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Experiences with Home-Based Internet Connectivity, Domain/Web Site Ownership, and Cable Modems

An article by Plainsboro.COM owner Kennedy Lemke
March, 1998


This article will describe some of the experiences I have had over the past several years with connecting to the internet from home, with setting up and developing a web site, and with using a cable modem. Since this is a longer article than I originally intended, here's a short table of contents that will allow you to skip to the section of the document that you might be most interested in.


History

First a bit of history. I've been an internet user since 1987, before web browsers, before internet protocols over fast modems became popular, before internet commerce, etc. But internet services such as email, free software, USENET netnews, and a digital cyber-community already existed by this time, and have been very important to me ever since. My personal internet usage philosophy has been influenced by projects such as the GNU project, which promote a free flow of information and access to free/cheap software.

Like nearly everyone who was an internet user during the late '80s and early 90's, I only had access to the internet while I was at work, or from home generally using a dialup terminal with a slow modem (a few people I knew were actually using protocols like SLIP over 9600- or 14.4K-baud modems, but this was the exception not the rule). Also like most internet users of the time, I used my internet connection at work for some personal uses, like reading non-work-related USENET netnews, playing poker for fun on the internet live with other internet users, etc.

In 1993, I heard rumblings in the company I was working for over concerns of employees using the internet for personal purposes. Not wanting to be accused of such misuse myself, I decided at that point to find another way to connect to the internet outside of work. I signed up with a new ``Internet Service Provider'' at that time for just a command-line (UNIX) connection to the internet which I used for personal uses mentioned above. By this time I had a Solbourne UNIX workstation at home, on loan to me from my company, which I used to dial into both work and my new ISP. To transfer data, I used serial line transfer programs like kermit and xmodem (I did not yet use SLIP or PPP).


The Birth of Plainsboro.COM

In 1995, the World Wide Web really began exploding. At work, I collaborated with my company's corporate headquarters to host and run their web site (I did this from August of 1995 through September of 1996).

By this time I considered myself somewhat of an internet expert, having participated in designing and implementing a nationwide virtual corporate network WAN, having worked on the design and implementation of a new LAN, and having worked on our corporate web site.

And also by this time, I began to feel that I wanted a better, faster, IP-based permanent connection to the internet at home. My Sun sales representative helped me to initiate this process by telling me about a terrific promotional opportunity to purchase a Sun SparcStation 4 workstation. In the space of about a month at the end of 1995, I decided:

  • to purchase a UNIX machine for personal use at home
  • I wanted to obtain my own domain name and web site
  • I therefore wanted a 24-hour-per-day dedicated connection to the internet at home

Once I had received my computer (I ended up paying less than $4K for a SS4 with 48 MB memory, 1.5 GB disk space, 17" color monitor), I had to think about what domain name I wanted, and how to connect to the internet 24 hours a day cheaply. Since my nickname is "K-man", I originally had wanted to register the domain name "kman.com", but it was unfortunately already taken :-(. But since I had recently moved back to Plainsboro, New Jersey, I decided to register the domain name ``Plainsboro.COM'', and to set up a free community-oriented web site.

Having decided on a domain name and project, I now needed to think about a cheap way to connect to the internet. The only viable solution available to me at the time was a PPP-over-modem connection over a dedicated phone line to an internet service provider. I initially used Global Enterprise Services for this from December 1995 until about June 1996; the actual out-of-pocket cost to me for the dedicated phone link was $900 per annum. In June of '96 for technical reasons I switched to another provider using the same setup (28.8 modem, dedicated phone line) for about the same price.

The technical details decided, Plainsboro.COM went online in about December of 1995. Over the next few months, some friends volunteered to help me out with the project by contributing ideas, graphics, pictures, etc. Initially, there was much community interest in our site, and some organizations such as the Plainsboro Historical Society contributed content.

The Trenton Times even did an article about us (complete with picture) in February 1996. Unfortunately, lack of resources (mostly lack of content and easy access to township information, lack of interest and cooperation from township officials, and lack of our own time) eventually made the project stagnate after a short time. The Plainsboro.COM web site still exists, but it hasn't particularly been very robust since its inception.


