Flying solo to conquer ISDN

I locked the other Lab Guys in the Windows NT Magazine Lab so that I could take over this column for a couple months. Don't worry. I left them plenty of food and water. Besides, we just received a shipment of new servers, so for the next 90 days they probably won't even notice that they can't get out.

Why did I take this drastic action? Because I want to focus on the subject of remote connectivity—or more precisely, my quest for high-speed remote connectivity.

My Secret SOHO Life
The Lab GuysIn addition to managing the large, enterprise-oriented NT lab that services Windows NT Magazine, I maintain a small office/home office (SOHO) lab in my basement. My SOHO lab isn't particularly large or impressive. It consists of six PCs running various Microsoft operating systems, three Macintosh systems, and an assortment of peripherals, all of which I have interconnected via an Ethernet network.

I recently concluded that I need a high-speed link between my SOHO lab and the Lab. Plenty of small businesses and remote offices operate with a handful of machines and need some form of remote connectivity, so my desire for a high-speed link isn't unrealistic. The Lab has an ISDN line (more about that next month), and I just moved into a new house with new phone wire. Thus, ISDN makes sense for my SOHO lab.

I planned to attach the ISDN line to my central NT Server system to handle communications between my SOHO and the Lab. My central server handles file sharing, print sharing, and fax services for the client systems in my SOHO lab—giving it another function seemed logical. I hadn't decided what software to use on the server, but I planned to evaluate Proxy Server, Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS), ISDN modem sharing, and other products once I received the ISDN link.

Enter the I-Team
I've had plenty of first- and secondhand experience with the horrors of ordering an ISDN connection (for another horror story about a home ISDN line, see Bob Chronister, Tricks & Traps, page 211), and my phone company, US West, has the worst reputation for ISDN deployment in the country. I prepared myself for the worst.

Before I called US West, though, a 3Com/U.S. Robotics representative provided a glimmer of hope. The representative told me about the I-Team, a free service 3Com/U.S. Robotics offers that acts as an intermediary between you and the phone company. 3Com/U.S. Robotics subcontracts the work to Cyberlink Technologies (http://www.cyberlinktech.com), but you are unlikely to notice this arrangement unless you read all the small print in the paperwork the company generates.

When you contact the I-Team, 3Com/U.S. Robotics asks you to sign a form that lets the I-Team contract service on your behalf. You identify what kind of equipment you will connect to the ISDN line, and the I-Team places your ISDN order with your local phone company, making sure the line's provisioning is right for your equipment (you don't have to use 3Com/U.S. Robotics equipment to use the I-Team).

After talking to the I-Team, I decided to install a new line for my ISDN service. The I-Team ordered ISDN service at the same time I ordered a new phone line from US West. Much to my surprise, US West did an excellent job of installing my new line in a prompt and professional manner, although at that point it was just another analog phone line. After the line was in and I had given the I-Team the new number, the I-Team set a date for when it would reprovision the line for ISDN service. At that point, I figured I was set—all I had to do was endure a short wait. I leaned back in my chair, propped my feet up on my desk, and chuckled to myself about how well my ISDN project was going.

Time Marches On
On the day the I-Team had scheduled for the activation of my ISDN line, I called US West to verify that everything was OK. I first sensed trouble when the service representative told me US West had no record of a service order for my new line's phone number. Then the conversation grew even more interesting. I gave the service representative the two Service Profile Identifiers (SPIDs) assigned to the line, the circuit number, and my address. The service representative found my order based on that information but proceeded to tell me, "I'm sorry, sir, you're not authorized to receive information on this order."

Needless to say, this news blew me away. How could US West not authorize me to receive information about my own order? I asked the representative whether the I-Team could access the order information, and the answer was no. I asked whether Cyberlink could access the information, and again the answer was (a little surlier) no. Finally, I asked who US West had authorized to receive information on my ISDN conversion, and the answer was, "I'm sorry sir. I can't tell you that." I couldn't believe my ears. After a few more tense exchanges, the service representative agreed to transfer me to the home office department, which usually handles ISDN orders.

Fortunately, the home office department was extremely helpful. Within a few minutes the home office representative found the problem. The I-Team's ISDN order had transposed the digits in my new phone number. The first representative wouldn't tell me anything because the paperwork had someone else's name on it (presumably, the person who belonged to the incorrect phone number). Now, I know what you're thinking: Problem solved. Right? Unfortunately, the solution was nowhere in sight.

Back to the Future
Armed with this new information, I contacted the I-Team so that they could correct my order. The I-Team contacted US West with the correction and relayed this message to me: "We can change the order, but if we do, the change will delay your ISDN activation." I could either have ISDN activated immediately in a total stranger's house, or I could wait and maybe have my line reprovisioned at a later date. I'm sure the person with the transposition of my phone number would have appreciated returning home that night to find a dead analog phone.

The I-Team informed US West of my decision to have the job done correctly and called me back to tell me that US West was having "facilities problems" and couldn't give me a new date for ISDN activation. Did I feel like US West was punishing me for changing the order? You bet I did.

One thing I want to make clear is that I do not blame the I-Team for this problem. Yes, it made a mistake when it submitted my order to US West, but I missed the problem when I verified the order. Furthermore, my I-Team contact has been cooperative and professional throughout the ordeal (OK, we did have one tense conversation, but only one). My ISDN experience has been far from ideal, but I would still recommend the I-Team in a heartbeat.

However, my feelings about US West are not so positive. Although the home office people at US West were helpful, I'm appalled that they can't deploy ISDN lines in a timely fashion. And I'm completely ticked off about this "facilities problem." My experience reinforces the prevalent belief that US West is, indeed, US Worst for ISDN service.

Now, more than 2 months after I began my quest for an ISDN line, I still don't have one. To be fair, I recently called US West and asked about the status of my order. The company said my "F1s are loaded in the switch but we're still waiting for room to load the F2s." Right. All I know is that US West still couldn't give me a target date for activation.

Frankly, I'm tired of waiting, so I've started to explore alternative technologies. Because I have a digital connection in the Lab, I've been experimenting with alternative high-speed modem technologies, including X2 and K56Flex. I'll pick up that story next month—unless US West activates my ISDN line in the meantime. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha....