Well, after all the initial hassles of getting my parents hooked up to BT’s Midband/ISDN service (see parts 1 and 2 of this story), it’s finally working. And guess what? Once it’s up and running, it’s actually pretty good.
When I last left my parents, they had a freshly installed ISDN box with all the relevant sockets and wires…but no service. The main problems were that BT Midband doesn’t support Windows 2000 server through its USB interface, and that there was too much line noise on the ISDN line for a non-Win2K machine to connect at all.
Since that last time, they have had a BT engineer out who sorted out the line noise. On Wednesday I went up to visit them again, armed with an ISDN Terminal Adapter (TA). A TA is the only way you will get Midband to work with Windows 2000 Server. I bought a bog-standard BT Speedway PCI card. I could have got a non-branded card for less money, but after all of the earlier problems, I wanted something that would give me the least chance of being incompatibile.
The card was fairly easy to install in the server. The installation process tries to get you to install lots of voice, fax, voicemall, and data transfer widgets, but all I really needed were the device drivers to make it act like a modem. Once I had that going, I set up the dial-up networking connection, crossed my fingers, and….
…it worked! First time! Yay!
When I spoke to BT’s technical support last time, they told me that you don’t really need the dialler software supplied with the BT Midband kit. I decided to call them again just to double-check the access numbers some other details. Here’s what I found out:
- The dial-up numbers to use are 0808 99 33 327 for your free hours, and 0845 60 41 594 for the pay-as-you-go service once you run out of free time. The dialler software has the option of connecting to alternative numbers if these ones aren’t available, but these numbers are not going to change. They are genuine access numbers, and not just for diagnostic purposes.
- When you dial up to these numbers, BT does a CLI (Caller Line Identification) check to make sure that you are dialling from a number that is registered to an authorised BT Midband subscriber. They grant you access to their network based on this CLI check, not on the user name and password you provide. However, some software and hardware requires you to specify a user name and password before it will let you dial an access number. BT get around this by letting you use anything as your user name and password, so long as they are the same. So “test/test” will work just as well as “studmuffin/studmuffin”.
- If you dial the free number, and you have no free hours left, the system will generate a connection error. Depending on the software/hardware you use, you may have the option of specifying an alternate number to use if your primary number fails. (In the Windows dial-up networking world, look for the button marked “Alternates” in the properties dialog.) You can use this to set up a single connection that tries to connect to the free number first, but falls back to the pay-as-you-go number once your free time is up.
(Also, just as last time, the first-line tech support person I spoke to was excellent.)
It was all looking pretty good. Something had to go wrong, though. For some reason the software my parents use for sharing their internet connection (WinProxy) decided to give up the ghost. Normally, Winproxy is a well-behaved little beastie, but after installing the Terminal Adapter card, ikt could no longer be bothered forwarding non-HTTP traffic–even over the old modem connection. It just sat there with its fingers in its ears ignoring DNS, POP3, and SMTP packets. (La, la, la, I can’t hear you….)
A couple of uninstalls and reinstalls fixed the problem–phew. So then it was just a matter of changing the settings on the mail programs to use a different SMTP server, and presto! All was well. Really.
(Note that although BT say that mail services are not included in the Midband package, it appears that the SMTP server mail.btopenworld.com will relay outgoing mail. Thanks to Mark Critchley for pointing this out.)
So what’s good about Midband? Well, it connects really quickly. About 5 or 6 seconds, as opposed to the 20-30 that is standard for dial-up. It also connects at 64K every time, or at least close enough not to make a difference. It’s a digital line, and so the signal doesn’t have to muck around with all of the digital-to-analog-to-digital decoding you get with a modem connection. And if you go for a 128K connection with both ISDN channels blazing, it’ll be even faster. You will use up your free hours more quickly that way, though.
The fact that it took me so long to get it set up is inevitably going to bias me against the product. On the other hand, when it works, it works well. I still think it’s not really a consumer-level product–you either have to be lucky enough to have it work first time, or you have to really know what you’re doing to troubleshoot it. (Actually, there’s a third option: have reall good tech support available. Hmm. Maybe that explains the coincidence of speaking to thoroughly competent people each time I’ve called their help line.)
The pricing of the product means that it’s not an intermediate step on the way to broadband. Broadband and Midband are the two separate paths for upgrading from dial-up. Midband is there for outlying (read “unprofitable”) exchanges that BT can’t be arsed to upgrade, and for people who live too far away from their exchange to get ADSL even if it were available. And in those circumstances, it makes sense. The improvement over dial-up will be noticeable–even if you stick to using just one of the 64K channels.
If you’re thinking about signing up for Midband, I hope this series of articles has been of some use to you.