.1.254/expert_user.html with the admin name and password.
Select >Advanced Setup >LAN
First select the ‘Disable DHCP Server’ radio button, then at the top, change the IP address

[…]

now click Apply/Save at the bottom. The 2704n will now update and the page will start to refresh but won’t complete as you now have to change the address in your browser URL bar to http://[yourchosenIP]/expert_user.html

In all likelihood, I’ll be buying a new router. Something decent for ADSL2+ that will also work if I do upgrade to FTTC later. In the meantime, at least I’ve managed to get over the biggest hump with reconfiguring the Sagemcom 2704n.

Reconfiguring a PlusNet ADSL router (Technicolor TG582n)

This post is probably not much interest to many people but it might help some if, like me, you’re trying to re-configure a Technicolor TG582n ADSL router from Plusnet. Just make sure you read all the way to the end and save yourself some time!

For the last 11 years, my ADSL connection has been running with an elderly Solwise SAR110 ADSL modem/router, provided by Plusnet when we first connected to 512Mbps ADSL. Those were the days – half a meg download speeds seemed so fast back then! Whilst fibre has (just about) reached my neck of the woods, my ADSL 2 connection is working well, most of the time, and I get about 6Mbps down and 0.7Mbps up these days. Indeed, the connection actually seems to have become more responsive lately (my theory is that the contention rate has dropped in line with people switching to fibre)!  I did have cause to call Plusnet for support last week though, and they agreed to ship me a new router if I signed up to one of their current packages (which, incidentally saved me money too as we were still on a very old tariff).

The new router is a Technicolor TG582n and I finally got around to setting it up tonight. I was told that I might get slightly faster speeds but there’s no evidence of that based on the tests I’ve run so far (that may change in a couple of days when we roll into a new billing month and onto the new service) [Update: after a few reboots my speed has doubled to around 12Mbps]. For now though I just want to swap the old router out for the new one.

The first thing I found was that the default configuration sets the router’s IP address to 192.168.1.254. That’s the IP address of my wireless access point, and all of my devices are expecting a gateway address of 192.168.1.1.  So, I downloaded the router configuration (Technicolor Gateway -> Configuration -> Save or Restore Configuration).  This gave me a file called user.ini, which I then searched for all instances of 254 and looked like they were part of an IP address (ignoring one which was part of a long string of numbers) and replaced 254 with 1.  I then uploaded the new configuration and, hey presto, the browser refreshed giving me back the config for my wireless access point on 192.168.1.254 and the router was responding on 192.168.1.1.  That seems a bit of a kludge and there should be another way to do this, but I couldn’t find it in the GUI (at least not with software release 10.2.2.B).

Then, reading around I found that the router also has a DHCP server enabled by default. I don’t want that right now (my Raspberry Pi is doing that job for me) so I started to investigate switching that feature off. Again, I couldn’t find it in the GUI, so I tracked down a copy of the CLI guide for the router (from another ISP – Demon – albeit for an older release) and, sure enough, after telnetting onto the box the dhcp server config command told me it was enabled so I corrected that with the following commands:

dhcp server config state=disabled
saveall

After all that, I found the config that I needed – it seems that the location to make the changes is Home Network -> Interfaces -> Local Network -> Configure.

There I found some handy checkboxes to turn on/off DHCP servers (IPv4 and IPv6) as well as the static address for IPv4 addresses!

After all this, I may well switch over to one of the popular open source firmware packages on the router… but I’ll leave it alone for now…

Diagnosing connection issues on my ADSL line

For months now, I’ve been complaining about my ADSL connection and I’m pleased to say that I think I’ve found the issue: it looks as though I had too many TCP/IP sessions open (multiple computers, browser tabs, etc.) and so some connections were getting dropped, so I increased the maximum on my router from the default 192 to the maximum 512.

In the course of my many months of investigation, I did find a lot of useful information though, so I thought it was worth sharing here, for future reference.

The first port of call is often the BT speedtester.  This requires Java to run but it’s likely your ISP will require you to run three separate tests at least one hour apart on this (which can be difficult when the tests don’t complete properly, as in my case) before they will even consider reporting an issue to BT.