Cable Modem Technology comes to Plainsboro

The concept of cable modems has been around for quite some time. The basic idea behind a cable modem is similar to a modem you might use with your telephone service, except that instead of attaching your modem between your computer and your telephone's twisted pair copper line, you hook it up between your computer and the cable company's coax cable coming into your house.

Cable companies, such as Comcast in New Jersey, have a tremendous advantage for implementing this type of service, primarily due to their existing infrastructure (meaning they have a physical pieces of cable already going into a large percentage of households). Cable companies currently have an advantage over phone companies in this infrastructure competition, because at the present time it is easier and cheaper to the consumer to implement high-speed modems over cable than it is to implement similar bandwidth speeds (using DSL technology) over twisted pair copper.

It was the promise of higher bandwidth, 24-hour-per-day connectivity, and low pricing that interested me in getting cable modem service at home, and thus ever since I first moved into my Plainsboro townhome in May of 1994, I had badgered Comcast Cable, asking when the cable modem technology and internet service might be available in my community. In the late spring of 1997, I noted on Comcast's @Home web site that they were indeed planning to bring their cable modem technology to Plainsboro township (yay!). I registered online on their website to indicate to them that I was interested in becoming a cable modem customer as soon as the service became available in my township. Sure enough, at the end of July 1997 I received a phone call from Comcast indicating that they were ready to provide this service in Plainsboro, and wanted to know when I would be available for installation of the service (double yay!).


Cable Modem Implementation and Experiences on Plainsboro.COM

A technical semi-disaster occurred on Plainsboro.COM in July of 1997, just a few weeks prior to the cable modem installation. I was performing some software configuration work on the UNIX computer; this required several reboots of the machine. During one of the reboots, the operating system booted just fine, but unfortunately both of the the serial ports on the CPU stopped working. Since I relied on a serial port connected to a modem for Plainsboro.COM's connection to the internet, this was indeed a disaster (Plainsboro.COM would be ``off the air'' until the problem was fixed).

At this point, I had several options to getting back on the 'net: since the 1-year warranty had expired on my computer, I would have to send it to a Sun repair facility to get the serial ports fixed; this would mean Plainsboro.COM would be off the 'net for several weeks. I could also simply NOT repair the serial ports on the computer, and just keep Plainsboro.COM down until my cable modem service was installed a few weeks hence (cable modems connect to the ethernet port of your computer, not to a serial port), or I could purchase a new computer.

I eventually opted for the last choice, purchasing a second UNIX workstation (a SparcStation 5 with a 170 Mhz processor and a 20" monitor) at the end of July, 1997. I paid approximately $5000 for this computer. When I received shipment of the computer I immediately brought it back online as the new Plainsboro.COM machine via my 28.8 PPP connection to Cyberenet. I still needed to use my old SS4, however, to backup critical data, and for printing (the SS4 has a parallel port, and I had early on purchased an inexpensive Postscript printer that attached to the parallel port). So I created a local network at home consisting of the two SparcStation machines using the ethernet ports on the cpu's, and connecting to the internet through the serial line on the new SS5. I used this configuration for several weeks until the cable modem was installed in my home in August, 1997.


Figure 1: 28.8 modem and ethernet

It is unfortunately the case in the mid and late 1990's that the Microsoft Corporation has pretty much a corner on the market for operating system software on personal computers and workstations. That is, a typical American household that owns a computer will have an Intel-based machine running usually Windows '95. Some die-hard old-timers still run Windows version 3.11, and some of the more sophisticated users will run Windows NT, but a very typical home computer is Intel/Win95. Regardless which OS is run on a home computer, it is most generally a Microsoft OS running on an Intel processor.

The way the Comcast cable modem implementation generally works is that Comcast brings a cable modem unit to your house. The unit itself is a box that looks much like a slightly over-sized external modem. BUT, instead of plugging the modem into your telephone jack, you plug it into your coax cable. And, instead of plugging the modem into a [slow] serial port on your computer, you plug it into an ethernet card on your PC. However, most home computers do not have an ethernet card in them; therefore, the Comcast cable modem service includes the following:

  • Cable modem: plugs into coax cable and into the ethernet card on your PC
  • Cable splitter: so you can still watch cable TV while your computer is connected to the internet
  • PC ethernet card
  • software to make the ethernet card work on your computer work and a Netscape Navigator-based web browser modified slightly to reflect Comcast's services
  • IP address for the ethernet card and a constant 24-hour-a-day connection to the internet

You get all this for a mere $400 per year. Comcast does not officially support UNIX computers at home, however they will still put a cable modem in your house if you order the service, and they will give you an IP address, but you are responsible for making the ethernet connection to your UNIX computer work.

