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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Troubleshooting Your Internet Headaches (Part 1: General)

"My internet is slow!" "Facebook won't load!" "Why won't my email come up?" "It just won't work anymore!"  Do these sound familiar?  Whether you're a tech support representative, or an average user like the rest of humanity, you'll be quite familiar with phrases like that.  Adding to that is the irritation of trying to fix it without any help, and the problem is either still there, or has been made worse by something done wrong.  A good example is when a tech tries their best to explain how to fix an internet-related problem to an average consumer, and instead of following the techs instructions carefully, the consumer becomes agitated, clicks on something OTHER than what they were told, and now their email is gone.  I know I'm probably exaggerating, but the idea is the same.  Most consumers are much more comfortable to follow the instructions of family and friends than we are at following the directions of a technician that we have asked for help, and why is that?  I'll probably cover that in another blog, but my point is that when we take a tech for granted, we lose sight of the real problem at hand, and we become know-it-alls who don't know the answer.  Ironic, I know, but true in almost every sense.

My favorite example is when I worked as a technical support specialist in a call center, and received the kind of call every tech out there dreads to receive.  I'm talking about the so-called "Systems Administrators", "Network Admins", "Computer Technicians", and of course my favorite, the "Company Owner" who happens to be a jack of all trades!  These people are generally rude, abrasive, and very abusive to a tech support agent over the phone.  Whether they are simply of that personality, or it's because they are lacking something else, these people annoy the hell out of techs everywhere.  They will go on and on about what certification they hold (sometimes more than one), and will insult the tech at every opportunity, ignoring the fact that they are the ones who called for help.  Fear not, though, because a tech will find just the right moment to make even the most "educated" Network Admin feel stupid with a resolution that is so simple in its implementation.

The phone call I received was no different.  I had received a phone call from a supposed "System Admin", and for the first 3 minutes of the phone call, he berated me up and down, left and right, and called me everything but a white-boy.  He was absolutely PISSED!  What his issue was, I can't remember, and I don't care to.  I remember it had to do with an error of some kind that had to do with his internet connection.  Anyway, he demanded to speak to a supervisor, told me I didn't know anything (of course, he laced it all with much more colorful metaphors), and was generally insulting to myself and every other tech in the building.  After calming him down a bit, I got him to accept a little bit of help from me.  I told him that I would help him as best I could, and if I couldn't do so in 10 minutes, I would be happy to transfer him to a supervisor for whatever assistance they could provide.  Reluctantly, he accepted.  It didn't even take 10 minutes when I had him use a simple networking technique (I couldn't tell ya what it was that I had him do, because I don't remember), and the error was resolved.  Not only did he become apologetic to no end, but he still wanted to speak to a supervisor, and for a different reason altogether, but just before that was the moment of clarity.  The "ah HA!" moment if you will, where the guy was just dumbfounded, stupefied, and above all, speechless.

Internet troubles can be frustrating, especially when you are unsure of how to resolve the problem on your own, or even who to ask for help.  First, you need to have patience when approaching this very broad issue.  Not always will an issue be quick to resolve, and not always with a simple measure.  Keep in mind that a simple solution can still have frustrating consequences if not done correctly.  Second, never be afraid to say "I don't know what to do!"  Too many times have I come across someone (male and female) who simply is at their wits end trying to fix an internet problem, and then that person becomes quite agitated when they do not know the answer.  Admitting to yourself that it's time to ask for help is not an end, but a beginning.  This doesn't mean you have accepted defeat, you've only changed how you are approaching a problem.  Remember to look at my previous blog and read about tips to reduce the anxiety over asking for help, and to get some ideas on where to go, who to ask, and how.  These tips are life-savers!  Lastly, expect the unexpected.  I know that's a hugely overused cliche, but in the case of troubleshooting anything related to computers, and especially internet connection issues, it rings true to finding resolutions that seem out of the ordinary.  One quick note to mention.  When it comes to troubleshooting computers and the related issues, NOTHING is ever ordinary in solving a problem!

