Tutorial: How to Use Cellular as Backup Internet Access When Your DSL, Cable or Fiber Internet Dies

Cellular as Emergency Internet Connection Backup

The Internet connection at your office dies. Lights on your modem are flashing in a strange pattern. You call the ISP, and they quickly diagnose that the modem power supply has failed, and they will overnight you a replacement. Presumably you are not the first person to have this problem with that modem.

So how do you continue to operate while you are waiting for the replacement power supply? It’s hard to run your business without e-mail and ordering and administration systems, which are all accessed via the Internet.

If you want availability, you need two connections to the Internet, so if one fails you are not out of business. We go over this in the lesson “Mature Competitive Carrier Network: Regional Rings, POPs and MANs”, slide 3.17 of Course 101, Telecom Datacom and Networking for Non-Engineering Professionals, and mention it in pretty much every other course.

A large business will be a station on a Metropolitan Area Network, which is a ring, meaning two connections to the Internet for that business and automatic reconfiguration in the case of one failing. But this is expensive… the second connection is not free.

Small and medium businesses usually have a single DSL or cable modem connection to the Internet. When that fails, connectivity to email, ordering and administration servers is impossible, and many businesses these days would be “dead in the water” until the ISP fixes the problem with their hardware.

Unless you have an Android smartphone, a good “data” plan and a laptop with WiFi running Windows.

The scenario described happened at our office last week. Since many of our customers might find themselves in a similar situation – even at home – I thought I’d share the quick and painless solution I came up with. Even if you’re not likely to need this solution, understanding how it works will no doubt sharpen your understanding of the devices involved and their functions.

In this tutorial, I will use the technology in our office: 16 Mb/s DSL, Android smartphone and Windows laptop. The solution is equally applicable to an Internet connection using a cable modem or if you are one of the lucky few, an Internet connection via fiber.

For the smartphone and laptop, there may be equivalent functions on Apple products, but as I am allergic to Apples, we don’t have any in the office. I’m posting this tutorial on our Facebook page, our Google+ page, or our blog; I invite someone better able to tolerate Apple products to leave a comment whether and how the iPhone and MacBook can perform the required functions.

Figure 1: Normal network setup

Figure 1  illustrates the normal network setup in our office, a typical configuration for networking at a small or medium business. On the left is the access circuit to the Internet Service Provider (ISP), terminating on a modem in our office.

The modem is contained in a box that also includes a computer and an Ethernet switch. This box is more properly called the Customer Edge (CE).

The computer in the CE runs many different computer programs performing various functions: Stateful Packet Inspection firewall, DHCP server offering private IP addresses to the computers in-building, DHCP client obtaining a public IP address from the ISP, a Network Address Translation function between the two, routing, port forwarding and more.

In-building is a collection of desktop computers, servers and network printers. These are connected with Category 5e LAN cables to Gigabit Ethernet LAN switches, one of which is also connected to the CE.

When a desktop computer is restarted, its DHCP client obtains a private IP address and Domain Name Server (DNS) address from the DHCP server in the CE. The private address of the CE is configured as the “default gateway” for the desktop by Windows.

When a desktop computer wants to communicate with a server over the Internet, it looks up the server’s numeric IP address via the DNS, then creates a packet from the desktop to the Internet server and transmits it to its default gateway, the CE.

The NAT function in the CE changes the addresses on the packet to be from the CE to the Internet server and forwards the packet to the ISP via the modem and access circuit. The response from the Internet server is relayed to the CE, where the NAT changes the destination address on the return packet to be the desktop’s private address and relays it to the desktop.

The solution for restoring Internet access after the CE died is illustrated below.

Figure 2 Restored Internet Access via Cellular

An Android smartphone and a laptop running Windows were used to restore connectivity to the Internet without making any changes to the desktops, servers or network printers.

First, I took my Samsung/Google Nexus smartphone running Android out of my pocket and plugged in the charger.

Then on its menu under Settings > more > Tethering & portable hotspot > Set up Wi-Fi hotspot, I entered a Network SSID (“TERACOM”) and a password, clicked Save, then clicked Portable Wi-Fi hotspot to turn it on.

The smartphone is now acting as a wireless LAN Access Point, just like any other WiFi AP at Starbucks, in the airport or in your home.

At this point, the smartphone is the CE device, performing all of the same functions that the DSL CE device had been before it died: firewall, DHCP client to get a public IP address from the ISP (now via cellular), DHCP server to assign private IP addresses to any clients that wanted to connect (now via WiFi), NAT to translate between the two and router to forward packets.

Just as the DSL CE equipment “bridged” or connected the DSL modem on the ISP side to the Ethernet LAN in-building, allowing all the devices on the LAN to send and receive packets to/from the Internet via DSL, the smartphone “bridges” or connects the cellular modem on the ISP side to the WiFi wireless Ethernet LAN in-building, allowing all the devices on the wireless LAN to send and receive packets to/from the Internet via cellular radio.

The remaining problem was that none of the desktops or servers had wireless LAN cards in them, so they could not connect to the smartphone AP and hence the smartphone’s cellular Internet connection.

