Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Comcast Forces Firmware Upgrades

Our Comcast modem back in California has been down for three months. I know this because my Tivo tells me so. Over the break we had a few days back in the Bay Area so I called Comcast and tried to get them to get it working again. Luckily they were able to schedule a repair visit shortly after our flight landed. The repairman said that everything in the house was fine and that he would call for someone to come out and fix the problem at the pole the next day. Nothing happened and when I called Comcast back they said they had no record of someone scheduled to fix my system at the pole, but they were happy to schedule another repair visit. Which they did for the next day. (They must have a lot of open slots around the holidays.) This time a repairman came and had the same reaction. Everything is fine, must be a problem at the pole. At this point I knew what would happen next: nothing. I've had this exact same experience with Comcast at two locations now. It seems to take three visits and an escalation to get things fixed. Since we only had a few days in town, I decided to give up on Comcast and cancel my service.

Luckily my neighbor's wifi is pretty strong at my place and he agreed to let me share it. This is great except the whole reason I want the internet connection was to keep my Tivo and Slingbox going so the kids can watch PBS from Vietnam. Turns out my most of the stuff I want to be online is part of my wired network at home; all the wireless stuff we take with us. This meant I needed a way to get his wireless network connected to my wired network. Naively I figured a trip to Best Buy would be able to fix this. They did have one router that claimed to do this, but it didn't work as advertised. In searching around I ran into Sveasoft which make firmware that you can flash to most commercial consumer routers, giving them advanced features. Unfortunately the router I bought wasn't supported. These guys also seem to be pretty anal about giving away their firmware. You have to register and give them the MAC address for your router. Presumably the firmware checks to make sure you're running it on a router with said MAC address. (They actually generate a custom version of the firmware for you before they let you use it.) This is to keep you from sharing your firmware with the world. Since it's free anyway, I'm not sure why they make you jump through these hoops. A more open alternative is to use the DD-WRT firmware described below.

I printed out the list of supported routers and headed back to Best Buy. I returned the fore mentioned router and bought another one on the supported list. One thing I've learned is that the hardware version number isn't often specified on the outside of the box. When I got to the car I opened the box to find that the hardware version for the WRT54G was a V8, again not supported. I decided to keep it anyway, maybe the WRT54Gv4 firmware would work. (It doesn't.)

After hunting around more I found this post by Bauer that describes how to flash the DD-WRT firmware to a WRT54Gv8. Turns out it's not supported in final form but there is a release candidate that works well enough. This time the firmware flash worked! Good thing I didn't return the router right away.

Next the trick was setting up a wireless bridge with the new router and its fresh firmware. Instructions for this can be found here. This pretty much worked fine for me. I think the instructions may be a bit verbose, and that just setting the network wireless mode to client bridge and having the same SSID and WEP settings would do the trick.

The upshot is that my cable modem has now been replaced with a WRT54Gv8 and the regular visits from the Comcast repair trucks have ceased. They'll just have to sleep on someone else's couch.

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