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Understanding modems is no magic

RJ45 plug adsl

Once or twice a year, a project officer will approach me and place a modem on my desk. Sometimes it’s a sleek, finished product that simply has customised firmware installed on it. Other times it’s an engineering model, which is essentially all the electronic innards in makeshift casing with artwork of what it will look like when it’s manufactured. It’s my job to write the setup guide for it so our customers know where to plug the bits in when it arrives on their doorstep.

To most of my coworkers, this is a normal task. To my friends and family, it is witchcraft. I can only guess why they get so passionate; some of my family work in woolsheds, but I don’t lose it over the mystery of how to shear a sheep.

The fuss probably stems from just how deeply rooted the internet is in our everyday lives. Just look at how bad some people feel when they don’t know how to fix their own cars (shout-out to car magicians a.k.a. mechanics). We feel pressured to have it all under control, sometimes to the point where we judge ourselves by an unreasonable standard.

You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. The internet is a pretty big operation, to say the least. In case anyone was curious, I thought we’d take a light look at the way the internet works with modems to bring you the interconnectivity and cat videos you know and love.

The physical bit

With the advent of mobile and satellite broadband it’s easy to forget, but the internet is a physical, global network of fibre optic cables, copper wires and file servers. Those mobile towers and satellite base stations plug straight into the network and then send your data zipping to its destination by way of cable-filled pipes that run underground across nations and even under oceans.

All of that leads right up to a particular socket or piece of equipment in your home. If you have a traditional DSL service on the copper network, this is usually a telephony wall socket in your house. NBN services typically have an indoor Connection Box with a specific socket allocated to your internet connection, but there are some exceptions for Fibre to the Building/Node services which you can find out more about here.

As a consumer of the internet, it’s your job to plug in a modem or WiFi router to finish the last teeny-tiny piece of this physical network. Your modem/router will manage the flow of information between the wider internet and your computers/WiFi devices.

If you’d like some more details about the practical setup of a modem/router, here’s some advice I prepared earlier for most of the services we sell:

Having a service

Although it would be cool, you can’t just randomly plug into the internet and expect it to work. Apart from a physical connection, there’s a hundred and one other arrangements with wholesale providers and infrastructure owners for nitty-gritty stuff like the use of servers and data traffic through different parts of the global network. You’ll also need an Internet Protocol address – after all, when you download something, the data needs to know where it’s going. Think of it like an email or postal address.

If arranging that all sounds a bit frantic, you don’t need to worry. That’s what retail Internet Service Providers like iiNet are for. Getting a service is usually a simple matter of finding out what’s available in your area, checking the conditions and costs (you should always be able to download a service’s Critical Information Summary from the website) and then submitting an application. We take care of the rest.

It may take some time to fully provision your service (a technician may need to visit to install a phone line or NBN equipment) but once it’s done, an active internet service will be connected to your premises. Your modem just needs to know how to use it.

Settings and authentication

Once you have a service, the internet requires you to prove it. Like a baby-faced twenty-something in a liquor store, your modem must always supply ID to get access to the good stuff.

These days the broadband settings you need are rarely different to the default settings of most modem/routers sold in Australia, but this “ID” is pretty important. We call it “authentication” and without it, your modem won’t make it past iiNet’s “gateway” to the rest of the internet. Your modem’s connection attempts will be rejected because we can’t verify that the modem is using your service legitimately.

iiNet has been able to do some pretty cool stuff that allows On-Net DSL services to authenticate based on their physical connection to a specific port on the equipment we own at the local telephone exchange. NBN Fibre services also ID themselves in a similar way. The result is that you often don’t need to change your modem/router settings after plugging it in.

For other internet services, a traditional username and password method is used to authenticate. You save the username and password in your modem’s settings and it uses them as ID whenever it needs to. Don’t worry, it’s not too hard to access the modem settings if you need to set this up.

Ready for orders

The last bit is the aspect of the internet that everyone is familiar with. Once your modem/router has the right settings and authentication, you can use Ethernet cables or WiFi to connect computers and devices such as smartphones, tablets or game consoles. Web browsers and other apps will take your input (like a web address) and convert it into requests that your modem sends shooting over the internet to bring back data such as web pages, emails, files, music and videos.

All of that is certainly something to think about the next time you have to turn your modem off and then on again. It’s working pretty hard.

Are you a whiz at something that most people aren’t? Let us know in the comments.

16 comments

  1. Kenny Powell says:

    I am 65 years of age and in the past decade no one in my circle of acquaintances uses terms of WI-Fi, Apps, Modem, Browser. Do not feel sorry for me as I have had less viruses than my computers over this decade.
    I’m too scared to open emails from an unknown source or too good to be true offers.
    My best story is my Uniden phone system linked to the NBN through my computer. As a 4th generation Australian when retrieving missed calls one option is to press “the pound key”. Am I alone in this place ‘earth’

  2. John Marriage says:

    You forgot to say a modem what modem stands for modulate/demodulate, from the days of analog signals being converted to digital.