Because of the complexity and broad scope of this area of computer troubleshooting, I am going to do this topic in parts.  Mainly for the reason that there are steps different from one another for each part to this topic.  In this segment, I will try to go over some of the more basic techniques.  I will assume that most of us, by now anyway, should be using a broadband connection.  Also, I will attempt to cover some dial-up troubleshooting techniques as well, but only briefly since it's not as widely used as it once was with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AOL, Earthlink, Netzero, Juno, etc.  Once more, it is worth mentioning that I am only providing these tips as a guideline, and are not intended to substitute professional advice and assistance from a trained source.

Let's go over some of the dial-up techniques first, shall we?
(**NOTE** Again, I am going off my personal use of Windows-based operating systems, so always check to see what your operating system equivalents might be)

1) Modem Functionality - 80-90% of all dial-up related problems occur from a single source, the dial-up modem itself.  You need to verify if the modem is the source of the issue.  The first thing to do is to establish that the modem itself is communicating with Windows.  This means that the communication between the software driver, and the modem (whether internal or external) exists to begin with.  To do that, you must go to Control Panel, then go to Modems (for XP users, this will be titled "Phone and Modem Options"), click on your modem (this will be the modem tab in XP), and click Properties.  In the properties of the modem, there should be a tab that says "Diagnostics" depending on your Windows version, you should see either your modem listed, or you will see both the COM port and the modem listed.  Either way, this is what you select and click either "Query Modem" or "More Info".  This is important, because what this test will do is confirm that the modem can be communicated with through its driver in Windows, and it will indicate that the modem can be initialized using the driver.  If the modem can't be initialized or communicated with (and this will be apparent when you do this test), it's safe to assume that the modem may not be working at all, and a replacement will be necessary.  You may want to verify the modem driver in Windows has been installed properly, or you may have to reinstall or update the driver.  This can also resolve many issues related to dial-up modem errors.

2) Hyperterminal - Another useful test is Hyperterminal.  This is a built-in program in Windows that allows you to test whether your modem can successfully dial a phone number, and connect to it via the "computer handshake" (Not sure if that is a proper term, but it's something that has stuck with me since my dad first said it).  It's always best to do this test after you've successfully determined that the modem is communicating properly with Windows, and that the modem can be initialized successfully through its software driver.  There are two parts to this test.  The first, and most obvious, is the dialing phase.  Can your modem successfully initialize and dial out to another modem on another computer?  You'll know right away if it cannot dial.  The second is the connection phase.  Do you hear the ever-famous "handshake" noise or is it quiet?  Being quiet doesn't necessarily mean trouble, since it could simply mean that the modem speaker is off.  Remember the modem properties screen?  You may want to check if the modem speaker is turned on and turned up through that prompt before attempting this test.  After the handshake, you should get a listing of various commands or even a message.  If the commands or the message comes back garbled, there is a possibility that the modem (either on your end, or the other) has a problem decoding the messages it is receiving.  It is recommended that you try at least three different numbers in Hyperterminal before assuming that it's a problem with your modem.

3) Different Access Numbers - Every dial-up ISP that I've ever used has almost always had, at the least, three different numbers to which I could use as access numbers.  Many of the popular dial-up providers I've used always had local numbers to use, since calling long-distance at the time was rather expensive.  Today, this is not a typical problem anymore.  If you are having trouble with connecting to your ISP, try a different number to access.  If all of the alternate numbers fail, you may want to contact your ISP and ask if there is a toll-free alternative phone number to use as an access number, at least temporarily.  On rare occasion, I've had to use a phone number that was long distance, but this was only to determine if my local access numbers were inoperable.

