Troubleshooting broadband connection problems

Call centre

This week I learned something important about technical support call centres: they can sometimes be more “call centre” than “technical support”.

Tuesday

On Tuesday I called BT Broadband Support (0845 600 7030) because I was experiencing connection problems (no, really, I was!), which were being manifest in three ways:

  1. My Broadband Talk connection (VoIP phone line) was disconnected.
  2. I would try to visit a website and it wouldn’t load until I’d hit Refresh a couple of times.
  3. I couldn’t connect to any FTP site, e.g. the server that hosts this blog

I got through fairly quickly and spoke with someone who told me that:

  1. She’d pass on my VoIP problem to someone who could look into it and they’d get back to me — fair enough!
  2. Each time I experienced the connection problem I should simply reboot the router — hmm, not great given that it was happening about every second site I was trying to visit.
  3. They don’t support FTP — what?! But half the internet is built on FTP!! That’s a bit like a car manufacturer saying “Yes, but we don’t support our cars driving on streets! Roads and motorways: yes; streets: no!” Crazy!

I hung up. They never called me back. My VoIP service wasn’t restored, the connection problems continued. I went to bed in pain.

Wednesday

I called back yesterday afternoon, having done some more tests to try to prove that — in the words of that favourite of ‘tech support’ phrases — the problem is not at my end!

Troubleshooting

As anyone who has done any basic networking will know there are a few immediate things you can do yourself to try to determine the problem when you are experiencing network connection problems. Or rather to eliminate what it’s not.

  1. Router
    I had to make sure that it wasn’t my router that was causing the problem. So it was back to that other favourite trick of tech support: switch it off and switch it back on again. It wasn’t that.

  2. PC
    Next I rebooted my PC to make sure that it wasn’t something conflicting with the network connection. On reboot I experienced the same problems.

  3. Other computers on the network
    Next step was to see if the same connection problems could be experienced using other computers on the network. And as it happened they could. Both Jane and my laptops were also experiencing these intermittent connection problems, and neither could either connect to an FTP site.

  4. FTP Server test
    On the off-chance that the FTP connection problems might have something to do with my FTP server I telephoned a friend to see if he could connect to my FTP server. He could.

  5. Networking tools
    So having made sure that it wasn’t immediate hardware problems at this end I used Windows’ built-in networking tools (PING and TRACERT) to do some basic online sleuthing.

Packets

The first thing to bear in mind is that all data transferred across networks is first broken down into small parts called “packets“. That way large amounts of data can be transferred more efficiently.

PING

The PING command is really useful for finding out if there are connection problems. What it does is send an ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) echo request to check whether the remote computer is available.

In other words, it says “Hey other-computer, are you there?” And if it is then it replies saying “Sure am, mate!” Or something like that. But better than that, it does it four times — by sending four packets — and counts the replies. A bit like Jesus asking Peter “do you love me?”, only one more time.

Open a Command Prompt (in Windows XP go to Start > Run… and type in CMD then click OK) and then enter the command PING followed by a space and then a URL (either as a web address or IP address), e.g.

ping www.google.co.uk

ping 64.233.183.99

What you should get in return is something like this:

>ping www.google.co.uk

Pinging www.l.google.com [64.233.183.104] with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=58ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237

Ping statistics for 64.233.183.104:
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 4, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
Minimum = 56ms, Maximum = 58ms, Average = 56ms

One of the most important things to note about the results is the bit that I’ve highlighted above: how many packets were sent and received. Ideally you don’t want any packets to get lost.

Unfortunately, I was consistently experiencing 50% packet loss. So I did a Trace Route.

Trace Route

Next in my handy arsenal of networking tools is TRACERT, short for Trace Route. Guess what that does!

Ok, I’ll tell you: it … erm, traces the route that the packets take across a network. Pull up another Command Prompt and type:

tracert www.google.co.uk

and you’ll get back a list of all the IP addresses (of routers, switches, and bridges) that the packets are routed through to reach the destination (plus a load of other information), e.g.

  1. voyager.home [192.168.1.1]
  2. esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net [217.32.78.140]
  3. 217.32.78.13
  4. 217.41.218.1
  5. 217.41.174.66 … etc.

Which you can then PING to see where in the route the problem might lie. If any of those IP addresses are dropping packets then it’s a strong possibility that that’s where the network connection problem lies.

So that’s what I did, and discovered that packets were being dropped somewhere between esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net and core2-pos8-1.edinburgh.ukcore.bt.net. So I gave BT Broadband Support another call.

Support centre or call centre?

This time I was a little more assertive than the day before. I told them about the dropped packets, I told them that the lack of FTP connectivity was indicative of packet loss and that 50% packet loss was not good, I told them about the Trace Route and that it seemed to be somewhere on their network that the problem lay.

So the tech support bod put me on hold to consult their supervisor. And came back and asked me what anti-virus software I was using.

“THE PROBLEM … IS NOT AT MY END!” I told them. Quite firmly.

Forty minutes later, after jumping through their hoops I was transferred to the Line Faults Team. “The problem is not the line,” I assured them. And then I started to explain to this second person about my Ping and Trace Route results.

