Understanding modems is no magic

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.

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.