What was needed was a device to “bridge” or connect the wired LAN to the wireless LAN in-building. By definition, this device would need two LAN interfaces: a physical Ethernet jack to plug into the wired LAN, plus a wireless LAN capability.

Looking around the office, I spotted two devices that fit this description. One of them was my laptop, with both a LAN jack and wireless LAN.

I fired up the laptop, plugged it into an Ethernet switch with a LAN cable, and in the Network and Sharing Center, clicked Change Adapter Settings to get to the Network Connections screen that showed the two LAN interfaces.

I enabled both the wired and wireless LAN interfaces. Then right-clicking the Wireless Network Connection icon, selected the TERACOM wireless network and entered the password.

Once that was successfully connected, I selected the two adapters in the Network Connections screen, right-clicked and chose “Bridge Connections”. A message saying “Please wait while Windows bridges the connections” appeared, then an icon called “Network Bridge” appeared, and after a few seconds, “TERACOM” appeared as well.

My laptop was now acting as an Ethernet switch, connecting the wired LAN to the smartphone’s wireless LAN.

Each of the desktops, servers and network printers in the office had to be rebooted so they would run their DHCP client again, obtaining a private IP address and DNS address from the smartphone AP, and be configured so the smartphone was the “default gateway” in Windows.

After rebooting my desktop computer, it had Internet access over the wired LAN, through the wired Ethernet switch to my laptop, to the smartphone via WiFi then to the ISP over cellular.

After rebooting the other desktops and servers, all had Internet access again, with no changes to the configuration of the desktops or servers.

This took about 20 minutes to get up and running, and we were back in business. Running a bandwidth test on speedtest.net, I found we had exactly 5 Mb/s connection to the Internet via cellular.

Obviously my cellular service provider limited the connection to 5 Mb/s in software – but who’s complaining? 5 Mb/s is more than three times as fast as a T1, which cost $20,000 per month when I first started in this business 20 years ago.

I hope you found this tutorial useful, either as a template for your own emergency backup Internet connection, or simply as a way of better understanding the devices, their functions and relationships.– EC

Note 1: You must verify your billing plan for “data” on your cellular contract before doing this. I have 6 GB included, which means basically unlimited, and that includes the WiFi hotspot traffic. Make sure you have something similar, to avoid receiving a bill for $10,000 for casual “data” usage.

Note 2: As always, this tutorial is provided as general background information only. We do not guarantee it will work for you. Each situation is unique and requires professional advice to identify and resolve issues including but not limited to performance and security. This tutorial is not professional advice. But I hope you have found it valuable.

Note 3: I might have been able to implement this without the laptop. If you’d like to know that, or what was the other device I could have used to bridge the wired and wireless LAN in-building, or suggest how this could be done with Apple products, please leave a comment.

Net Neutrality – Foolish, ignorant or disingenuous?

The popular press and news feeds have been full of stories about advocates of “net neutrality” testifying to congressional committees, lobbying the federal government and railing against the big ISPs over the past while.  Not much mention of arguments against net neutrality, though.  It’s hard to decide whether those arguing for net neutrality are foolish, ignorant or disingenuous.  
 
Let’s begin with some definitions. When someone demands “net neutrality”, they usually mean that the network must not discriminate between applications being carried in IP packets; that identical transmission characteristics (throughput, delay, number of errors, etc.) are to be provided for all packets regardless of what is being carried in them. They claim (correctly) that this is not the case at present, that the network service provider is “throttling” certain applications, “slowing down” or “shaping” traffic and that this, in their opinion, must stop. They sound the rallying cry “the net should be free”. 
 
What a load of hogwash.
But are these arguments foolish, ignorant or disingenuous?  Hard to decide: 

Continue reading “Net Neutrality – Foolish, ignorant or disingenuous?”

How ISPs connect to the Internet: peering vs. transit

This discussion is covered in Course 101, Chapter 16 “Understanding the Internet”,
and in more depth in Course 110, Chapter 16 “IP as a Business: Carrier Networks, Competition and Interconnect”

Originally, the only way to get on to the Internet was from a terminal connected to a computer at a university or research institute. The Internet was mostly circuits paid for by the taxpayers via the National Science Foundation. Today, commercial Internet access providers, called Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide the capability for anyone to access and communicate over on the Internet. These ISPs are for the most part business units of facilities-based carriers, i.e. telephone companies and cable companies.

Such service providers have physical access circuits and circuit-terminating equipment on the customer side, plus routers, security and access control equipment to manage customer traffic. This is often organized with data centers in cities or regions, which are interconnected. This ensemble of interconnected routers controlled by an ISP is called an Autonomous System (AS).

The Internet is a vast, unregulated collection of interconnected Autonomous Systems. The connections between ASs are not specified by a central authority or world government, but are implemented on a case-by-case basis by the operators of an AS for business reasons. The Internet is not free. It is not a public utility. It is a business.

ISPs operating ASs will connect to competitors and content providers like Google to exchange traffic terminating on each other’s network (called peering), and will connect to larger organizations who will assure delivery of packets to other destinations (transit). The networks are physically connected at Internet Exchange (IX) centers such as Equinix Chicago at 350 E Cermak. These are buildings with equipment implementing network interconnection operated by a neutral third party. The ASs are responsible for paying for connectivity to the IX.