Your ISP may have some tools that can help too – for example, mine (PlusNet) has a gateway checker (to see where my connection leaves their network and hits the Internet) and an exchange status checker. Using the exchange status checker, I could see there was an outstanding fault in the exchange and the ISP chased BT to investigate.  Sadly that fault was not related to my problem but it did at least let me know that BT’s infrastructure could have been part of the issue.

It does help to think about things logically – are the issues really speed related, or are you getting lots of disconnections but quite rapid response (as I was)? Does the issue occur on more than one operating system (e.g. Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android)? If you’re only having problems on one device, consider whether that device might have a configuration issue (e.g. incorrect DNS settings).

Get ready to put on your propeller head. There are a lot of factors that affect your ADSL connection speed and quality.  PlusNet has a support article to help explain some of the issues involved in diagnosing broadband speed faults and a broadband terminology guide (although it’s hard enough for me to follow, let alone the average consumer).  I found some really helpful people on my ISP’s support forums and one of the best resources they pointed me at was the Kitz ADSL information index.  Some of the information there was extremely technical but it helped me to understand some of the statistics on my line and to work out what speed my line should be able to support (around 6.5Mbps) in my case. It also gave me a much more detailed line check/exchange status check.

Some of the pointers that could have been useful, had I followed them up, included:

  • “Pairing” my ADSL router with the BT exchange equipment (i.e. making sure they both use the same chipset). For this you will need to know the local and remote vendor identifiers.  My router didn’t expose the remote end, so it was difficult for me to test that but, for example, if you know that the exchange equipment uses a Broadcom chipset then you can try and get hold of an ADSL router that uses that chipset too.
  • Some consumer ADSL routers can be modified with unofficial firmware to expose more settings.  Examples include the Linksys WRT54G (OpenWRT) and the Netgear DG834 (DGteam). Other routers cannot and have fairly basic user interfaces – even my ISP told me to avoid the Thomson router that they currently ship (mine is an elderly Solwise SAR110 and I can even configure it from a command line if necessary).
  • Signal to noise (SNR) ratio can affect a lot of lines and changing this might help.  I found that my SNR margin (basically the amount of tolerance to noise on my line) was quite low at 5.5 dB (I’ve seen as low as 3.5, although the actual noise is pretty constant at 32.5dB) and, had I worked out how to increase this, I could potentially have found a more stable connection (albeit at a slightly lower speed) and then worked back to find the optimum setting (thanks to Garry Martin for that advice).
  • Improving the physical connection by removing the ring/bell wire is a possibility, but probably not advisable since it requires interfering with the linebox (technically this is BT’s property). Another option (not suitable for all connections though – you need an NTE5 linebox although BT says 70% of homes have one of these) is to install a BT Broadband Accelerator/Iplate.  BT Total Broadband customers can get one of these for just the cost of postage (although PlusNet is a BT subsidiary, they don’t have the same offer) but they don’t cost much from the BT Shop.

So you can see that diagnosing ADSL connection issues is far from straightforward; however there are a few things to try that can yield significant results. I’m still trying to work out why my IP Profile has dropped in recent months to 5500Kbps (from 6500, which should be achievable based on the attenuation figure of 32.5), and why my line has interleaving enabled (again, based on the attenuation/loop loss, I’m only about 2.3km from the Exchange). I’ve also ordered an Iplate and it will be interesting to see what (if anything) the resulting speed increase is.

Using DHCP reserved client options for certain devices

I’ve been struggling with poor Internet connectivity for a while now – the speed is fine (any speed tests I conduct indicate a perfectly healthy 3-5Mbps on on “up to 8Mbps” ADSL line) but I frequently suffer from timeout, only to find that a refresh a few moments later brings the page back quickly.

Suspecting a DNS issue (my core infrastructure server only has a Atom processor and is a little light on memory), I decided to bypass my local DNS server for those devices that don’t really need it because all the services they access are on the Internet (e.g. my iPad).

