Surviving Your ISP’s Darkest Hour
Since 1996, I’ve connected my home network to the Internet via an ISDN line, making me an early adopter of the "dedicated Internet access from home" concept. (Adam & Tonya beat me to the punch: they got their first dedicated frame relay line in 1994.) I’ve also run my own servers – including Web, email, and DNS – on a small collection of Macs, and I host several domains and services for my clients, including TidBITS. If you’ve ever searched TidBITS, read an article using a GetBITS URL, read TidBITS using AvantGo on your Palm device, or browsed the TidBITS Talk archive, you’ve accessed Macs in my office closet six feet from where I sit.
The Lure of Broadband — A 128 Kbps ISDN offers just over twice the bandwidth of a 56 Kbps modem, so you might think my connection often bogs down. Over the last five years or so, this hasn’t really been true: the line might be saturated for 10 or 15 seconds at a time, but over the space of an hour my systems typically use 5 to 8 percent of the available bandwidth. Nonetheless, I wanted more bandwidth: in addition to my Internet-related work, I’m a session musician. In the last year I’ve taken some tiny steps into the world of digital audio, and on occasion hundreds of people inexplicably decide to download MP3 files from my servers. More significantly, I sometimes need to transfer hundreds of megabytes of individual audio tracks to and from clients. Those gigantic file sets can take several hours to transfer over the ISDN line, and they do bog down services I host for TidBITS and other clients.
However, I had few connectivity options. DSL isn’t available in my area, and my landlord won’t let me install the extra pairs of wires which would be necessary for frame relay – assuming I could afford frame relay. Similarly, megabit wireless options exist, but are currently too pricey to consider, and I’d apparently have to move to a new apartment to get a proper line of sight – in which case, I might as well move to where I can get cheap DSL.
So, this spring, I bit the bullet and ordered high-speed service from a local residential broadband provider who had set up service in my area. I’d been watching the company for almost a year, and even though the ISP market was shrinking, they had been able to secure additional funding and expand their services, plus their customers were generally giving them good marks. The idea was slick: they brought in a high-speed link to "captive" sites like apartments or condominiums without other broadband options, then (in my case) used nifty gizmos from Tut Systems to run Ethernet a few hundred yards over phone lines from their high-speed connection to individual residences. Once installed, the system worked great: I was able to transition my network with a minimum of fuss, and suddenly I was getting up to 2 Mbps of bandwidth, or 16 times the bandwidth of my ISDN line. Those big audio files now took minutes to transfer, and I spent a fair bit of time gloating to all my friends and colleagues. I also gleefully cancelled my ISDN line, removing another major thorn from my side: the local telephone monopoly, Qwest Communications.
But like all happiness, my broadband experience was fleeting. After about six weeks (and despite my careful research) the broadband ISP shut down with virtually no warning. My network and everything on it (including my personal email, my client’s email, and the services I run for TidBITS and everyone else) dropped off the face of the earth. TidBITS readers might remember a weekend at the beginning of March where many items on the TidBITS home page were inaccessible: that was when my provider went dark, and my blood pressure could be measured on the Richter scale.
Into Thin Air — My experience is not unusual in the present economic climate. The market for ISPs in the U.S. has been shrinking for a few years; at first, this decline was mainly due to mergers and acquisitions, as large companies swallowed up smaller providers in an effort to acquire customers, revenues, and facilities. However, the ongoing dot-com bust (and the concomitant bankruptcies) have further thinned the ranks of ISPs at all levels, from the local mom-and-POP providers serving small areas to enormous regional and national services. As the industry consolidates, most people can expect still fewer Internet providers to be available to them, while the number of people with Internet access continues to increase. A surprising number of people have been left scrambling for Internet access, email addresses, and connectivity with little or no warning.
For some folks, having their ISP vanish overnight may not be much of an inconvenience, but for others it can be a serious disruption of business, personal communication, and services. Simply moving to a new email address can disrupt your correspondence for weeks or months as people and businesses gradually update nicknames, address books, and other databases: the longer you’ve used your current email address, the more disruption changing it will cause. Similarly, if your ISP hosts your Web site, you may simply lose the pages, images, scripts, and other data you created for the site, unless you’ve been scrupulous about your backups. (You are scrupulous about backups, right?)
