Troubleshooting Q&A - May 6, 2004
Networking AOL's High Speed Cable Modem Service
Sharing AOL's cable modem service among multiple computers can be notoriously difficult to set up, with many users giving up on the idea completely. But as networking guru Ron Pacchiano shows, with the right tools and information in hand, nothing is impossible, including networking your AOL cable modem connection.
By Ron Pacchiano
Q. I have been using AOL’s High-Speed Cable Modem service with my desktop PC for sometime now. It still amazes me much fast this connection is, especially when compared to my old MSN dialup account. Until recently, I had never had a problem with this service. That all changed the day I purchased a new computer for my son’s birthday. Not long after we installed his new computer he asked if his computer would be able to share my cable modem for Internet access. Being somewhat computer literate, I know that it is possible to share an Internet connection among multiple computers, and that all you need is a router. So being the cool dad that I am, naturally I said sure.
So I purchased a wireless router and a wireless network adapter for my son’s PC and attempted to set up a small home network. Over the years I had installed a few different routers for a couple of friends of mine. Some had cable modems; others had DSL lines. Some connections where always on, while others made use of PPPoE. Regardless of what they had, I was usually able to get them up and running within an hour or so of starting the project.
Yet for some reason I just can’t seem to get this router to work with my Internet connection. I've tried a number of different things, but so far nothing has worked. I even attempted to contact the router manufacturer and AOL for assistance, but they were of no help. I finally spoke to one technician at AOL who told me that I wouldn’t be able to share this connection. However, he couldn’t tell me exactly why that was. I’m thinking that AOL just wants you to pay for every machine using their service, but who knows.
Regardless of the reason, this has been one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever dealt with. Many of my friends have either Time Warner Road Runner or Comcast cable modem service and didn’t experience any of these problems. I’m just about ready to cancel my AOL service and switch to another service provider, but before I go through all that trouble, I thought I would ask if you have any idea what the problem is and if there’s any way for me to get around the issue?
Q. You’re not alone in your frustration. Over the past two years or so I have heard from and spoken with a number of users who have experienced a problem similar to yours regarding AOL’s High-Speed Cable Modem service. I actually wrote a Q&A Column on this subject back in April which detailed what the problem was. That article can be found at http://www.practicallynetworked.com/qa/qa20030410.shtml if you’re interested.
Here's the problem in a nutshell: the thing you need to understand is that AOL’s High-Speed Cable Modem service functions quite differently than the cable modem service provided by other ISPs like Time Warner’s Road Runner.
For example, one of the most attractive features of a typical broadband connection is that it is always on. This always-on status is what allows you to get real-time stock and weather updates, check for phone numbers, or get directions instantly. Not to mention that with an always-on connection you can set up your own web site, remotely access your PC while traveling, or participate in a video conference.
This connection is also unfiltered, allowing you to visit virtually any place on the web you’d like without restrictions. The downside to this convenience is that the connection is also wide open to the rest of the world. So if you want to keep your PC and data protected, you’ll need to invest in a good firewall. Content filtering will cost you extra.
AOL, however, is not your typical broadband service. Their connection is only active when you sign into the AOL service. The benefit of this technique is that because your PC isn’t always online, it is less vulnerable to attack for the outside world. To further protect you, AOL also maintains the firewall and even provides a variety of content filtering tools so you can customize what your family can and cannot do on the web. Considering that many AOL users aren’t very Internet savvy or lack a really good understanding of the potential dangers out on the net, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
However, as with any type of security implementation, AOL’s isn’t without its sacrifices. The biggest has to be the inability to share this connection among multiple users. The reason for this is that AOL doesn't use a standard connection method like PPPoE to authenticate users. This creates an incompatibility with your typical broadband router because the router doesn’t know how to communicate with the AOL service. This all but limits the service to a single PC. The modem can be physically connected to multiple PCs, but to only one at a time.
So, is there a way for you to simultaneously share your AOL High-Speed Cable Modem connection between your desktop computers? In my earlier article that tackled this issue, the answer was no, and I suggested ditching AOL.
Since then it has come to my attention that there is a solution — actually four of them — for this problem. Linksys now sells four routers that feature compatibility with AOL’s High-Speed Cable Modem service. They are the:
Being the skeptic that I am, I had to try this for myself. So I tested AOL’s cable modem service with the Linksys Wireless-B Broadband Router (model #BEFW11S4). With all of the problems I had experienced the last time I tried this fresh in my mind, I wasn’t overly optimistic. To my surprise, the unit worked perfectly right out of the box.
I set up the router just as I would any other. The cable modem went into the WAN port, I configured the wireless settings in the router and my laptop computer, and connected my desktop PCs to the router’s integrated switch. Once that was completed, both PCs were able to gain access to the cable modem simultaneously. The only caveat is that you still need to use the AOL software to establish an Internet connection before you can browse the web. While I’m still not an advocate of this approach, it does work, and thanks to Linksys, I no longer need to be tethered to a single Internet-enabled computer.
Our test router came with Firmware version 1.50.10, so we didn’t need to do anything special to get the router to communicate with AOL. If you have trouble with yours or you find yourself running a different version of the firmware, Linksys has put together a really good FAQ to walk you through the process of getting your router properly configured to work with the AOL service. This FAQ can be found at http://www.linksys.com/support/support.asp?spid=103.
The Wireless-B Broadband Router I tested here can be purchased for as little as $49.99 at Buy.com. For your convenience, I included the link here http://www.buy.com/retail/product.asp?sku=10273558&loc=101&sp=1. The other routers I mentioned above are also in this price range.
So bottom line, if you’re going to continue to use AOL’s High-Speed Cable Modem service and would like the ability to share your Internet connection with the other PCs in your household — and maybe even free yourself from your desk — then I would seriously suggest you track down one of these inexpensive beauties for yourself. Best of Luck!
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