I wasn’t sure how to do this – all of my devices pick up their TCP/IP settings (and more) via DHCP – but then I realised that the Windows Server 2008 R2 DHCP service (and possibly earlier versions too) allows me to configure reserved client options.

I worked out which IP address my iPad was using, then converted the lease to a reservation. Once I had a reservation set for the device, I could configure the reserved client options (i.e. updating the DNS server addresses to only use my ISP servers, OpenDNS, or Google’s DNS servers).

Unfortunately I’m still experiencing the timeouts and it may just be that my elderly Solwise ADSL modem/router needs replacing… oh well, I guess it’s time to go back to the drawing board!

5 bar Vodafone 3G reception with Sure Signal… eventually

Where I live, the mobile phone reception can be a little… patchy… at times.  Vodafone and O2 are okay, as long as I stay upstairs and away from all of the electrical interference in my home office (not too helpful when I’m working!) but for Orange I have to go outside to get decent reception (and I haven’t tried T-Mobile but the coverage map doesn’t fill me with hope).  All of that is just for standard GSM coverage – 3G is non-existent… although Vodafone’s coverage map suggests I might be able to get a signal the fields across the road!

As I spend a good chunk of my day on the phone, and VoIP becomes problematic when the local schools kicks out (as my broadband slows to a crawl), I decided to give Vodafone’s Sure Signal a try.  Sure Signal (formerly known as Vodafone Access Gateway) is a femtocell (a tiny base station, about the size of a typical broadband router) that provides 3G reception and routes the calls over an existing broadband connection although Pocket Lint were less charitable:

“Of course the sceptics amongst us can see Vodafone’s evil plan from the get go. They get you to pay for the shortcomings of their network while at the same time boosting your phone’s capabilities in your home or office so you’ll use it more. Using it more means they get more money from you at the end of the month because you’ve found a new sense of freedom when it comes to making calls or surfing the Web.”

That’s all well and good, but this is my company mobile phone – I don’t pay the bill – and when it’s the difference between flaky call quality and a clear signal, I’ll happily give up a little bit of bandwidth (after all, this is only voice traffic).

The difference between the Sure Signal solution and a normal VoIP call over my ADSL line is that I’m still using a normal mobile handset to access the network and the portion from the femtocell back to the rest of the mobile network is managed by Vodafone – with whom I have far more trust in managing issues such as latency, jitter, and quality of service than I do in my own ability to configure a VoIP client with a third party SIP provider in a reliable manner.

Only registered mobile phone numbers can access the Sure Signal (up to 4 at a time from a maximum of 32 registered numbers), so it doesn’t provide a service to the rest of the street (at least not unless their numbers are registered too); however it is pretty good to have 5 bar 3G reception in my house for Vodafone-connected 3G handsets (other networks are not supported, neither are 2G handsets).

So that’s the theory.  Getting the Sure Signal working was not all plain sailing though… Vodafone’s Quick Start guide directs users to register their sure signal at http://vodafone.co.uk/suresignal but it was only after a couple of days of the registration site telling me that technical difficulties were preventing Vodafone from registering the device at the moment and that I should try again in a few minutes, and an unanswered support request, I Googled and found a forum thread that suggested I try http://vodafone.co.uk/businesssuresignal instead.  To be fair, that is also on the quickstart guide – but in a far less prominent position, in black text on a red background. Lo and behold, the second URL uses a different registration form (without the troublesome and confusing interface to accept terms and conditions) and started the activation process. 

Text message from Vodafone to say that the Sure Signal is activeA few minutes later, I received an e-mail from Vodafone to say that the device would be made active and that I’d be notified by text message when it was ready – but that was on Saturday… and nothing happened for a few days so, on Tuesday evening, I e-mailed to find out how much longer I might need to wait.  I’d started to wonder if there were problems with my router’s firewall configuration but I decided not to change anything and, the next morning, I woke up to a full 3G signal and a message from Vodafone to tell me that the Sure Signal was active.