Course 101, page 16.09: Internet Service Providers

Internet Service Providers

Peering is settlement-free, i.e. no money is exchanged. Transit is a commercial service that costs money. Larger ISPs charge smaller ISPs for transit services. The largest networks are sometimes called Tier-1 service providers… but “Tier-1” is not an officially defined term. Some claim that it means a network “close to the center of the Internet” or a network that does not pay for transit. However, there is no “center” to the Internet, and virtually all networks employ a mix of peering and transit agreements to connect to other networks… and the nature of such connections is non-disclosed confidential business information. A “Tier-1 network” might best be thought of as one operated by a very big facilities-based carrier that has presence in most or all IXs and sells transit services to smaller networks and ISPs.

The ISPs build the access network and peering or transit connections to other networks, then charge the users for access. It’s a pyramid scheme. The end users end up paying for all.

In addition to access services, the ISP usually provides a Web server to host your website, a Domain Name Server, and an e-mail server.
Back in the Flintstones era when dial-up Internet access was first available, telcos were a bit slow to react, so for a while, companies like Netcom, MindSpring, Portal, Pipeline, iStar and others had their day in the sun. These organizations were resellers, leasing circuits from a carrier and reselling them to users under per-minute or per-month billing plans.

The carriers eventually began competing with resellers, who for the most part went out of business, selling their customers to the carriers. For example, Netcom is now part of Earthlink, which is majority owned by Sprint. AOL and MSN are the biggest remaining reseller-type ISPs. For the most part, it is business units of the companies that own the cables coming into your home: the LEC and the cable TV company that are the dominant ISPs today.

If you do choose to use a reseller-type ISP, particularly for a business or organization, questions regarding customer service, capacity and availability should be asked. Another is redundancy – do they have a single point of failure? Do they have multiple connections to different Tier-1 providers? What capacity are those connections?

This discussion is covered in Course 101, Chapter 16 “Understanding the Internet”,
and in more depth in Course 110, Chapter 16 “IP as a Business: Carrier Networks, Competition and Interconnect”

Is the Internet a Public Utility?

Reading articles and blogs about Net Neutrality, one often sees the justification for government interference in the operation of IP networks to allow people stealing copyrighted works to consume bandwidth 24/7 at line speed “because the Internet is a public utility.”

It ain’t. The Internet is a business.

Reading articles and blogs about Net Neutrality, one often sees the justification for government interference in the operation of IP networks to allow people stealing copyrighted works using bittorrent (the net neutrality advocates) to consume bandwidth 24/7 at line speed “because the Internet is a public utility.”

It ain’t. The Internet is a business.

Continue reading “Is the Internet a Public Utility?”

Net Neutrality II: If the power company allowed this, your electrical bill would double.

If “net neutrality” principles were applied to electricity, it would be like having no electricity meter. Everyone pays the same, regardless how much power they use. The problem: if you’re one of the 99% of normal users, you would have to pay DOUBLE what you normally would, to cover the costs of the 1% of users constantly drawing 200 amps 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Following up on a previous discussion, a demand for “net neutrality” usually means a demand that the network must not discriminate between applications being carried in IP packets; that identical transmission characteristics (throughput, delay, number of errors, etc.) are to be provided for all packets regardless of what is being carried in them.

But a demand for “net neutrality” is usually also wrapped together with a demand by these same people for no metering, no usage charges. This would mean that users who are continuously transmitting and receiving packets would pay the same flat rate as someone who is paying only for a typical traffic profile.

If this principle were applied to electricity, it would be like having no electricity meter. Everyone pays the same, regardless how much power they use. The problem: if you’re one of the 99% of normal users, you would have to pay DOUBLE what you normally would, to cover the costs of the 1% of users constantly drawing 200 amps 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Here’s how that would work:
Continue reading “Net Neutrality II: If the power company allowed this, your electrical bill would double.”

Offshored tech support from the phone company… so bad it's funny + $240 per year for an email address ?!

We usually feature articles on technical fundamentals in the newsletter – but this related topic might lighten up your day… a “help” desk so bad, it’s almost funny.

Recently, a relative asked me to help them sort out an issue with their ISP. They were paying for two internet access services, one old dial-up plan and one DSL plan. They wanted to go to a new 802.16 WiMax broadband wireless plan from the same ISP. They question they were trying to sort out was whether they could move their email addresses from the two existing services to the new one… or if they would lose those email addresses.

So I agreed to contact the ISP’s email “help” desk to find out the answer. One would think that the question: “Can I migrate my email address from one service provided by your company to another?” would be a frequently-asked question at an ISP email help desk, and could be answered “yes” or “no” in a few seconds.

However, it turned out that the ISP, a subsidiary of Bell Canada, has outsourced most of its customer service, and what could have been answered in a few seconds turned into a 20-minute waste of time. Here’s a transcript of the online chat session:

Continue reading “Offshored tech support from the phone company… so bad it's funny + $240 per year for an email address ?!”