“I can tell you between which IP addresses I was experiencing packet loss,” I said. “I did a Trace Route.”

There was a silence.

“Do you know what a Trace Route is?” I asked.

“No. No I don’t,” the Line Faults tech support team member confessed.

Computer says No!

And at that point I realised that I wasn’t speaking to a networking expert who was there to help me diagnose my networking connection problem, but a call-centre employee who is paid to be polite (and they were delightfully polite to me, even during my wildest rant) and follow a pre-defined troubleshooting path on their computer.

I knew there was a problem, I knew where the problem was. Trouble was I had to get my problem past the front-line call centre team to an IT-trained networking engineer who understood what the hell I was talking about.

Conclusion

After an hour (60 minutes no less) on the phone, having threatened to leave BT unless the problem was fixed today I was promised that the local exchange would be contacted and the problem fixed; they’d call me back in three hours.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later the phone rang. It was BT: they’d fixed the problem. Turns out there was a problem at the exchange.

Who would have thought?!

I just wish there was an easier and quicker way to get these problems sorted.

8 thoughts on “Troubleshooting broadband connection problems

  1. Just for completeness in case anyone else comes past looking for network connectivity diagnosis, let’s not forget firewalls and telnet.

    Make sure you’ve got no sockets listening with a quick `netstat -an’, before disabling the firewall.

    And the reason I mention this is because FTP comes in two distinct kinds, active (where you negotiate a port on which you listen and the server connects back to you to push the actual data) and passive (where you connect to it on a range of ports or port 20 for the data). So, if you have a rather naive firewall that’s blocking everything new coming in, active FTP won’t work. Most browsers use passive by default, which is good, and ftp from the commandline should be configurable.

    You can test connectivity to a particular port with telnet hostname portnumber, eg telnet http://www.google.com 80. If you get an error about `connection refused’ it’s probably not listening; if you get a timeout, you’ve more likely got a firewalling problem. (Not exclusively, but arranging for this is good firewall design.)

    HTH :)

  2. I’ve been reading your broadband problems and nodding sympathetically – I’m with Orange, and I lose the ability to view webpages randomly, and every week or so (2 days ago I went to get something to eat, having been online for a couple of hours, and couldn’t connect when I got back.) So I don’t have your ability with networks etc, but I do know a thing or two, and I’m frustrated at phoning India (it’s Chennai, actually, and the climate is lovely) to tell them that the PPP server is down, what does that mean? To be told ‘now we will reset the livebox…’. The answer to any query! They are not proper IT experts but have a script, and can’t deviate from it.

    Thing is, I feel quite powerless – isn’t there anything we can do about this? I have to wait a minimum of 15 minutes before speaking to an advisor, and then I get the script (which I have now memorised, including the admin passwords, and it’s stuck to the side of my livebox for when it goes down again, which it invariably will, in about four days’ time).

    So basically, it’s sympathy from me, and a realisation that orange are no better, or worse, than other providers.

  3. BT are, well BT – in my experience they have never changed, for 20 years they have been rubbish and no doubt will continue for another 20

    Watch you phone bill with some of these ISP’s when they use 0870 numbers for support, can cost a fair bit – found this a great site !

    http://www.saynoto0870.co.uk/

    Try Pipex, the best customer service but the most confusing interface for webmail and checking your account on-line

    David

  4. Would you believe, this blog is hosted on a Pipex (WebFusion) server? I’ve had pretty good service from Pipex.

    As I’ve said before I chose BT because they seem to own, oversee and maintain the communications network in this country, and therefore *should* be the right people to contact when things are going pear-shaped.

    Admittedly, all the problems encountered so far *have* been fixed … it’s just been frustrating a) getting the call-centre folks to take me seriously enough to do something about it, and b) see a) above (it’s quite important)!

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  7. HELP! Can’t connect to net. Constant hub restarts for 2 or 3 hours might give short access.. Need net for survival. Script-readers in Dubai are useless. BT charged me £130 to say it was my fault. Didn’t call .Engineer secretly prodded a box up the road and billed me for it. I refused to pay & said I’d go to prison where they have PCs with net access…. They refunded and said it was a fault on the exchange!!! BUT I still get only intermittent connection. “BB Help” gives random, varied diagnoses. (FTP or browser address probs, but until I get online I can’t find out what that even MEANS!) Crawling on floor to restart hub all the time when you’re 78 and have MS isn’t funny. WHO DO I GO TO FOR HELP? Father Christmas? The Tooth Fairy? God? (You’re a Rev, perhaps you’d have a word. It’s URGENT. Have run out of toilet rolls and valium so need angel from Tesco and Prescrips Online….also Natwest Banking (to see if I’ve any money left to pay for it all.). Need advice in realspeak.
    Yours, “Distraught, Decrepit but not Daft,”
    Duloe.

  8. Dear Helen, do you have a Twitter account? It’s definitely worth signing up for one and then contacting @BTCare to ask for help. I’ve given up calling them and ask all my support queries via Twitter — they have been nothing but excellent with me and have always got the problem sorted out really quickly. That’s my top tip.

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