4) Power to the Modem - I know it sounds corny, but true nonetheless.  Techs everywhere agree that the most overlooked troubleshooting techniques are usually the most obvious.  So, don't be surprised if you call and get a tech who answers, and during the call at some point, that tech will ask you "Is your modem turned on?"  I put this at #4, but really it should be at the top.  I bring this up only after the other tests, because let's face it, we all forget at some point to look for the obvious.  Hopefully, this will get you to perform this technique first and foremost.  Too many times have I run into a situation where someone using an external modem forgot to make sure it was plugged in, and turned on.  And it's not isolated to internet/modem problems, this can be any peripheral device, or even the computer itself for that matter.  I can't stress the point enough.  ALWAYS check to make sure the device you are using is plugged in to a power outlet (if applicable), turned on, and ready to be used.  You will save yourself a lot of aggravation by doing this simple task. 

5) New Replacement - If you've done everything else, and your modem still can't connect, it may be time to start thinking about replacing your dial-up modem.  There are some considerations to take in, but this can be a good way to determine if your modem is truly defective in some odd fashion.  External modems are relatively easy to replace, and in some cases, cheaper in the long run.  Internal modems are a little more involved, but generally easy as well.  After replacing your modem, if it becomes necessary, always perform some of the tests above like Hyperterminal, the modem query in Windows, etc to ascertain that your new modem is working and functioning in a way that is consistent with your old, defective modem.

6) Dialing Rules! - Yet another overlooked troubleshooting step is the dialing rules.  It's another obvious step that should never be underestimated.  In some areas, especially in the United States, a locality or region might require someone to dial an area code first.  This is known as 10-digit dialing.  For example, in my area, we have to dial in this format xxx-555-1212.  Also, unless you are using a dedicated phone line on your dial-up connection, you should make sure your modem is configured to dial call waiting before dialing the actual access number.  Most telephone providers require the use of *70 to turn call waiting off.  Although, I will admit, that wasn't always helpful during my time using dial-up providers.  Even turning call waiting off, I still got "bumped" from the internet quite frequently.  Another note to mention is that some places, like businesses and other office buildings, often use a phone system that requires you to use *9 prefix to get an outside line.  Make sure before you begin modifying the dialing rules in Windows.  This can be found in the Modem Properties area, or sometimes in the Dial-Up Networking window of the connection you are using, depending on what version of Windows you have.

7) Phone Line Extras - Some telephone lines have other features that are not standard, and can disrupt a dial-up connection.  The more popular, and frustrating, feature of dial-up users is the voicemail provided by the local phone company.  This is simply an inbox for messages that are stored by the phone company rather than your answering machine.  This is especially problematic when you receive a voice message on this service, because what happens is that your dial tone starts to beep, indicating that you have messages.  Dial-up modems are incapable of recognizing this beeping dial-tone as a dial-able tone.  Therefore, you will get an error with this.  Also, although it's not thoroughly documented, and most techs are unsure of why, but using a fax machine on the same phone line as your dial-up connection can also cause issues to arise.  Again, using a dedicated phone line will reduce this problem greatly.  If you have to have your fax machine on the same phone line, your best bet is to alternately switch from one to the other depending on what you need to use.  The most accepted reason that I've been told for not using the same phone line as the fax is that the fax machine continually is beeping on the phone line.  This means that the fax machine is constantly waiting for a fax signal to come in, so that it can be ready at a moment's notice to process the incoming message. 

8) Dead Phone Line - Too many stories to tell, and not enough time.  If you have tried everything else, try the obvious.  Connect a regular phone (preferably a corded telephone, and one that is NOT battery operated) to the phone line and try to make a phone call.  If you cannot, there's a problem with the phone line itself, and of course, the modem has to terminate the attempt to connect.  Also, make sure that your phone line is dedicated.  I know I've said this before in this blog, but it's worth repeating again and again.  If someone picks up the phone while you are connected, your modem will interpret that as an interruption (which it is), and will terminate the connection abruptly.  The same is true if someone is already on the phone line talking to a friend, relative, or placing some kind of order (pizza, anyone?), and the modem will interpret the absence of a dial tone for a dead phone line.

