Getting the best speeds from a dial-up connection

Dialup is still the most popular way for people to connect to the Internet. If you have users dialing up and then VPN-ing into your network, these tips will help them speed their connections.

If you've got remote users dialing into your corporate network to do work, then you've probably heard them complain about how slow it can be sometimes. Dialup is always going to be slower that broadband, but it doesn’t always have to be as slow as it is. Here's how I increased dial-up speeds, and you can use my experience to increase speed for your dial-up users.

My story
Recently I was becoming frustrated with the speed of response on my dial-up connection at home. It seemed to fail to connect with astonishing regularity, drop out completely at random, and, when connected, the transfer rate was not very good. Broadband is not yet available in my area, so I am stuck with a 56K modem for the time being.

I wondered if it was my ISP. In the UK there are many "free" ISPs that take a portion of the call revenue to make their living so I tried dialing a few of those. Some are more oversubscribed than others but generally the results were the same. Drop outs, slow speeds, and so on. It was time to do some diagnostics.

Diagnosing the fault
Having searched around for some software to help me, I downloaded, installed, and ran MyVitalAgent, which gives some valuable insights into the progress of a connection.

I fiddled about with the modem settings, flow control, and so forth, to get the maximum throughput possible. The main thing was to switch over the flow control settings from the default Hardware setting to Software. This perked things up a bit but the main problems still remained.

Checking the phone line
The testing had shown that there was some noise interference on the phone line itself, so I called up British Telecom's Faults line and spoke to the testing engineers. They ran some tests and concluded that the line was OK, but said they could hear some interference on my handset. They counted the RENs on my line and advised that they were within tolerances. This agreed with my count that confirmed that the total count should have been 4.

They also promised to turn up the gain on my line; this is similar to turning up the volume on your car radio when the rain on the roof of the car makes it difficult to hear the program. They will sometimes be reluctant to do this as they do not always have sufficient power at hand on the network to fulfill all these types of requests.

Checking the attached hardware
They advised me to try connections with the other phones in the house unplugged. There are four devices plugged into my phone line: the PC and a telephone handset in my office, a combined telephone/answering machine in the sitting room, and the satellite TV box.

I tried each in turn and discovered that the culprit, the fly in the ointment, was the telephone/answering machine. Plugged in, I could achieve around 35 Kbps unreliably; out—it gave me 44 Kbps steady as a rock, and the number of bad packets was dramatically reduced.

So inevitably, and by a long and circuitous route, I found myself in the shop looking for a new telephone for the sitting room. With new phone plugged in, I tried again. I was able to achieve 44 Kbps again. I now leave my satellite TV box unplugged, to save on line voltage. I seldom use any interactive services on the TV so it seemed to be a REN wasted.

The other alternative is to pay for another phone line, but with the level of traffic in my home being as low as it is, I did not feel that this was a justifiable expense.

Upgrading software
Later, I bit the bullet and installed Windows 2000 on a secondary partition so that I can now dual boot into either Windows 98 or 2000. The newer dialer software in Windows 2000 now regularly allows a connection at around 47.2 Kbps, which is quite respectable.

Interestingly, when I first installed Windows 98, I had a great deal of difficulty with installing my internal Rockwell modem; I had to create and configure an extra COM port manually. Windows 2000 found my modem card, created and installed the extra port, and installed the driver without any bother whatsoever.

Protecting the phone line
I recently had cause to congratulate myself on my foresight when a short but savage thunderstorm passed by. There were some fairly close lightning strikes and I noticed that the lights flickered. A neighbor knocked in my door and asked if I could have a look at his PC; the dial-up connection was no longer working.

It seemed that the power spike caused his modem to burn out, and I was able to fit a spare internal modem that was in my tool box. My own modem, though nearer to the strike, was passing through a surge and spike filter before it hit the phone system and all was well with it.

There are schools of thought that say that you shouldn't need to unplug equipment during a storm. For what it is worth, I think that my neighbor’s modem would have been saved if it had been disconnected.

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