It’s worse for other folks. Consumer-oriented broadband technologies like DSL have spawned thousands or even millions of comparatively small networks with full-time Internet connections. Some are run by hobbyists who think it’s nifty to be online all the time; others represent small- and medium-sized businesses or organizations who can’t afford (or who can’t get) dedicated commercial Internet access. When their ISPs vanish, their entire networks can completely disappear from the Internet. Further, their ability to switch to another provider might vanish with the darkened ISP, particularly if the ISP was hosting their domain or provided email service. I’m a somewhat extreme example of this group, since I not only do everything myself (all the way down to DNS), I create and sell custom online services to clients. So when my connection died, everything I do went with it.
Outliving Your ISP — The process of rescuing my network from the bit bucket has led me to draw up these suggestions for folks who want to be ready in the unfortunate event their ISP closes up shop, is swallowed whole by an inferior company, or stops offering you service. Some of these details are more specific (and more technical) than others, but they should serve as a starting point for preparedness – and put you miles ahead of where I was when my LEDs went out.
For most users, I recommend the following:
Get alternative email addresses. If your ISP vanishes, you’ll need email addresses separate from your ISP or (if you run your own network) your own mail server. Web-based email may be helpful, even though it’s awkward compared to using a real email program. Numerous companies like Pobox, Bigfoot, Yahoo, HotMail, and Mail.com offer forwarding services and free email accounts. If you’ve set up an iTools account, Apple’s Mac.com email service is an option, although I personally can’t connect to it very often. I’d recommend at least two alternative addresses since there’s no telling how long email providers will be around. For instance, USA.net recently announced plans to charge users because its advertising revenue wasn’t adding up; if your email provider relies on ad revenue, they’re probably feeling the same pinch.
Get alternative dial-up access. If you switched to a broadband connection, you may have cancelled your dial-up Internet access, or have dial-up access through the same ISP that’s running your broadband connection. Either way, you need to secure modem-based Internet access that’s independent of your ISP. You can, of course, pay another provider for dial-up access you’re rarely (hopefully never) going to use, but at typical prices of $150 to $300 a year, it might not be economical. One option might be to make arrangements to "borrow" the use of a dial-up account belonging to a friend, business associate, or family member for use in emergencies; obviously, this person would have to be comfortable knowing that you won’t snoop through any waiting email, change their password, or do other unexpected things with the account. Another option might be a "group account," where a handful of people split the costs of a backup dial-up account with a reliable provider. This is what I’ve done with a small group of local folks: we each chip in $20 a year to maintain a dial-up account with a nationwide provider, both as an emergency backup and for occasional travel use.
Research alternative broadband providers in your area. Broadband Internet access will remain spotty in most locales for years to come, and many people only have one broadband option, if they have any options at all. If you have several choices – or if you’re able to purchase high-speed access from a phone company but get Internet routing from other ISPs – investigate those options before you have to make a choice on short notice. Check out the pricing and features of other ISPs and broadband options, and keep an eye out for new alternatives in your area: perhaps a neighborhood wireless network is taking shape, or satellite access from a company like Starband is a possibility. In particular, take into account promised installation times, any necessary (or mandatory) hardware, and what sort of service guarantees are offered (if any). Some options won’t be cheap or technically viable, but even if you think your current provider is stable (I did!), it can’t hurt to check the details every few months. At least if you have to move in a hurry, you’ll be able to move in the right direction.
For the first two points, make sure you collect (and save!) the information you’ll need to use these addresses and/or accounts without first being able to connect to the Internet. The most important items are probably passwords, local dial-up numbers, the names of mail servers, and the IP addresses of domain name servers you would need to use. In addition, have handy any account numbers or other information you might need to get telephone support in an emergency.