9) Reboot - This should always be tried FIRST and LAST in your efforts to troubleshoot and repair a problem with your dial-up connection.  If you are using an external modem, your first order of business should be to reboot the modem itself by powering it down, waiting 30 seconds to a minute, power it back on and wait for the initial power-up sequence to complete before trying it again.  If still unsuccessful, try rebooting the computer alongside rebooting the modem, and for the same amount of time.  Stories are abound with consumers who have tried everything above, with little to no success, and upon a reboot of either the modem, computer, or both in some cases, the issue is resolved successfully.  In the case of rebooting both your computer and your modem (external), always turn the modem on FIRST, then the computer.  This way we will know if the modem itself can power on, and do it's own initial power-on diagnostic sequence (the lights that go on sequentially).

During my time as a technical support representative, I found other steps that can be attempted when dealing with a dial-up problem, but I chose to omit them since they were procedures not known to the general public, and for good reason.  Doing the extra steps that I know can cause more problems than they solve.  It's best to perform the omitted steps with the guidance of a trained technical support professional to reduce the chance of something going horribly wrong.

Broadband users are a special breed.  They enjoy the wonderful benefit of not having to deal with dial-up problems, frustrations, and headaches, as well as enjoying the faster speeds to load webpages, download files, and all done without the use of an ISP provider's software program.  However, they too will encounter problems similar to dial-up, but not quite.  While each broadband internet provider is different with how the connection is achieved, most techs will agree that simple techniques can resolve 80-90% of connectivity problems.  Like the dial-up measures, I will attempt to cover some of the techniques used by techs to troubleshoot, diagnose, and resolve broadband internet issues.  The following tips are presented with the assumption that you have a modem or other broadband device directly connected to your computer, and NOT through a Router or Hub.

1) REBOOT! - Just like the dial-up methods of troubleshooting, your FIRST and LAST resort should always be to reboot.  My standard procedure is to restart through Windows doing the proper shutdown sequence first.  In other words, I'm not just pressing the power button on the computer!  That would be bad and in so many ways!  A proper sequence to shut down is to go to Start, then either Turn Off Computer or Shutdown and select Restart.  Again, DO NOT press the power button at this point.  Usually this takes less than a minute before the computer restarts, and brings you back to the Windows Logon screen or desktop screen.  If this doesn't resolve your issue, try what's called a "COLD BOOT" procedure.  This is where you actually do turn off the computer using the same steps as the restart, only you select "Shut Down the Computer" or "Turn Off" (for XP and newer users).  Although, most computers today will shut off automatically, so you may not need to do anything else, but for the older computers, you may have to wait until you see something that says "It is safe to turn off your computer" and then you may, at this point, use the power button.  Never assume that a computer is completely shut off.  To that end, always turn the computer off from it's "master switch" in the back (if your computer is pre-2002), and unplug the power cord (the thick black one).

2) Broadband modem - Whether you are using DSL, Cable, T1, or something much different, it's safe to assume that you will be using some kind of device that allows you to rid yourself of using a dial-up connection, and connect to the internet with blazing speeds that dwarfs dial-up any day of the week!  However, there are times when these devices need to be reset.  The procedure for doing a modem/device reset is simple, yet very effective in resolving a good portion of connection issues with broadband internet services.  To power your device off, unplug the power cord from behind the device, wait about a minute or so, then plug the power cord back in.  After the initial power-on sequence, you should try connecting to the internet again.  If not, it is always recommend to do a full shutdown of both the device, and the computer.  When turning the computer and the device back on, make sure to do the device first, THEN the computer AFTER the device has gone through the initial power-up sequence.  On a related note, this gets a tad more complicated when you add a router or hub to the mix, so I will cover that in another blog.  If you can now connect, your issue has been resolved.  If not, proceed to the following tips.

