ADSL – or ADS-Hell?

March 1, 2001

This is a personal account of one individual’s pursuit of that dream, a tale of tragedy and heartache, of happiness and glee, even time travel and alternate dimensions; a tale which has not ended, and whose ending no one yet knows…

‘ADSL’ stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. With increasing media focus on broadband Internet access, it will by now have seeped into almost everyone by osmosis that ADSL enables high speed Internet access via normal BT (not ISDN) phone lines, at around a claimed 10 to 40 times faster than standard dial-up modem connections, for fixed monthly charges irrespective of usage, and no Internet phone bills. You can use the phone, including extensions, as normal for voice or fax calls while online. Normal dial-up networking Internet access still works if you’re not online via ADSL. The ‘asymmetric’ is because the downstream speed, the speed of data coming down the wire to you, is faster than the upstream speed, the speed at which requests for Web pages and other data are sent out by your computer. In this case, max 500 kbps downstream (1000 or 2000 for more expensive business options) and 250 kbps up.

I’m not normally an early adopter – for instance, I didn’t opt for ISDN because I felt it was too much trouble and not worth the asking price to me. Usually I drool over shiny new toys but don’t actually buy them. But when I heard that ADSL was coming to the UK, I decided I just had to have it at home, having been spoilt by permanent high-speed Internet access at work. The steps to get ADSL in my case were:

  • check availability in my area – the ISP must have installed the right equipment at your local telephone exchange and your house or office must be close enough to that exchange
  • they test my line for suitability
  • they change my main phone socket to a splitter – a special two-outlet socket (one for ADSL, one for your normal phone connections)
  • connect an ADSL modem between the ADSL socket and my computer via the USB port, and
  • install appropriate software on my computer.

An Ethernet rather than USB connection is also offered but the former, targeting businesses, requires a combined modem and Ethernet router and spare power socket, according to Openworld – although the diagram in the BT home user guide confusingly reflects the business Ethernet rather than USB connections.

Pre-order Heaven

I thought the quickest way to get ADSL was to pre-order with BT Openworld (related to but, British Telecom stresses, quite separate from BT itself – though I’m still generally going to call it ‘BT’ in this article for ease). I felt a BT company was bound to be able to offer ADSL first, and, from what I’d seen of price indications from different ISPs, was likely to be one of the cheapest if not the cheapest provider, at around £40 a month including VAT. Also, BT would waive the £150 set up fee for those who re-ordered early enough – a not insignificant benefit. And of course, I felt a BT company was rather more likely than Fly by Night ISP Ltd at least to survive long enough to maintain my ADSL service for the duration of the one-year contract. Plus, BT offered round-the-clock local rate phone support and a free phone service status info number.

I feel my decision has on the whole been borne out in the light of the publicity lately about attempts to speed up BT’s allowing other ISPs to install their own ADSL equipment at BT exchanges, would-be broadband providers piling out, and growing reports of some smaller ISPs’ financial or customer service difficulties.

I pre-ordered via the Openworld Web site back in late April or beginning May 2000 and received e-mail confirmation. ADSL was then due to be introduced in Summer 2000 but after a few months of silence I chased for news, to find that domestic installations had been postponed to October or November. Then pre-orders would be processed in order of receipt.

Come the beginning of October, BT e-mailed that I could confirm my pre-order. First, I verified that BT still seemed quickest and most cost-effective for me (particularly as I’d have to pay an installation fee if I went with another ISP). I also checked that I could turn off the Internet connection while my PC was switched on; the technical people said I could. I didn’t want to stay connected and leave my PC vulnerable to hackers if I was not actually using the Internet. I confirmed my pre-order by phone and got a confirmation letter back from BT in mid-October. They took a few days to test my line. It apparently passed, for a week or two later I received a letter with an installation date and a ‘Welcome Pack’ – a CD-ROM (just Internet Explorer, Outlook Express etc. customised with BT-specific settings), brief user guide brochure and standard terms and conditions. The date, about two weeks away in early November, i.e. a month or so after my order confirmation, was not my preferred date, but close. Not too long a wait, then. So far so good. I had only had a few minor niggles by that point, see below.