So in August 1997, I FINALLY had a cable modem installed at home and had connected my UNIX machine to the cable modem. One of the first experiments I did was to download some large files from internet sites to compare the download speed to the speed of a 28.8Kbit modem. Sure enough, I was initially averaging a downstream speed of around 800 to 1000 Kilobits per second (!). This was a speed increase of about 40-50 times over a 28.8 modem (keep in mind that over today's phone lines actually connecting at the maximum speed of a 28.8 modem is a rare occurrence--it is much more common to actually connect at a speed of 21,600 bits per second, for example).

And, since the cable modem service was actually costing me only half as much as I had been paying for 24x7 28.8 modem service, I experienced a price-performance increase of nearly two orders of magnitude. CALL ME A CONVERT! I've now become a cable modem preacher. Compare this, for example, to gasoline mileage in your car. Suppose that one day gas prices were suddenly cut in half, AND, instead of getting 20-25 miles per gallon of gas, you suddenly started getting 800 to 1000 miles on one gallon of gas. See my point?

I was (and still am) excited. No more waiting patiently for graphics-rich web pages to appear in my browser, and now the web pages I was sponsoring would also load faster for people visiting my site (upstream speed is only about half as fast as downstream speed using Comcast's cable modem service, but it's still more than an order of magnitude faster than what I was previously experiencing over a 28.8 modem). And, instead of having to wait THREE HOURS to download the complete latest version of the gnu C compiler, I could now do so in just a few minutes.


Dual-machine problems with cable modem configuration

Now, however, I had a slight problem at home: the cable modem's ethernet port was designed to plug directly into the RJ45 ethernet port on your computer. But I had two UNIX computers at home, and I wanted them both up and available and able to communicate with each other at all times. I wrote to Comcast via email asking them if they could possibly assign me a second IP address at home (perhaps in lieu of a PC ethernet card since I did not need this item in my UNIX computer). Unfortunately, Comcast does not support two IP addresses at a single home site (it is still not clear to me if this is a technical problem or just an unwillingness on Comcast's part to do this).

So, instead of arguing about it, I simply temporarily ``borrowed'' a second IP address, picking an address in the same IP subnet as the main Plainsboro.COM computer, one that had not yet been assigned a name by the DNS administrators at Comcast for another of their customers. I then purchased a cheap 10-base-T ethernet repeater. I plugged the wire coming from the cable modem's ethernet port into the ``downlink'' plug of the repeater, then plugged both of my UNIX machines into other ports on the repeater.


Figure 2: Using 2 IP addresses with Cable Modem

Interestingly, this served my purposed very well for quite awhile: while I was unable to reach the internet directly from my secondary, old UNIX computer (I believe this is due to how routing is implemented at the cable head-end), I was still able to communicate between my two UNIX machines just fine, which is all I really wanted to do. I do not particularly recommend that others do this, however.

In March of 1998, I noticed a problem with this configuration. Suddenly, I was unable to communicate between my primary and secondary UNIX machines. I investigated the problem for a day or so and discovered that this second IP address I had picked to use for my secondary machine was now being used by another Comcast customer who had a PC on the same subnet. I quickly decided that rather than playing games with picking yet another unused address (and also that I did not want to risk pissing off Comcast), I should instead try to solve the problem permanently. I did so by purchasing a second ethernet card for my primary UNIX machine. In the new configuration, I now have two ethernet ports on my primary UNIX machine: the first is connected DIRECTLY to the cable modem in my home (just like Comcast would connect to a home PC). I then created a ``home network'' by connecting the second ethernet in the primary machine and the only ethernet of the secondary machine to a repeater.


Figure 3: Cable Modem and Internal Network

In this configuration, which I am using at the time of writing this document, I'm able to serve my own needs (communication between my two UNIX boxes) and I no longer worry about doing something that might interfere with another Comcast customer's ability to access the internet through their cable modem, or about maintaining a configuration at my home that might make Comcast angry enough to cancel my service.

