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MEDIA MATTERS / DAVID SHAW

The road to Wi-Fi world is bumpy -- please hold

October 05, 2003|DAVID SHAW

It seemed a simple request. It wound up being one of the most maddeningly frustrating experiences of my adult life.

Our son Lucas wanted a DSL connection on his computer for his 14th birthday so he could surf the Net, play games and get sports scores and e-mail more quickly.

Since my home computer -- with DSL -- is two floors above his, friends said I should buy two Netgear devices to give him wireless access to my DSL line. Cool.

"Wi-Fi" is the wave of the future, the next step in the rapid evolution of the communications media. High-speed Internet access is already a ferociously competitive battleground. The struggle will only intensify as Hollywood gears up to send movies directly into computers -- at home, in the office or wherever -- and as other media organizations (newspapers, magazines and TV stations among them) try to preserve and extend their franchise by converting the Web from enemy to ally.

The experts say that what I wanted to do should have been easy.

"The basic function of e-mail and Internet access through wireless connections should be pretty much a known quantity, pretty much plug and play," said Craig Ellison, who writes about wireless networking for PC Magazine and is the director of operations for the magazine's test labs.

Hah!

Based on my recent run-in with the new technology, I'd say we're still more than a few steps away from plug and play.

I started by buying a "router" and an "adapter," both with a guarantee of "24/7 technical support." Cost: $138 plus tax (and minus a $30 mail-in rebate). The router would connect to my computer and my DSL modem and serve as a base to communicate with Lucas' computer through the adapter. Both came with instructional CDs that took me step by step through the installation process.

Everything went swimmingly until I was directed to type in several numbers to reconfigure various settings on my computer -- at which point I got a message saying that the requisite page could not be displayed.

I called Netgear. An automatic response system told me that call volume was so high they couldn't take my call. So much for 24/7 technical support.

After getting the same recorded message four times, I finally made progress -- a recorded message said that all representatives were busy helping other customers but that my call was "very important" and I should wait.

When a technician finally came on the line, I explained my situation. He insisted the problem was with my Dell computer, not his Netgear router. He said I should call Dell and have them reconfigure Internet Explorer.

A recorded message at Dell put me on hold for what seemed an eternity. When I finally got through, I was told I had to buy a $149 service policy to receive assistance.

I argued, lost, signed up for the policy and was told I would be immediately connected to a technician. Instead, I was put on hold for an hour and a half -- at which time I had to leave for a dinner engagement. I began swearing loudly into the telephonic void. Then I hung up.

I have just begun ...

When I got home at midnight, I dialed Dell again. I waited 90 minutes, started swearing again, hung up again and went to sleep.

The next morning, I called Dell and waited on hold on the speaker phone in the kitchen while I made breakfast for the family. A mere 40 minutes later, a Dell technician picked up. He asked if my DSL line had worked before I hooked up the wireless router.

"Yes."

"Then your Internet Explorer is working properly," he said. "The problem is your router. Call Netgear."

I asked for a refund on the $149 service policy since I only bought it to get this particular problem solved.

"You can't get your money back," he said. "We did help you. We told you the problem wasn't your desktop configuration."

I hung up and called Netgear. Once again, call volume was so high that I couldn't even be put on hold. I started swearing again.

Meanwhile, my wife had taken Eva, our 68-year-old, 80-pound, longtime Saturday night child-care person, to her house a few blocks away. But the police had sealed off Eva's street to try to catch some violent criminal, and -- unbeknownst to me -- my wife had brought Eva back to our house.

Now, when Eva heard me swearing and screaming, she thought the violent criminal had broken into our house and was attacking me.

She came running upstairs, shouting, "I'm here, David. I'm coming." I calmed her down and assured her that the only person whose life was in danger was the Netgear technician who wasn't answering the phone.

When he finally did pick up, he directed me to make one change in the router settings on my desktop. It worked instantly. I kept him on the phone while I raced down two flights of stairs to my son's computer and installed the adapter.

"The signal's very weak," I told the technician.

"Is there a microwave oven between your computer and your son's computer?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Unplug the microwave," he said. "It's making the signal weaker."

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