Practical points

  • check your PC specification and whether ADSL is available in your area (there’s a checker on
  • pin down the appointment slot (especially for the residential service) – check your Welcome Pack letter carefully; the FAQ 45 says you can choose your date and “If we need to change [customer’s chosen] install date, we will contact you to arrange another convenient appointment” – but they didn’t, they just bunged another date in the letter (which claimed it was my preferred date) leaving it to me to spot the difference and contact them to rearrange if necessary
  • consider buying a US-style phone and/or USB extension lead in advance if uncertain whether your PC is close enough to your phone socket (note: the site’s FAQ says you can buy a USB extension lead, implying it works with the supplied modem; but the CD-ROM FAQ says the only way to extend the reach is to buy a USB hub…)
  • BT says dire things about not installing the Welcome Pack software beforehand; but don’t let that put you off reading in advance the FAQ and installation and troubleshooting instructions buried on the same CD-ROM. If you still choose to install the other software (at your own risk etc.) do not try connecting before everything else has been done
  • don’t lose the Welcome Pack letter, it has your logon ID and password!
  • try to get the engineer to stay until your own PC (not just his laptop) successfully connects, even if it’s just to watch you have a go yourself at loading drivers and software (coffee, biscuits, locks and chains, whatever works…)
  • do not try to plug the modem into your PC until after you’ve installed the drivers
  • you don’t need to connect via the BT Openworld desktop shortcut, the BT Openworld DUN connection in the Dial Up Networking folder will do (also take pinch of salt to anything the engineer however helpful says about software or usage).
  • where possible use e-mail support not the helpline unless it’s time critical (or get used to hearing “Well no one else has reported a problem”)
  • the unplugging modem trick worked for me on error 650 and connectus interruptus but note the steps I mentioned and if you try it it’s at your own risk!

Post-order Hell

Then the problems started. The engineer duly arrived (which at least put me one step ahead of the hapless many for whom even that was, I have heard, a non-event). But there was no point in his trying to install anything anyway, because there were ‘problems with the exchange’. Switch to ‘why oh why’ mode, with dark thoughts about what the point was of their sending out an engineer at all if the exchange hadn’t even been properly enabled; why hadn’t they just postponed installation until further notice?

Telephone tag phase. Give up, and call them five days later. Surprise surprise: “They’re still working on it. You’ll have to keep calling back. Try us in a few days to find out if the problem has been fixed and then request a new installation date”. Leave for eight days, call again. “It’s nearly sorted, should be OK, they’re working on it more next Monday, let’s provisionally book you in for next Friday and we’ll confirm it tomorrow”. ‘Tomorrow’ comes and goes – not a sausage. Ah!, they must mean confirm by letter, for three days later, I get a letter confirming an appointment. However the date stated is not ‘next Friday’ but – wait for it – two weeks ago, the date of the original abortive appointment. BT have invented time travel, they’re going to send someone back a fortnight just to give me ADSL. Aren’t I the lucky one!

So I call BT again to find out when it’s really happening. Initial response: “The latest record we have of you calling us was two weeks ago [the date of the originally planned installation], you haven’t called us since then”. So was I just imagining all those conversations with BT then, and how did I come by a letter from BT dated just four days ago? “We’ll check with the engineer, please hold… The engineer says you’ve already had ADSL installed, two weeks ago”. Tear out remaining strand of hair. Bite lip, as snarling “Yeah, in which alternate universe?” is likely to be of little or no help to the situation. All the same, start getting a little shirty. BT man tries to be helpful and inquires further. “It’s a tricky problem, they’ve had to call in troubleshooting specialists, but it should be fixed soon, oh yes we hope within a week”. Mix in a “Oh yes you should have it by Christmas, they don’t normally take long to fix this sort of thing. Try calling back in a few days”.

Shaken and stirred to the point of somewhat irate by this time, start saying “Well I keep calling back and you keep saying call back again, from now on YOU can just call me when it’s been fixed, rather than me waste my time calling you”. Miracle of miracles – nice BT man actually agrees, and even more miraculously, follows up by leaving me a message five days later on a Friday to update me on (lack of) progress with the exchange problem: ‘please call back for details’. Call back three days later after the weekend, this time get nasty BT man (is that a trendy new customer management strategy, good cop bad cop?). Rudely won’t let me finish my question about exactly what is wrong, despite my protesting that I was told to call for details and, besides, I think I have a right to know more because the problem has been continuing for so long now. Give up trying to get anything out of this man.

Forget the whole thing for a while. Deep breathing, think soothing wind and water noises, concentrate on other things, figure ‘I’m not going to get it before Christmas, just live with it’.

The next Monday, nice BT man calls! They can install it on Friday, yes that same week! In fact, as if to make up for past horrors, yet another person calls me the next day to say, “Your appointment has been set for this Friday”. And again the next day… Yes, that date is now engraved in my mind. Cross fingers, toes, eyes, heart and hope not to die before then.