3) Software - Yes, I know, broadband users don't necessarily have to install new software to use their connection (unless directed by the broadband ISP).  However, software still plays a big part in how we connect to the internet, whether by dial-up modem or by a broadband internet device/service.  In the case of broadband, though, the software used is mostly already installed on your computer.  Each version of Windows is slightly different, but relatively the same, while Linux, Macintosh, and other fine operating systems have much different ways to set up the equivalents.  While I don't know anything about other operating systems other than Windows, it's safe to assume that some software is widely used and accepted as a standard.  There will be two parts to this tip.  One is for the widely used (and popular) use of network cable (aka Cat5, RJ-45, or Ethernet), and the other is the slightly used USB part.
  • Network Cable - Most ISPs will have you using a device that have you using your computers network card or built-in port to use their internet hardware on your computer.  This means that you must have the driver properly installed for your network card or onboard port (remember, these are a part of the motherboard, and not an expansion card as some older computers were built).  Sometimes, though not often, a user might have to reinstall the driver for their network adapter.  This can be achieved through the Device Manager in the System Properties of the Control Panel.  Also, this is where you can manually update your network adapter's driver.  Another piece of software that is usually installed with the network adapter driver are the protocols themselves like TCP/IP.  Without this software, your computer wouldn't connect to the internet at all, regardless if you are using dial-up or broadband.  On Windows 9x systems, you will want to right-click Network Neighborhood and go to Properties.  This will allow you to view the network adapter, and the protocols and client software installed.  Usually you will have the name of your network adapter (usually either the dial-up modem adapter, the network adapter, or both), TCP/IP and Client for Microsoft Networks.  On Windows 2k, you see Network and Dial-Up Connections from going to Start, then Control Panel.  Windows XP has Network Connections under the same area, but can be accessed through Control Panel directly, and Windows Vista calls it Network and Sharing Center.  Each one can allow you to verify that your broadband device has a corresponding network connection set up.  Most often this will be labeled "Local Area Connection" and will have subtext that lists your network adapter.  When you right click these and go to Properties, you will see a listing of the protocols installed there.  Again, you should see Client for Microsoft Networks, TCP/IP, etc.  Wireless and Broadband connection listings are only different in name, but everything else is relatively the same.  Reinstalling these protocols will often resolve problems with your internet service connection, but I would only recommend re-installation of these protocols if nothing else works. 
  • USB Port Cable - Some devices that allow you to use broadband internet service also have a USB port if your computer has no network adapter (onboard or otherwise).  If you are going to use this type of connection to your computer, all the same principles of a dial-up modem software driver, and networking configurations will apply.  In other words, check if the driver has been installed, check the cable, and check if proper protocols are installed.  There's little else that I can tell you about USB broadband internet devices, except that you should expect little difficulty in their use.  
4) Reset and Restart - Just like restarting (or cold booting) a computer system, there are times when only the software needs to be reset.  Most techs will have you do one of two things, or both depending on the person who answers your call for help.  First, they will have you cold boot everything.  Expect to have to do this often when calling technical support.  It will be their first and last troubleshooting step, regardless of what you have done.  Second, they will have you use what is called the IP Configuration tool.  While I don't fully understand what specifically happens using this tool, I do know that this is similar to a cold boot of a system without the Cold Boot process, and more precisely it will refresh your network adapter driver and TCP/IP.  This does not mean that your TCP/IP settings have been reset, nor have they been modified in any way.  Think of it like the old Nintendo game systems (the old 8-bit system).  At a certain point, if the game was frozen, a lot of us (including myself) used that reset button on the front to get the system unstuck.  The same is true for the network adapter as well.  Sometimes it will just simply get stuck, and IP Configuration can release it from being stuck.  To use this tool, go to Start, Run, and on Win9x systems you want to type `winipcfg' and press Enter, or on Win2k and newer, you will want to use `cmd' which will bring up a DOS command prompt.  From there, you will want to type "IPCONFIG" and press enter.  This should give you basic information about your adapter including IP address, subnet mask, gateway address, etc.  Both versions of the IP Configuration tool, you have to "release" the adapter, and then about 15-20 seconds after, you have to "renew" the adapter as well.  On Windows 9x, your network adapter card (not the dial-up modem) should be what's currently selected, so if it's not, make sure to use the drop-down menu at the top and click your network adapter (usually Linksys 10/100, Cisco, Realtek, or something similar).  On Windows 2k and up, the tool will only reset the primary adapter, which in most cases will be the LAN/Network driver.

