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Updated  Thursday, February 25, 1999

Finding and Solving Phone Line and Connection Problems
by Randy Glass - Copyright 1999 by the Feather River Canyon News - All rights reserved
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   Recently I have had a couple of folks contact me concerning problems they have had establishing and maintaining their connection to the Internet. They both mentioned that they wanted to hire me at my hourly rate to come over and assist them in solving their problem. In both cases it sounded like the problem was one that they would be better off trying to solve on their own because of the time that could be involved.

   The symptoms are universal and I have experienced them as well. Your modem dials over and over again before making a connection even though it does not receive a busy tone. Another symptom is that after being connected for sometimes what seems like just a few minutes the modem is disconnected from the service and has to redial- often in the middle of a download. Often the complaint is accompanied with a statement such as, "It was working fine before," or possibly, "I moved the computer and this started." There can be a lot of things that can cause this, but more often then not it is caused by the phone connection.

   You will remember that in an earlier column I talked about the fact that the computer is acting exactly like a telephone when it is being connected to the Internet. The modem built into your computer is like the guts of an actual phone with the exception that it is specifically designed to interface your computer with a telephone connection. The major difference is the information that it is designed to carry. Voice communication is easy to transmit- a couple of cans and a long string can do that. The data sent and received by a computer is far more complicated and it doesn't take much to cause problems.

   If you are having problems with your Internet connection try some of these solutions to trace the problem.

   Let's start with the computer. Is it actually dialing? You should be able to hear it going through is normal steps- a dial tone, a series of tones much like you hear in the ear piece of the telephone when you dial someone, and then a set of really weird musical sounds as the connection is made.

   Has it ever dialed out before? If it was working before and not now then go to the next paragraph. If you have never gotten it to work at all then you may either have a bad modem or it may not be properly set-up to dial out. Consult your computer manual and/or your Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the correct set-up parameters.

   If it has dialed out before but is not now start with the simple things. Take a look at the back of your computer. Find the phone cable. It will look just like the phone cord that connects your telephone to the wall. If you can't find it go to the nearest telephone wall outlet and trace the wire back to the computer. Be sure that it is connected at both ends. If it is, disconnect each end, one at a time, and reconnect it. Be sure to connect it centered in the outlet. I have seen some cheap outlets that allow the connector to go in off-centered. While you have each end disconnected, use a flashlight and look for dirt or dust in the connections. If the contacts do not look shiny and golden in color then you may want to replace the cable or the outlet. These connections can become oxidized. The phone can still work just fine but it can be a problem for the computer. Of course, if the cord was disconnected, connect it! Try the connection again. It is safe to disconnect the phone cord while the computer is on. Don't touch the actual metal connecting wires in the cord or the connectors. If this doesn't work try another phone cord.

   At this point you should question yourself as to whether something has changed recently. Have you moved the computer and are now using a different telephone wall outlet to connect? Have you made changes on the phone line? Did you change the phone cord that connects your computer? If any changes were made, look into those as a source of trouble before continuing. This is also a good time to give your ISP a call. If they are having problems then you will just be chasing your tail looking for the problem. You might also want to contact someone else you know who is connected to the same ISP to see if they are having problems.

   Another thing to check is your modem protection. You do have a protection device for your modem, don't you? Just as you should have a surge suppressor on you power line into the computer, you should also have some sort of protection for your phone line. Lightening strikes in this area have been known to actually melt phone components. Much less energy than that can destroy a modem. If your modem protection device is suspect, plug a phone into it to see it is working, and look at the instruction booklet to see if there is some way to reset or test it.

   If all of that seems to check out, it is time to be suspect over your telephone lines. Turn off all appliances, flourescent lights, and sound systems in the house so it is a quiet as possible and pick up a phone in the house and hit one number (flourescent lights are notorious for causing noise on electronic devices). Listen carefully to the receiver. Do you hear any clicking noises, static or other noise over the phone? If you do then that very well may be the source of the problem.

   You now need to find the source of the noise. It is important to check as to whether the noise is being caused by the phone lines in the home or the phone lines owned by the phone company.

   To do this take a standard screwdriver and the phone and its cord outside to the phone connection box. There is a single slotted screw on the right side of the box holding the lid closed (see above). Loosen the screw (it is 'captured' and so should not fall out) and open the cover. The screw is marked, "Customer access" so should be easy to find.

   Open the lid and inside you will see, near the bottom of the box, a socket and cord just like the connection inside the house where you connect the phone to the wall. It should be marked "Test jack."

I am pointing to the "Test Jack." As you can see the cord plugs in just like a standard phone cord. Unplug it and plug your test phone into the outlet.

   If you have two or more phone lines into your home there will be one such connection for each line as in the photo above. Be sure to disconnect the correct line. To decide which is which, have someone inside the home listen to a phone and then disconnect one of the connections. If the phone goes dead then that's the line you disconnected.

   Leave the cord for your computer's phone line disconnected and plug the telephone you brought out into that socket. Preform the same test as above- listen for noise. If you hear the same noise then the problem is either with your phone or the telephone company's lines. To be sure, try another phone. If you still hear the noise it is time to call the phone company because the noise is their fault. If you have noticed the noise before and it happens all the time then you may get a solution

from the phone company, but if it only happens now and then, you are going to have a problem. If the phone company comes out and there is no noise then how can they fix it?

   This is a good time to discuss the phone company's responsibility. Their contract only calls for them to provide a line capable of carrying voice communications to your home. Since that is the case, I can tell you that honey will catch more flies than vinegar.

   If you are not experiencing noise the next test can be a bit of a logistics problem, but a good one to eliminate any problems you may be having with your home wiring. Connect your computer to that same test outlet you just tested outside the house. This is obviously going to involve some logistics. You are either going to need a very long phone cord or you are going to have to move your computer. It sounds like a lot of work, but the next step also involves moving your computer, so you will be on the way out anyway. If you set the computer up outside be sure to use a stable table or platform of some type. Once connected, boot the computer and try connecting again.

   If that doesn't work it is time to try something a little more involved. I would recommend taking your system to someone else's home (preferably one with an existing Internet connection). In the case of folks that live in our community up here in the hills, I would suggest going to "town" to do this next test. Our phone lines are notoriously old. I can normally only connect at 28.8 and more often slower than that. I cannot remember ever connecting at 33.6 or higher even though I have a 56k modem. Caller ID does not work up here as well. Obviously, if the connection works fine in town then the problems are with your phone line. If it does not connect in town you are having a problem with either your ISP or your computer.

   The final step is a bit more complicated. Fortunately you were insightful enough to go to someone's home that already is on the Internet. Write down your connection parameters (they are located in "My Computer/Dial-Up Networking." Right-click on your connection icon and choose "Properties." When the property box pops up you will need to go tab by tab and copy down ALL the settings. Under the "Server Types" tab be sure to click on "TCP/IP Settings" and carefully copy all the numbers that are there.

   When you are done with that the next step is to start your friend's computer and copy all their settings to your computer. When done log onto the Internet. You are now connected to your friend's ISP so if you are connected without difficulty then the problem is with your ISP. If the problem still exists your problem is most likely in your modem.

   It should be obvious that this sort of troubleshooting can be time consuming and can even lead to some frustration. Take your time and be patient.