You’d think that something as commonplace as using a wireless router with your DSL connection would be very straightforward and easy these day. Well, it actually isn’t too hard, but you have to be aware of some things that Verizon tech support doesn’t seem to clue you in to. As usual, first let me tell you about the pain I suffered along the way. If you’re not interested in that, you can just skip down to the “Getting It to Work” section.
How It All Started
This whole thing started when I finally couldn’t stand the hum on my phone line any more. That, plus really flakey internet performance, convinced me to suck it up and face the pain of calling Verizon and wading through their interminable phone menus to get to tech support. (In truth, I’ve got mixed reviews of Verizon’s tech support, sometimes it has been really good, but getting to them through their maze of phone prompts is a nightmare.)
When the phone guy got here, he quickly identified the ground loop causing the phone line hum and fixed it. While he was here, he checked out our Verizon High Speed Internet set up. He took one look at our old Westell 2100 DSL modem, pronounced it a failure waiting to happen, and told us we should call and get a newer model sent out.
I suppose I should mention that we already had a setup working with a router – a Linksys WRT600N. The setup worked just fine other than the flakiness, most of which disappeared with the phone line hum. Don’t ask me why I felt compelled to mess with something that was working fine. I think it’s just part of being a geek – always wanting the latest and greatest (even if it’s not really better).
Here’s where the good news about of Verizon tech support comes in. Verizon was most willing to send a replacement. They even told me I could keep the old modem. Then a guy called back three nights in a row to see if we had received the modem so he could help us set it up. Unfortunately, as we were able to determine later, UPS misplaced the package and it eventually got returned to Verizon. And here’s the even better news about Verizon tech support – once they received it back, they called me to see if I still needed it! And then sent it back out right away. But I’m getting ahead of my story. I’ll get to that when I talk about “Failed Attempt #2 – New Westell 6100 DSL Modem.”
Failed Attempt #1 – Actiontec DSL Modem with Router
But first, I was now obsessed that I needed a new DSL modem. The very helpful Verizon guy who fixed our phone line mentioned that he’d seen good results with Actiontec DSL modems/wireless routers. And he mentioned the most important bit – they were sold at Best Buy and I could run right out and get one.
So I did. In fact, my obsession was such that I fought the Christmas shopping crowds and went out to get a new Actiontec modem – even though I did not yet know that my Westell modem from Verizon had been misrouted by UPS. Madness. Obsession.
What followed was about 8 hours of frustration. Half the time on my own trying to get the thing to work, and the other half spent on 4 phone calls, 2 to Verizon and 2 to Actiontec. I never did get it to work and the Actiontec folks told me that their modem probably was defective and that I should return it to the store, which I did. Knowing what I know now, though, I probably returned a perfectly good unit to Best Buy. I think I was missing the same key piece of information that causes so many people (and myself) grief when they try to set up a router with Verizon. But we’ll get to that…
It was good news/bad news with Verizon tech support. One of the tech support people wasn’t much help at all, just took me through a canned script, then tried to palm me off to “Premium Technical Support”, claiming that since the original Westell modem worked, it must be a problem with the Actiontec unit and they were “unable to support third party products”. The second person I worked with at Verizon was great. She spent probably 90 minutes with me on the phone, trying everything. I mark it up to poor training on Verizon’s part that she didn’t have the key information she needed to help me solve my problem.
Failed Attempt #2 – New Westell 6100 DSL Modem
So after returning what I still believe to be a perfectly good Actiontec DSL modem to Best Buy, I dropped back to my old Westell 2100 modem and Linksys WRT600N router. To temporarily fuel my obsession for a technical project, I replaced the stock firmware in the Linksys router with an extremely cool Linux software replacement called DD-WRT. I wrote about my experience with that in a previous post.
As I mentioned earlier, Verizon called me up and asked if I still wanted the new Westell modem that they had had returned from UPS. In another fit of madness, and apparently forgetting the lessons of the Actiontec modem, I said yes. Two days later, the new modem arrives and I’m on it.
The depth of my insanity and perpetual optimism is revealed by the fact that after opening the box with the new modem, I invited my son Michael to join me so we could do a quick A/B speed test comparison between the old modem and the new one. Apparently, I was thinking I’d just plug the new one in and it would work right away. Madness.