    I think all modems are just routers. They input a digital signal and route it round your local network.

    Cheers

    John Marriage
    B.MedSci M.Sci B.IT

  3. George says:

    I’m a computer guru and fix many people’s computer problems. Whenever I have to replace a modem/router and I ask that pivotal question “Do you know your account details?” I am inevitably met with a blank stare. Some people will give me the actual modem password and few rare individuals will actually have it documented somewhere, but the greater majority will not have a clue. “It’s always worked since it went in” they say. Thus starts the phone call to the ISP support line which, depending on the ISP, can be relatively painless or be nearly as bad as a root canal treatment especially if the account name differs from their email address (I’m talking about you iPrimus). Needless to say I shudder when people ring me to say their modem’s died and can I replace it for them.

  4. peter says:

    Your technicians assisted me to install a new budii lite. They were extremely helpful and I was up and running in no time. Please thank all your staff. You are without a doubt the best Telco in Oz.

  5. Hilary Blackburn says:

    If I knew what sort of service I have, I’d keep the information about it in the article, as it’s clearly written and tech babble-free.
    It was annoying to move house a year ago and find that my BOB2, an iiNet product just a year old, was no longer sold. I used it again, however, as I am averse to planned
    obsolescence, which is driven more by capitalist values than those relating to technical perfection.
    And what is it always a hassle to set up the internet? I don’t get it in this age of technology. I think there is a grumpy Chief Dwarf of Cyberspace hiding under the modem ready to defend his turf.
    Hilary

  6. John Dalby says:

    looking in this document Bob 2 is no longer available, the NBN looks like being installed next year as they are starting working in our area in Feb 2016.
    i have a Bob 2, will i need to replace this modem when NBN is installed?

    regards john

    • Amy Pearce says:

      Hi John,

      You can use your BoB2 on the NBN.
      We also have a free WiFi modem included on NBN 24 month plans.

      – Amy

  7. David Harris says:

    WHY DO IINET MODEMS MAKE MAC ADDRESS CONTROL SO DIFFICULT??
    When it comes to barring or unbarring a MAC address from access via my modem, all I want is a MAC list with a TICK-BOX beside each connecting device where I can toggle its access ON or OFF. NETGEAR modems work like this, but don’t provide VOIP as well. So, I’m stuck with a stupid IINET modem which sets access on or off for the whole MAC list as a block. To alter access for just one or two devices, I have to add or delete individual MAC addresses from the list, by manually typing in the relevant MAC addresses (which are 12 character gobbledygook that has to be written down somewhere!). I have to frequently alter device access to my modem, and am THOROUGHLY SICK of how useless IINET modems are in this respect! I previously asked IINET about this, and got no satisfactory explanation or any interest in fixing this problem for customers.

  8. kenneth austin says:

    thankfully I can leave the whole matter in all of your capable hands with the assurance that all will proceed well,and,if not I can rest in peace that any problems will be dealt with and rectified in the shortest time possible.
    your servant
    kenneth

  9. Darryl Cass says:

    Hi……..very interesting article and written so the average Jo blow could understand.

    My only disappointment is that the NBN is not available where we live but anyhow thoroughly happy with what we have and service from you guys….keep it up!
    Regards
    Darryl Cass

  10. Hans says:

    Nice article. Do you have one along the lines of “How to check my modem is working properly?”. I am having some internet connection problems, and possible the modem is the problem, possibly it’s somewhere else. It’s really hard to check if the modem is working correctly or not.

    • Amy Pearce says:

      Hey Hans,

      We have a bunch of Troubleshooting Guides available on our Website to assist with working out what is causing internet issues.
      The best way to rule out a modem/hardware is to try another one on the connection and see if the problems persist (also check the line filter by removing it and just have the modem plugged in).
      You could also take your modem to a friend’s or family member’s place and try it on their connection.

      – Amy

  11. alan andrews says:

    I have always had plenty of help from westnet and I am of an age where I need it.
    It is good to have the confidence to do things and have some one to ask, when it all goes wrong. thanks

  12. Geoff says:

    I think iiNet is doing its customers a disservice by misusing the term modem. All of your nbn fibre plans include a “modem”, and offer various better “modems” for extra dollars. But no nbn fibre service needs a modem. You keep using the word modem when you mean router, or wireless access point.

    Non professionals have enough trouble understanding the technology without this deliberate confusion, so how about tidying up your nbn plans by using the correct language?

    The various boxes that you offer with your plans typically contain (1) a router (2) a wireless access point and (3) an ADSL modem. None of these functions are REQUIRED to use the nbn fibre, although obviously the router and wireless can be very useful to connect multiple devices around the home. But the one thing that you absolutely do NOT need is a modem! So can you be a bit more precise in your sales blurbs please!

  13. Gordon says:

    I am rather deaf and ringing you does not help.A service for those like me, perhaps one where we can ask questions by email or maybe we could request the assistance of a staff member who had the voice and training to assist us, would be invaluable – and no doubt would increase your membership

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