So, was it worth it? Certainly, a great mobile phone signal is what I was after – and that’s what I got.  The device has no user interface though (it’s managed from the Vodafone website) – which is probably fine for consumers but, if I have to rely on Vodafone’s offshore support (provided by Firstsource) to deal with any problems (potentially with no phone signal!), the delays in getting the device working do not fill me with hope.

Further reading

Sometimes it really is just time to get a new PC

My parents in-law have been saying for some time that their PC is slow.  I couldn’t really understand why – after all, it’s only a couple of years since I put some memory in it, added a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive and rebuilt in to run Windows XP – I thought that would be fine for a couple of silver surfers to look at and store their digital photos, catch up on e-mail and surf the web.

Oh how wrong I was.  It was fine when I set it up, but after a couple of years of Windows updates, plus the installation of various programs bundled by their ISP, bloated security suites and the like, the PC was practically crawling.  It wasn’t unresponsive, it just took forever to load a web page, open a document, etc. and I even began to wonder if the Internet connection was failing to deliver the advertised ADSL broadband speeds.

My brother-in-law also complained about it every time he came home from his work overseas so when my wife suggested that he shared the cost of a new computer with us as a 70th birthday present he was more than happy to do so.

This afternoon, I’m copying over the files, setting up the printer, and doing all the bits and pieces that I couldn’t do at home when I imaged the new PC and decrapified it a couple of weeks back but, just out of curiosity, I ran a speed test on the Internet connection.

Moving the ADSL modem connection from the aging PC (which Windows XP reports as a Pentium II with 412MB of RAM) to the new on (a Dell Inspiron 1525 with a 2.0GHz Core2Duo CPU and 3GB of RAM) boosted the reported connection speed from 1360kbps downstream and 152kbps upstream with a 502ms ping response (averaged over three readings) to 1883kbps downstream and 242kbps upstream with a 34ms ping (again, averaged over three tests).  And this was the same ISP, the same phone line, and the same modem, just plugged into a different PC.  Who would have thought that the CPU was just to slow to keep up with the network (and, before someone tells me that Linux could handle it… ask yourself whether the average grandparent can handle Linux?)

So, next time you wonder if your ISP is delivering the advertised connection speed, it might just be worth taking a look at the PC you’re using to access the connection.

(Now, if one more pensioner tells me how good it would be to set my in-laws up with a wireless network, I’ll scream…).

Great customer service from my ISP – and a useful BT exchange status checker

There’s a lot of bad things written about UK Internet service providers, so I’m really glad to have a positive tale to tell tonight. My ISP (Plusnet) may not be the least expensive but, after my friend Alex’s experience of moving from Nildram to Virgin and seeing the line speed on his connection drop from 6Mbps to less than 512Kbps (on the same line, with the same equipment at his end) and Virgin telling him that was the most the line would support, I’m reluctant to switch ISPs – especially as my ADSL connection is normally rock solid with the router reporting a connection speed around 7Mbps.

Unfortunately, as I’m here burning the midnight oil, putting the finishing touches on a presentation I’m supposed to be delivering via Live Meeting (over said ADSL line) tomorrow morning – my connection has gone down. Arghhh! After restarting almost all the equipment on my home LAN, I noticed that my router’s PPP interface had not picked up an IP address, despite showing operational DSL status. I called Plusnet, expecting a lengthy wait, only to be surprised as my call was answered within seconds of selecting the technical support option from the ACD prompt. The really helpful tech support guy that I spoke to (Jake) was just working though checking my router settings when he noticed that my local telephone exchange has a major service outage – detected at 22:26 this evening (just before I got home) and due to be cleared by 00:26 (by when I had hoped to be in bed…). Not to worry – at least I know it’s a problem at the exchange.

Plusnet Exchange Checker showing a major service outage at my local telephone exchangeThe good news is that Plusnet also has an exchange status checker in the user tools section of their website – and even though my ADSL line is down, I can use my iPhone’s mobile data connection to access the status reports.

It’s currently a minute past midnight and the connection’s not back up yet… but at least I can feel better as I keep track of BT whilst they fix the line.

[Update: 00:14 and the line is back up… just enough time to publish this blog post and catch some zeds before an early start tomorrow.]