Note that I'm still not able to access the internet directly from my secondary UNIX computer. This doesn't bother me a bit however. If I really felt I needed internet access from this secondary machine, I could simply make use of the UNIX X Window GUI display system and run programs on the primary machine but display them on the secondary machine. OR, if I wanted to be more ambitious I could even install free software such as the Firewall ToolKit that may allow me to transparently access the internet from my secondary machine also. I do not plan on implementing this solution, however, because I feel that the amount of installation and configuration work needed to do so does not justify the few benefits I might reap from such a configuration.


So what do I use Plainsboro.COM for?

As I indicated earlier, I don't really have the resources to continue growing Plainsboro.COM as a useful informational site for Plainsboro, New Jersey residents. Some might ask then why I feel the need to maintain the domain at all (after all, it does cost $50 per year). The answer is that I'm using the machine for a number uses that I would not want to discontinue:

  • First, maintaining the domain allows me to keep the personal email address that I have used for the last couple years (``lemke@Plainsboro.COM''), and it gives me a natural place to host my personal web pages.
  • Second, I'm able to VERY EASILY provide some services to internet groups such as a couple email lists (listservs) that I maintain, as well as some other web-based information (such as an archive for these email lists, for example)
  • Third, I'm able to give actual accounts on Plainsboro.COM to some of my friends for free. This is REALLY EASY to do, and because Plainsboro.COM is UNIX-based, remote access is very simple for my friends, who may use Plainsboro.COM as their own personal email account, as a place to post their own web sites, or as a place to participate in other internet services.
  • Fourth, if a business opportunity does come along that piques my interest, I pretty much have the infrastructure in place to support such an opportunity immediately. If Plainsboro township decides that they really would like to take advantage of my offer to host township information (still for free), everything we need is already in place to support such a venture.
  • Fifth, I'm finding that friends, colleagues, and other internet acquaintances to this date are still interested and somewhat impressed by the fact that I have already put together all this infrastructure and that I host my own domain, etc. These folks continue to impress ME by suggesting ideas for how I could exploit this infrastructure (I'm now secure enough that I can finally admit in not being the only expert who has cool ideas about the internet)

One idea that a few of my friends have suggested is: ``Why not become an ISP yourself: others could dial into Plainsboro.COM, initiate a PPP connection over a modem, and access the internet through your Comcast cable link''. Yes, I agree this is a neat idea, but one that I will NOT implement for two main reasons: first, I think that I'm already probably pushing the envelope of what Comcast is willing to allow their customers to use their cable modem service for (and they expressly state in their paperwork that their service is not to be used for anything that might compete with their business). Besides, I'd like to see everyone have the kind of bandwidth at home that I've been enjoying since connecting to Comcast. Second, I already do act as an ``internet service provider'' of sorts by providing secure remote access to my company's internal network and to the internet for 100 or so employees at my company. I've decided it's not much fun supporting modem dialins and PPP configurations, and I really don't want to get into this business anyway.


Conclusion

I am for the time being quite happy with the current configuration of my home network. At this point, I'm free to add as many hosts or other IP-based clients to my ``internal'' home network without affecting traffic or access to the internet from my primary machine. I also have the freedom to practice my own philosophy of free/cheap internet services, and to provide accounts or other simple services as I see fit.

I also have a reasonably fast computer to use at home not only for internet access but also for traditional uses such as keeping track of personal finances and word processing, letter writing and printing, etc.

At my place of work, my company is helping to develop the next generation of cable modems, which will be MCNS compliant. This means a move away from proprietary protocols for cable modems towards standards-based cable modems; more competition means lower prices for consumers. Luckily, Comcast supports this MCNS standards effort, which may also mean access to even greater bandwidth for its customers.

In summary, I'm EXTREMELY pleased with my Comcast cable modem connection at home, and I indeed preach this as ``the'' current best cheap, fast connection for anyone who has access to it.

I'm also very pleased that I now have a few years of experience under my belt running my own internet ``site'' in a manner that gives me a lot of control and flexibility. This has been a great learning experience for me, and I hope I'll continue to learn and grow both as an internet consumer and information provider.

Kennedy Lemke, March 1998


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