How to Troubleshoot When the Internet is Down

How to Troubleshoot When the Internet is Down

Gregory Han
Jul 12, 2011

Yesterday was as busy as any other day, if not seemingly busier under the lethargic duress of a summer allergy, when I received an unexpected midday phone call from my mom. I immediately knew this call wasn't going to be one of friendly pleasantries, her voice spilling out a staccato of panicked syllables: "Internet…IT'S NOT…WORKING ANYMORE! I can't watch my Korean TV shows on YouTube!". Uh oh. If there's anything you don't want to get between it's a Korean woman and her Korean drama programs…

So I'm not sure how many of you play tech support for your parents, but aiding my mom with anything related to the computer takes a special brand of patience. To her credit, she's quite tech savvy for someone her age: she uses Facebook, is an avid digital photographer using her new Sony digital camera, sharing trips to the botanical garden and concerts, and even curious about Twitter and text messaging. But she also exhibits the traits of a "skiptostep3beforestep1-itis" personality which can make the task of troubleshooting the ultimate test in a son's patience.

Normally I just remotely investigate any computer problems using the built-in iChat remote access feature between her Mac mini and my MacBook Pro. But since her DSL connection was down, this wasn't an option and I had to walk her through standard troubleshooting steps any help line/IT support person is well acquainted with. Her internet connection was coming and going throughout the day, my first inclination was to have her simply turn on/off the DSL modem, restart her computer, and hope it would work again; this sadly did not fix the issue, rewarding me with another exasperated, "Why isn't it working yet?!"

Since I was in the middle of my work day, it was time to pull out the ole, "Give it till tomorrow…the ISP may be working on the network." I might as well have been speaking Yiddish to my mom, since she didn't really understand what this all meant, at least until I explained somebody "broke something" at the internet company and they were fixing it.

But this morning it became apparent the issue was an ongoing affair that wasn't going away. Like a vagabond, her DSL connection was coming and going regularly, making any use beyond a few minutes impossible before dropping completely. It was during the phone call I noted her phone line's quality was static-ridden, like she was speaking next to a pack of Ritz crackers being crinkled next to the mouthpiece; she even cut out completely a few times during our call. A noisy telephone line was the likely suspect, affecting her DSL. A technician is now on their way, and it's likely the issue will be fixed in a day or two (I'm hedging on a couple days, considering the phone company's tendency to schedule later than sooner).

A NSFW oldie but goodie.

So what to do when you experience online connection issues? Here are several of the steps we've used to determine and pinpoint problems:

1. Check all connections coming into and out of the computer, modem, and router. This is seems elementary, since everyone knows components need to be plugged in to work. But occasionally people unplug or loosen connections in the process of moving things on their desk, adjusting their monitor, kicking cable underneath, etc. It can happen to both the tech savvy and Luddites alike.
2. Investigate whether all the appropriate lights on the modem+router are green. Internet connection devices sometime offer esoteric information, but if the device is offering a red or yellow light, you're likely experiencing some sort of connection issue. Even if you don't know what the labels next to the light on your hardware mean, take note of the status of each light (Send: Green, Receive: Green, PC Activity: Orange and blinking, etc etc) for reference later if you need to contact your ISP help line.
3. Power down and restart. But before submitting to the hell that is known as the help line with our ISP try simply turning off all your devices, unplugging them, waiting a two minutes, then plugging everything back in for a restart. Sometimes simply resetting and restarting will smooth out whatever was causing the issue.
4. Check that your phone line microfilters are fitted correctly. If you've got a DSL connection, check if the microfilters on your phone lines are properly seated. DSL shares the line with your telephone service and these inbetween microfilters separate the signals and prevent one from interfering with the other. If these are improperly installed, you may experience a static ridden connection with voice and an unstable internet connection. If the issue still persists, you will likely need to contact your phone line provider to investigate the quality of your phone connection. Audible phone line noise (aka snap, crackle, pop) are indicate the need to repair wiring inside or outside your residence, since DSL connections can be extremely sensitive to phone noise.
5. Remove any inbetween components between your router and your computer. Using deduction through the process of elimination, connect your router to the master socket through one microfilter, removing any additional connected components like fax machines or media device. If your connection now works, one of your components might be faulty.
6. If you've got a spare ethernet cable, try switching this out. There's a small possibility your cable connection your router to your computer may be bad.

If all else fails, you'll have to call your ISP and/or telephone company. But by using the checklist of steps above and taking notes, you (or in our case, my frazzled mom) will have all the information to provide during a call with a help line.

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