D-Day. I’ve asked for a PM slot so I need to be back by 1 PM. After a morning appointment I head straight home, getting back early – or so I think. But not too early, apparently, for lo there on my answering machine is a message from the BT engineer saying he’s just on his way and will arrive in half an hour. I call back, saying fortunately I’d just come home and wasn’t expecting him till 1 PM or later. “Those order management people, they’re always getting it wrong, I’ll be there soon”. Well in fact he isn’t, he ends up arriving not far off 12.30 PM after all (though still earlier than he was meant to…).

About half an hour’s fiddling to change the phone socket in the wall and I have a brand new splitter and the phone is back working as normal. He tests the ADSL connection with his laptop and it works – but not with my username and password. More (much more) fiddling and eventually it seems to get through. But will my own PC be able to connect?

It’s been relatively smooth so far, so of course it’s time for another problem. The engineer has brought me a brand new boxed ADSL USB modem (Alcatel Speedtouch), a flattish turquoisey blue thing that looks just like a small stingray with two indicator lights for eyes – actually rather cute. An equally blue cable goes from splitter to modem, another from modem to computer USB port.

Do they make either cable nice and long (subject to a maximum of 5 m for USB cables)? No, that would make things too easy. Is my computer within cable-length of the splitter? No, it’s a tad too far away. “They should have checked the distance with you when you ordered”. And what would they have said if it wasn’t: “No, cry all you like, we won’t give you ADSL”? (Funny, the user guide and FAQ on the BT website both give a maximum distance of 30m between computer and master phone socket. The guide’s FAQ even says the engineer will relocate the master socket as part of the installation if necessary – but apparently that message hasn’t managed to escape the confines of the guide.)

He said I should go buy a USB extension lead and then call back for another appointment. Don’t BT engineers carry spare leads to sell to desperate and grateful customers with a good markup, as a small but doubtless profitable sideline? No. Need I ask. Well can’t I get a phone extension lead instead? “Oh no, you won’t be able to buy those in this country” (the cable from the splitter has a US-style phone plug). Luckily I have a USB hub. It goes into a USB port on my PC to give me extra serial and parallel ports plus two spare USB ports, into one of which any USB device should plug. The cable between hub and PC is longish, and I suggest that if I stretch that out across my living-room floor, and have the stingray’s cables at full extension too, it might just work. Yes, it will now reach – just.

But will I get a working connection? I’d tried to install the software on the CD-ROM in the welcome pack in advance as a BT helpline person had told me I should do that to have any chance of getting the BT engineer to help further. “Oh no, you shouldn’t have tried that, your settings might be mucked up now if you’d tried to connect before I came by”. Well no at least I hadn’t tried to connect beforehand, as I wouldn’t have got anywhere without the right equipment. But the engineer agrees to stay.

The Engineer attempts to install the modem drivers from the CD-ROM that came with the modem. Several goes before it works. Then you’re supposed to install the software on the welcome pack CD-ROM. Initially, again, it wouldn’t connect properly. Finally, after more fiddling, it works! The engineer leaves, having taken about two hours in all, so I can play – and I do, in between pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Living with ADSL

There is a week of tiptoeing gingerly over modem and cable in my living-room (maybe that’s why the very visible bright blue), before I get around to buying a US-style phone extension lead – (they do sell them even in far-flung London, just persist in trawling the shelves even if ‘assistants’ insist they don’t stock them).

But it hasn’t been all fun and games since. When it works it’s wonderful – the dial-up networking connection icon in the system tray says ‘Connected at 576,000 bps’ instead of the measly 42,666 BPS or less that I used to get with a 56kbps modem (note: the PC doesn’t really dial out, but does make use of what seems to be standard dial up networking (DUN) features, in that you can get online via the BT DUN connection without having to use the desktop shortcut stipulated by BT which launches their customised version of Internet Explorer and takes you straight to their portal page). Web pages roll open quickly, file downloads are a cinch, streaming audio is great, even video is fine, just a little jerky. For a couple of weeks there is a ‘wow’ factor. I can’t believe how quickly it flies.

But after the honeymoon period: the sulks. I get used to seeing at random intervals ‘Error 650’ (translation: ‘I just won’t connect however much you plead, you’ll just have to reboot completely first, so there’). Uninstalling and reinstalling the drivers seems to help but not cure it. New drivers, due out soon, should fix it, BT say (so I’ll have to wait). Inability to connect in the first place isn’t all down to drivers though, there have been intermittent, and still continuing, problems with the service (certain ‘gateways’) so I also become familiar with errors 691 and 718 (both relating to the computer I’m trying to connect to not being able to establish the connection).

