Dude, you’re blocking my Internet

A faulty satellite Internet connection is traced to a basic obstruction, which all but the vendor's technician overlooked

Credit: flickr/TDOMMDAD

As advances in technology make remote troubleshooting ever easier, there are some lessons I learned early on that still apply. For example, one experience reminds me to ask even the seemingly basic questions to help visualize what the situation is like. You don’t want to take anything for granted.

Flash back to the early stages on the Internet, when there were few connection options. Most were made using a 28.8 kbps modem, with a few cruising at speeds of 33.6kbps. All that was required was a phone line; you hooked your modem in, dialed the local connection for your ISP, and you were ready to surf and read email. Which worked fine for most companies at the time.

As more graphics, ads, colors, and action were added to websites, the slower modems made surfing a real drag -- remember watching the screen being painted a line of pixels at a time? Since I was employed in an IT department for a large wholesale company that was just beginning to use the Web and email, we needed to find a way to increase our available bandwidth.

A reasonable solution

After doing research, I opted to go with a satellite connection, which included installing a dish on the roof of the building to use the provider’s faster speed. If the claims were correct, we would more than quadruple our speed. As a test case, we selected a location near our headquarters and ran tests. We were pleased with the results, since the solution would more than meet our needs at that time. The sales team was ecstatic.

Phase Two involved having the setup installed at a remote site on the other side of the state. It was a wholesale yard that had offices in a three-story house. The installation went flawlessly, and we were up and running in short order. It was a success and at first worked as expected.

Narrowing down the possibilities

Fast-forward six months. That location began to experience "stalls" and screen "freezes." This type of thing was not uncommon in the winter with snow and ice, but it was the middle of summer, and there wasn’t a chance of that being a problem now.

What could it be? I started working through a list of possible causes. I did research to see if sunspots could be the cause, but that activity was currently at an all-time low. I called the local yard manager and asked him to go outside and take a look. He reported back that all looked fine and nothing was obstructing the dish.

I decided to contact the vendor to do some testing. Their results showed no problems with the dish, so they said that a tech would have to be dispatched to take a look in person -- at an expense, of course. I bit my lip and authorized it because the six-hour drive for me to go investigate was not an option at that time.

The tech was expected to arrive at 8am the following morning, so I braced myself for any number of scenarios. However, I did not expect to receive a call just minutes later. He reported that he’d found the problem: The office building was being reroofed and the dish was surrounded by scaffolding, which severely degraded the connection. All should return to normal when the scaffolding was removed.

I was pleased, of course, that the problem was found and that it didn’t require any more fees than the tech’s visit. But I wondered why the yard manager hadn’t reported the scaffolding or the reroofing. I gave him a call and explained what had been found. He was surprised and said he never thought that the scaffolding would have any effect on the signal, as the Internet connection was fine when they had done the other side of the roof.

Two days later the roof job was completed, scaffolding removed, and the connection performance returned to normal. And we’d learned a lesson to investigate even a seemingly small or unrelated cause to a problem. And that you can learn something new every day on the job.