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Dealing with the Limitations of AOL's High Speed Cable Modem Service

Over the last couple of weeks we have received quite a few questions regarding AOL's High Speed Cable Modem service. Apparently a number of people are experiencing difficulty installing a router with this service in order to share among multiple PCs. We'll explain why and what you can do to overcome the service's limitations.

By Ron Pacchiano

Q. I actually have a two part question that I'm hoping you can help me out with because I am at my wits' end. To begin, I have been using AOL's High-Speed Cable modem service with both my desktop and laptop PCs for about 6 months now and have been pretty happy with it for the most part. My biggest compliant, however, is that I can't use both of these systems with the cable modem simultaneously. Transferring the cable modem between the two machines can be a difficult and time consuming process. For some reason I can't just move the Ethernet cable from the desktop to the laptop. I need to power down the cable modem, and according to the technician that installed it, wait up to 5 minutes before powering it back up. Only then can I get the other system online.

I was discussing these difficulties with a friend of mine, and he suggested that a router would allow me to use both systems together and skip the delays, plus it would only take about 10 minutes to install. So we purchased a Linksys router and tried to install it. Needless to say we were unable to get it to work. We spent over two hours troubleshooting it, but just could not figure out what was wrong. My friend was dumbfounded to say the least. He had installed many of these in the past and never had a problem.

During his troubleshooting he did make two observations. The first was that unless the PC was first connected to AOL, Internet Explorer would not be able to browse the web. This was odd considering that a cable modem is supposed to be an always on connection. The second item had to do with the configuration of AOL itself. In most cases, when someone is using a broadband connection with AOL the connection type is listed as "TCP/IP"; in this instance, though, the connection type was described as "Cable Modem". When we tried changing the connection type to the more traditional TCP/IP setting, AOL was no longer able to get online. This brings me to my first set of questions. What are we doing wrong? Why can't we get my AOL service to work on this router, and why must I first log into AOL before I can browse the web? From my understanding, this should be a pretty simple procedure, yet it is making my life very difficult.

My other question is also related to AOL. As I said before, in addition to my desktop, I am also using the cable modem with a laptop. For some reason when I first try to connect to AOL, my laptop tries to dial out over my 56k modem instead of my cable modem. It will do this once or twice before finally connecting the way it's supposed to. As long as I don't restart the machine, it will continue to work properly. Yet every time I restart it, it almost always tries to dial out. Any ideas on what could be causing this to happen? It's not a major problem, but it is annoying. Thanks for all your help!

A. You're not alone in experiencing difficulties with your AOL High-Speed cable service. I have heard from numerous people with the same problem, including a few PC technicians. In most cases, installing a router in a home network is usually a very simple and straightforward process, but because of the way AOL has implemented their service, it is far more complicated with AOL. A call to AOL's technical support and a lot of patience finally shed some light on the situation. The biggest mistake that your friend made was assuming that AOL's cable modem service functions the same way as other cable services, when in fact, it's quite different.

A typical cable modem has a number of things going for it, the most important of which is that it is always online. This capability allows you to do things like video conference, watch stocks in real-time, or even host your own website. It also provides users with completely unfiltered access to the Internet and can be easily connected to a router and shared among other PCs. This freedom works both ways, though, as if left unprotected, the cable modem router could expose your PC to outside threats like hackers and virus attacks. To protect yourself and your data, you need to invest in a good firewall, which, if you're not overly PC literate, could cost you a bit more to get properly installed.

The biggest differences in AOL's service are that they do not offer their members an always on connection, and they also force you to sign into their service whenever you want to get online. It should be noted that there are a few benefits to this approach, the most important of which has to do with security. Since you have to sign in to AOL in order to get online, your PC isn't sitting out on the web with a proverbial target on its back, thereby minimizing your chances of being attacked. AOL maintains the firewall, so you needn't be concerned with it. AOL also offers a variety of content filtering controls that let you customize what you and your family can and cannot do on the web.

While this all sounds great on the surface, the lack of an always on connection forces the user to endure some fairly critical limitations. First and foremost, due to the fact that AOL doesn't use a standard connection method like PPPoE to authenticate users, it can't be connected to an industry standard router. This unforgivable shortcoming makes it next to impossible to share the connection among multiple computers, essentially limiting the service to a single PC and making the creation of a small, internet-enabled workgroup uncommonly difficult.

So, is there a way for you to simultaneously share your AOL cable modem connection between your desktop and laptop computers? The short answer is "maybe," but just because it might be technically possible to do something doesn't necessarily mean you should do it. My feeling is that if you have kids and only one PC, then the AOL high-speed cable modem service is probably OK for you. If, however, you are looking to connect multiple PCs to the Internet and don't mind spending a few more bucks for a good firewall, then you might want to consider just canceling your AOL cable modem and going with a more traditional service like Time Warner's Road Runner. In my opinion, it is simply not worth the time or aggravation trying to configure AOL's service to do something any other vendor's product could do within a few minutes without the accompanying headaches.

Solving the second part of your question is a bit more difficult. Without looking at the PC, it can be somewhat difficult to give you a definitive reason as to why the modem is trying to dial out, but I think I have an idea what's happening. One of the other unusual things about AOL's High-Speed Cable Modem service is that it makes use of a Dial-Up Networking Connection. If this connection has accidentally been misconfigured, it could cause the problem you have described.

To correct this, you'll need to go to the Control Panel and select Dial-Up Networking. Look for the AOL Connection icon and right-click it. Select Properties and click on the Dialing tab. "This is the default Internet Connection" should be checked off. In some cases, you might find the option "Always dial my Default Connection" selected. It shouldn't be. If it is, change it to the "Never Dial a Connection" option, and press OK. Hopefully, this will solve your problem. If not, I would suggest contacting AOL's technical support at either 888-418-1447 or by e-mail at support@aol.com for additional assistance. Good Luck!


Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we'll consider them all.



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