5) Other Considerations - While I won't go into much detail about it here in this first part, I want to touch briefly on the use of firewalls, proxy servers, and other security programs.  I'm not going to explain what each of those are in this blog, but if you want to know, post an email to me and I'll do a blog to specifically explain them.  What I can say is that these items can either help or hurt your connection.  Specifically, I want to talk about firewalls.  Firewalls are designed specifically to keep inbound connections OUT for the most part, and only allow the programs designed for internet connectivity to use outbound connections.  This can also include your network adapter, and its related software.  An analogy would be like an airport, and just like an airport, you have lots of airplanes coming in, and going out.  Well, a firewall is like both a control tower and boarding gates, and will allow some airplanes to land, and refuse others.  It can also allow or deny passengers to board a plane based on their assigned permissions from the user.  If the settings are set too high, your computer won't be able to connect to anything on the internet, regardless of what you do.  If the settings are too low, your computer is vulnerable, and prone to security threats.  The default settings usually will allow you to connect, but will allow the firewall to "learn" what programs are allowed to fly, and what inbound connections can "land".

6) Network Routers And Hubs - Using a Router or a network hub, wired or wireless, can be useful when you want to allow more than one computer in your home or place of business to connect to the internet.   However, problems can occur with either one.  A hub will simply allow your computer to share resources with another computer including internet connections, folders, files, and even printer resources.  There is one flaw with using a regular network hub, and that is when you do want to connect another computer using the same internet connection as your primary computer, you have to contact your ISP and obtain a 2nd IP address, which usually will cost an extra fee a month (usually anywhere between $5-$7/mo depending on your provider.  A router will allow you to not only connect multiple computers to the same internet connection without paying for a 2nd IP, it will also function as a network hub for resource sharing.  When troubleshooting, always try to remove the hub or router from the equation.  Connect your broadband device in directly to your computer first.  If your device allows your computer to connect to the internet, then your router or hub might be the problem.  I can't go into specific details on what that might be, since each router and hub are different in the way that their interfaces (if applicable) are accessed, but I can provide one simple trick that may or may not help.  Two words: POWER CYCLE.  Just like cold booting your computer or broadband device, try doing the same for your router or hub.  I would advise to power down the computer first, then unplug the power from the router or hub, and LAST to be turned off (power cord and all) should be the broadband device.  When turning them all back on, do the reverse.  Turn the broadband device on first and wait for the power-on initialization, then do the same for the router or hub, and then turn the computer back on last.  One quick way to know for sure if your router is the problem is to try accessing its user interface.  Usually it's an IP address such as (or something close to that).  If you can access your router's setup page, then there's a good chance your router just needs a firmware update.  Firmware updates are like software drivers, but they are embedded within the hardware.  Most manufacturers of devices that use firmware also provide updates to that firmware that may or may not resolve your issue.  Even if you don't have a connectivity problem, ALWAYS make sure your device whether it's the broadband modem or your router is up to date with the latest firmware available. 

Just like other troubleshooting tips, there are some methods not known to the general public, and should be done under the guidance of a trained technical support professional.  If these general tips haven't helped you, it's time to call so that you don't take out your frustrations on something or someone important.  Remember to take a break once in a while, and try to write down anything that you think might be helpful when calling technical support.

Have a comment?  Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog?  Email me at  And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer.  :)  Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!