Then there’s connectus interruptus. I’ll be happily surfing when everything seems to slow to a crawl, then stop completely. This starts happening more and more, and at inconsistent intervals too, sometimes after two hours, sometimes after just ten minutes, usually somewhere in between. I am the proud possessor of an ‘always on’ connection, which isn’t! I become really good at rebooting frequently, and hone my teamaking-between-reboots skills. It takes a while to figure out the problem because on some occasions it has been down to the ADSL service itself dying, once for at least two days running that I’d tried. Then a technician asks what computer I have and says my make cuts off power to the USB modem after a while, and sure enough, now I’m aware of it, I can see that when my connection hangs, the two green lights on the modem also go out. BT suggests also that I should notice the problem happening more when my PC has been on for longer before actually connecting. But the PC manufacturer, while acknowledging a problem with the chip, says a powered USB hub would fix it and I should try turning off the power management in the BIOS. Headscratching on my part as I’ve used nothing but a powered hub from the start, and I’d turned off power management ages ago for reasons unrelated to ADSL. Furthermore, if it is the PC cutting off power to the modem after an interval, why is that interval so variable from session to session, sometimes minutes, sometimes hours, and seemingly unrelated to how long my PC has been powered on for before I connect? I put that to BT and ask if it’s just a faulty modem: they say, try some new drivers first, not yet officially supported but they may help. So, I have to get around to downloading the still-in-beta-phase drivers. Meanwhile I’ve discovered that if I close any applications that might try to access the Net like e-mail and Web, then disconnect (yes the system tray DUN icon insists I’m still ‘Connected at 576,000 kbps’ even when all has ground to a halt), unplug the modem from the USB port, plug it straight back in and wait for it to finish its wake-up cycle (different coloured blinks of its eyes, settling down to both steady green), then try to connect again, all is well without having to reboot, and it’s certainly faster than rebooting. Seems to work for error 650 as well as connectus interruptus, so that will do me for now.

I’ll just have to see if the new drivers work, then get around to downloading some firewall software and hope I find something that will work with the BT ADSL connection.



Drivers at

User FAQ

ADSL guide



What if you want to take the plunge into ADSL? Obviously you’d research the providers, their service options, pricing and payment terms, contract term and support arrangements. BT’s most basic business option seems the same as the residential one but you have to pay quarterly in advance not monthly. More expensive business options offer higher downstream speeds (up to 2000 kbps), Ethernet connection, and the ability to hook up (just a few) more PCs. The BT FAQ says however that “BTOpenworld do not guarantee service on ADSL connections”…

Although it will become more relevant only as more people get ADSL, the contention ratio is also worth checking, i.e. how many people at most could be using the same bandwidth between your exchange and your ISP at the same time; with BT it is 50:1 for home users (i.e. 50 people), 20:1 for business.

The minimum PC specification required is on the Openworld Web site. Broadly, most PCs made since around 1997 with Win 98, spare USB port and 150 MB free diskspace should qualify. Macs and other OSs don’t seem to get a look in yet but what’s new (support for Win ME and Macs planned ‘in the future’). But business users with lower spec PCs and even Macs are supported.

I’d also recommend looking at including the bulletin boards, a very helpful site and user lobbying force. (Also is of interest – its name declares its purpose.)

Those not comfortable with tinkering with their PCs (which of course won’t apply to most SCL readers) or dealing with conflicting ‘what or how’ information from different parts of the same organisation should in my view think very hard before going for ADSL at this point, as in my experience (admittedly with only one provider) it’s pot luck as to whether you’d get any handholding for the installation at all, or how good that would be (the Welcome Pack’s user guide expects customers to DIY the post-hardware installation connection after the engineer leaves (“…the engineer is there solely to install the Network equipment and cabling, and is not authorised to do anything directly involving your computer. After we visit – Load BTopenworld software”…). Maybe in a year or so it will be more straightforward and increasing competition should reduce prices too.

Worth it?

Despite the problems, I personally have found ADSL worthwhile even as a domestic user, and I don’t regret being a beta (or maybe gamma) tester in this case. I’ll like it even better when (if?) the modem power cut-off issue is sorted. Even so, I’m now starting to eye the (to be forthcoming one day) upgrade to still faster speeds for home users…

This article, including all opinions and any errors, was written by Kuan ( in a purely personal capacity on a Psion 5mx, mostly on the Tube or train, based on the position as at January 2001.