More on the BT Home Hub

Last year I blogged about the dangers of BT Home Hub users using WEP for “Wi-Fi Security”, pointing out that WEP is generally considered insecure and that WPA or WPA2 should be used instead. Then I set up my Dad’s Home Hub for him (just as an ADSL router/modem at this time… possibly with some of the other features later) and this is what I found:

  • The Home Hub is an elegant piece of hardware and BT have made cabling straightforward with colour-coded cables.
  • Following the instructions (which is what I did) involved installing a lot of software on the PC… just to connect to a router. I imagine that most of it can be disregarded (Customised browsers, BT Yahoo! sidebar etc.).
  • The setup failed to recognise that there was already an ADSL modem connection and that I was replacing that with a LAN-based connection (eventually I found a setting deep on the BT Broadband Help system to change that, after which uPnP jumped into life and the router was located).
  • The supplied password for BT Yahoo! Broadband didn’t work, resetting it required answering a security question that had never been set (chicken… egg…) and calling for support involved speaking to a well-intentioned but not very efficient call centre operative somewhere on the Indian subcontinent (who apologised for the quality of the phone line… ironic given that this service was on behalf of one of the World’s largest telecommunications providers)

Returning last week to finish the job, I found that BT have been updating the router firmware automatically for him and now he has options for WPA/WPA2 (which I duly configured). I also found a great link for information on the home hub (a rebadged Thomson device) – the The Frequencycast Home Hub FAQ – which told me useful things like to access the configuration via http://bthomehub.home/ and that the authentication prompt for administrator access does not requires the BT Broadband username and password but the username admin and password of admin (or the serial number of the device) until it is reset to something more memorable. If you need to know something about the BT Home Hub, the chances are it’s in this FAQ. Also worth a look (particularly if you have a Mac that’s not playing nicely with WPA-TKIP – although my OS X 10.5.5 MacBook seemed to be fine with Home Hub software 6.2.6.E) is the BT Home Hub page on hublog – and there is also a command line interface reference for the Home Hub.

Woohoo! 8Mbps ADSL

Screenshot from router configuration showing 7552Kbps ADSL connectionPlusNet upgraded our ADSL connection to their “up to 8Mbps” service today. I’m told that it may take a few days to settle down (they advised us to reboot the router once a day for 10 days or so) but the initial connection was a whopping 7552Kbps (7.375Mbps). After the first reboot, this seems to have dropped slightly to a more typical 5.1Mbps but that’s still a great improvement over yesterday – and I live in the sticks where a few years ago we had to campaign to get our telephone exchange upgraded for a 512Kbps ADSL connection! It seems that Moore’s law applies to telecoms too (sort of… our costs haven’t dropped but we have seen a 10-fold increase in connection speeds over a 4 year period).

Mystery ADSL upgrade

Having written earlier this evening about getting started with ADSL, one of the services that I use is the ADSL guide speed test. When we got our broadband connection at home back in 2003 (primarily for my wife’s business, but I also frequently work from home), 512Kbps was the fastest available ADSL connection. We haven’t knowingly upgraded since but recent tests suggested that the connection is delivering 1800-1900Kbps anyway. Being suspicious of the ISP’s own speed tests I tried the ADSL guide test instead and over the last week or so I have consistently recorded results similar to the following:

Results from broadband speed test recorded on Friday, 6 January 2006, 19:27
Downstream
– Actual speed: 1803 Kbps (225.4 KB/sec)
– True speed estimate: 1947 Kbps (including overheads)
Upstream
– Actual speed: 239 Kbps (29.9 KB/sec)
– True speed estimate: 258 Kbps (including overheads)

It’s interesting to note that the actual speed figure is the amount of useful data that the connection can transmit/receive per second, whilst the true speed figure includes an approximation of data overheads (estimated at around 8%). Whichever figure is used, it looks like the line has been upgraded to around 2Mbps and, as we’re not paying any more than we did for 512Kbps (although prices have dropped considerably over the same period, so what we pay is about the market price for 2Mbps), I haven’t checked with the ISP in case it’s all a mistake!