Saturday, 18 April 2009

Alternative Routers For Poor Connections

Many BT customers have found that the BT HomeHub is not, perhaps, the most useful router in the world. HomeHub 2.0, despite the advertising claims, is not very good at holding onto synch on very long or poor telephone lines. Furthermore, it is even less useful than the earlier versions, as BT have got the firmware locked down so tightly that it has proved impossible to use it to gather continuous information of the sort gathered by RouterStats and RouterStats Lite. This is important if you are suffering from a connection problem or slow speeds. Often this is exactly the sort of information you need to gather, in order to convince BT you have a problem.

What are the alternatives? Well, any router can be used to connect to BT Broadband and setting them up is relatively straightforward - but doing so will mean that you can't use BT features such as the web phones. One of the questions often asked on web forums is which router is the best replacement for the HomeHub? Unfortunately the answer is far from straightforward and it amounts to "whichever works best in your particular set of circumstances".

My own experience, at the end of a very poor quality and noisy line, has shown that if all you want to do is maintain synch as best you can and record basic information to present to BT, then BT's Business Hub, the 2-Wire 2700HGV is one of the best and most stable routers around. If you are having real problems with a BT Broadband connection and have managed to get through to BT's third-line support, they may even offer you one to try - if not, they can be picked up off e-Bay.

More recently, and following email exchanges with BT Broadband guru Jarviser, I've gone back to using an old Netgear DG834PN router. Netgear routers have long had the reputation for being excellent devices that can hold on to synch like glue. They are also the routers that RouterStats was originally designed to work with and so you can make use of all the features of that software too.

Best of all, the Netgear DG series of routers:

Netgear DG834(G) Versions 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 or 4.0
Netgear DG834GT
Netgear DG834PN
Netgear DG834N version 1
Netgear DG834 2000

have firmware that can be tweaked. Now the best Netgear tweakers are a bunch of crazy Italians called the DGTeam, whose somewhat irreverent logo appears at the head of this post. They describe their mission as follows:

This project was born with the purpose of making experiments on Netgear DG834XX Adsl Router Series, first of all fixing many little issues we found out on official releases and after this, trying to improve its performances adding new features.

Why is the DGTeam firmware so useful? Well, it allows you to go on the offensive when it comes to trying to improve your connection - and to do it without having to dig into the guts of the firmware. The most important feature is the ability to tweak the signal to noise (S/N) margin target for your connection. OK, you might not understand what this is, or how it affects your connection, but what it does is as follows.

The lower the S/N target, the higher the sync speed your connection can achieve, but the more unstable your connection might become. The converse is also true, with higher S/N margins leading to lower synch speeds, but more stable connections. When you first get BT Broadband, the default S/N target is 6 decibels (6dB - but don't worry about the units - it's what they do that matters). If you have a poor connection, equipment at your local exchange called the DSLAM will cause your synch speed and IP profile (which fixes the maximum download speed) to drop, and the S/N target may rise. It goes up in 3dB steps - so 6, 9, 12 and 15 dB and will keep going up until your connection seems stable. However, at this point, your IP profile may have dropped as low as 135kbps and you might have an S/N target of 15+ - a very stable sub dial-up speed broadband connection. About as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Now the BT S/N settings might best be described as "conservative" as they err on the side of caution when it comes to giving a stable connection/speed combination.

This is where the DGTeam firmware comes in. It allows you to easily adjust the S/N target yourself, which can often improve either your speed or stability - the choice is yours. The S/N setting in the firmware is normally set to 100% - the value BT want you to connect at. Increasing it to 120% will make your connection much more stable, but slower. Decreasing it to, say, 80% will make your synch speed faster, but your connection may become a little more unstable. If you can lower the S/N margin enough, without your router losing synch, you may be able to encourage the DSLAM to increase your IP profile and thus the download speed of your connection.

Now, it normally takes a very long time for the BT DSLAM to lower the S/N margin, if your connection improves of its own accord (eg because of better weather), so using the DGTeam firmware can be a big help!

Finally, the DGTeam firmware is compatible with RouterStats.

WARNING: If you are going to try the DGTeam firmware, you MUST flash it to your router using a Windows XP machine. Using Vista may result in a very dead router!
If you are too enthusiastic about lowering the S/N target, you may make your router so unstable that the IP profile drops even further, leaving you with a slower connection than you had before. Of course, if you already have a connection running at sub dial-up speeds, you don't really have much to lose.

No comments:

Having had some major problems with my own broadband service, I understand how others struggle to get help from BT.

There is a lot of good information out there, but it can be hard to find. So this blog is an attempt to pull some of it together, in one place.

It's a blog that really shouldn't be needed - if only BT and possibly other ISP's in the UK, provided useful customer support.