For folks connecting their local networks to the Internet and/or running their own domains, I also recommend the following:
Be prepared to live with few IP addresses. When I first connected my network to the Internet in 1996, my ISP gave me a block of 64 IP addresses without blinking; these days, it’s rare for consumer broadband users to be able to get more than a few static IP addresses, if any at all. The most common way to cram a bunch of machines into a small IP address space is to use a router with Network Address Translation (NAT) which acts as a gateway for machines on a private network hidden behind the router. Although NAT is beyond the scope of this article, stand-alone NAT routers are available from companies like Netopia and Asante. You can also easily leverage an older Macintosh to serve as a NAT router programs like TidBITS sponsor Sustainable Softworks’ IPNetRouter or Vicomsoft’s Internet Gateway. If you use a Mac, you’ll get the best results (and better security) using two (or more) Ethernet cards to separate the private network from machines directly visible to the Internet, so plan to have some extra Ethernet hardware on hand.
Arrange for a backup location or address space. If losing your ISP also means losing your Internet connection, make arrangements ahead of time to relocate your most important services. This may mean hauling a few machines to a friend or colleague with a dedicated Internet connection, or making arrangements with a local hosting company which can co-locate your machines for a short time. Even if you can’t finalize deals, knowing your options can be useful, enabling you to get crucial servers back online in hours instead of days. The possibility of bankrupt ISPs isn’t the only reason to explore these options: at this very moment I’m providing a temporary home to a colleague’s mail server because a kitchen fire forced him out of his home (and away from his Internet connection).
If you manage domains, be sure you can change your domain records without being able to send and receive mail from a particular email address. If your ISP goes dark, you may lose access to your primary email address: if your registrar will only process changes it can verify as having been sent from that address, you may be in a heap of trouble. Depending on the company managing your domain data, you may merely need to know the passwords to Web-based administration tools. In the case of Network Solutions, you may have to negotiate rather cryptic steps to make sure your PGP keys are on file with them and that you can use them successfully (for example, you probably won’t be able to use PGP software which integrates with your email program). Be sure to test your ability to make changes: I usually recommend harmless modifications – such as expanding or contracting a word like "drive" or "street" in your contact address – so you know your changes have been successfully processed.
What Did I Do? Since my provider ran a private network and handled both my Internet routing and my physical connection, their failure was particularly gruesome for me: I couldn’t simply pay another ISP to handle Internet service on that provider’s high-speed system. So, I had to revert back to an ISDN-based Internet connection – both because I already had the equipment to use ISDN, and because ISDN remained my only viable option. That meant again dealing with the local telephone monopoly; as usual, that proved to be a lengthy, unsatisfying process which is still punctuated by bouts of incompetence, internal miscommunication, billing errors, and flat-out mistakes. It took Qwest four weeks to re-activate my ISDN line – but at least their personnel have been uniformly polite to me this time around, an improvement over some of my past interactions with the company.
So, for four weeks, my only Internet connectivity was a modem which, since the Seattle area earthquake last February, typically only achieves 19.2 Kbps connections. I connected to the Internet using borrowed dial-up accounts; my preference was for a local provider, since (unlike EarthLink, MSN, and other major providers) they would let me send and receive email without using their mail servers.
What about my servers, which handle services for TidBITS and some of my other clients? About two hours after my provider went dark, five machines were in the back of my car, headed to Adam & Tonya’s previous house outside Issaquah, Washington. Adam & Tonya only had a 56K frame relay connection to their home – considerably less bandwidth than even my ISDN line – but they’d established their network back in the days when IP numbers roamed freely in large herds across the undeveloped habitat of the Internet. They had unused static IP numbers coming out their ears: I borrowed five, plugged everything in, and essentially waited two days for Network Solutions to propagate changes to my domain records correctly. When I was finally able to re-establish ISDN service, I moved the servers back home – which was, fortunately, before Adam and Tonya sold their house.
It’s Only a No-Brainer If You Think About It — If you’ve gone to the trouble to set yourself up with a broadband Internet connection (let alone the trouble of hitching up a network and running your own servers), many of these points probably seem obvious. After all, you had to cope with these details (and more) just to get up and running. But you were probably thinking in terms of converting to broadband server, rather than what to do should that service fail – and it’s easy to let details slide once things are operating correctly. Consider how few people back up their data because their computer seems to be reliable, only to find themselves without their critical documents and information when their system breaks down, or if their computer is damaged or stolen. The same principles apply to Internet connections: it might be working fine now, but a connection can vanish with little or no warning. Forewarned is forearmed.