Four hours, five passes through the maddening Verizon phone menu, two completed and one dead air phone calls to Verizon tech support, and at least one attempt to push me to “Premium Technical Support” (again because the problem supposedly was in my router) later, and I was nowhere. I dropped back to my trusty old Westell 2100 modem, and everything worked fine. But I had this shiny new Westell 6100 modem that didn’t.
Getting It to Work
I finally did what I should have done all along – some research on the web. I found two really good references on how to set your Westell 6100 to bridge mode (which is what is needed to make it work well with a router). One from a website called DSLReports (article here) and the other from Verizon itself (article here). Both pretty much go through the same procedure, and between the two of them I came close to getting it to work. Close, but not completely.
The key issue, as discussed in this posting, is that Verizon keeps track of the MAC address that it issues an IP address to via DHCP, and ignores requests if they come in from other MAC addresses. In less technical terms, your IP address is your temporary identification on the internet, sort of like a hotel room key. Lots of people use a hotel room, but only one at at time. Your MAC address is an identification number that is unique in all the world of hardware devices that connect to the internet. Sort of like your driver’s license. You have to identify yourself to get temporary access to an IP address, just like a hotel room. It would be a bad thing if no one checked the driver’s license before giving someone your hotel room key. DHCP is the equivalent of the front desk clerk, the mechanism that has a bunch of “room keys” (IP addresses) that it loans out on a temporary basis.
So, why doesn’t the front desk clerk (DHCP) just give out a key (IP address) to a different room that isn’t being used? Apparently, Verizon wants to limit their customers to exactly one IP address per DSL line, and they use the unique MAC address identifier ensure that only one IP is given out. This normally isn’t a problem…unless you want to install a new piece of equipment with a new and different MAC address. If you haven’t checked out of your hotel room (released your IP address with the original equipment MAC address), the clerk won’t issue another key (IP address) to the new and unknown stranger in town (new equipment with a new MAC).
I know of four ways to deal with this, but only one that works reliably. Here they are:
- Disconnect everything from the DSL line and wait about 2 hours for the MAC address hold to clear. This is the only method I’ve found to work reliably. It’s frustrating, though, to have to wait 2 hours to see if something will work. But it does. Just be sure to put only the new equipment on the line after the two hour wait, or else a different MAC address will get held and you’ll have to wait another 2 hours. For some reason, Verizon tech support never mentions this as a possibility.
- Release the IP address before you disconnect your old equipment, so that the new equipment can do a DHCP request and get an IP. I’ve seen this work, but not 100% of the time. It appears that there’s a problem on Verizon’s end that the “desk clerk” doesn’t always keep good records and keeps a hold on the MAC address even after the IP address it’s associated with has been released. The better Verizon tech support people will have you try this. Too bad it’s not 100% reliable. I would recommend you do it anyway, just to be sure, in combination with the first method.
[Update 1-18-2011] I’ve done some more experimenting with this. It appears that this approach works pretty reliably if you give the equipment on the Verizon end a few minutes (like about 5) to recognize the change and open up to a new MAC address. I did this several times this weekend and never had a problem. So this is my new recommended approach.
- Clone the MAC address of the old equipment onto the new equipment. Most routers have that capability, and it works most of the time. It was mentioned in the DSLReports article, but it shouldn’t be used for the Westell 6100 modem install. Here’s why. The MAC address Verizon is holding after first setting up the Westell modem is that of the Westell 6100 modem. When you clone the modem’s MAC in your router, you can successfully obtain an IP address from Verizon, but you’re left with a problem that two devices on the same LAN have the same MAC address (you’re still using the Westell modem, just in bridged mode). That doesn’t work so well. But the MAC address clone technique does work in the case where you’re cloning the MAC address of the equipment you’re replacing. Just not if it’s still going to be in the system. For some reason, Verizon tech support never mentions this as a possibility.
- In the specific case of the Westell 6100 modem, you might try setting it up completely without allowing it access to the WAN (until it’s set up). In other words, convert the default bridge-routed setup to bridged only without being hooked to the DSL line. Only connect the modem to the DSL line after it’s been successfully converted to bridged mode. I didn’t try this, but if I were to do it again, I would do this is combination with method #2, and if that didn’t work, I’d go take a break for a couple of hours (method 1) and that would surely work.
Hope this helps. Let me know if you find an error, a better way, or if you tried this and it worked for you.