A Cautionary Cable Modem Tale

BOSTON (03/27/2000) - The strangest aspect of the annoying process of buying, installing and beginning to use a new cable modem is that, after days of struggling to get the thing to work properly, it suddenly, for no apparent reason, began to function on its own the very morning the MediaOne repairman came by my home in north Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In the intervening six weeks, connection speeds have consistently been a blistering 1.2M bps (bits per second). But rather than touting the wonders of cable modem use, this is a cautionary tale. My husband and I raised security concerns at both the retail outlet where we bought the cable modem and with MediaOne, the broadband division of MediaOne Group Inc., and our worries were summarily dismissed.

DSL (digital subscriber line) hasn't come to our neighborhood yet, so the only immediately viable option we have for broadband is a cable modem. We intensely dislike that there is no cable competition, giving us no choice but to go with our cable TV operator. That's not necessarily a knock on them -- our cable TV is reliable, if a bit on the expensive side, but this being America and all we are accustomed to having options.

Numerous articles have been published in both the trade and mainstream press about how easy it is to break into a home computer that has always-on Internet access via cable lines. Some reporters have even watched hackers quickly break into systems. I once had a reader send me e-mail detailing how he happened to discover the ease with which he could access his neighbor's computer on their shared cable-modem network. The issue to us was -- and is -- serious, so we broached the topic with both the cable provider and the retail outlet where we purchased the cable modem.

The special half-off installation deal (US$50) involved going to a local Circuit City electronics chain store to buy the hardware. The cheerful, but we soon discovered clueless, sales clerk at Circuit City informed us that MediaOne uses cable modems from one and only one company and then directed us to the display of the Netgear Inc. modem. Yes, that's right, modem as in singular.

That issue effectively settled, we asked about security.

"All you need to do is set up a BIOS password," the clerk replied.

I tried to explain that I'm not worried about my husband accessing my PC and vice versa, but about outside intruders, and so we questioned the clerk about available software or other options to provide security. The clerk reassured us that there was no security problem with cable modems.

We went home and rang MediaOne the next morning to arrange the service call to have the cable modem installed, which was quickly scheduled, and my husband again broached the security issue. However, he was told that because MediaOne blocks access to ports that enable file sharing our security concerns were addressed. Less than convinced, we decided to set up our home network with a router (at last, there was a choice we could make on our own!) because the IP (Internet Protocol) address would be for the router and not for our PCs.

Installation went reasonably smoothly, we had intermittent broadband darkness for a few days when the cable modem seemed to not be working, and then, apropos of nothing, the device started up on its own the morning of the visit by the MediaOne technician.

Although we now count ourselves as content with our broadband "choice," we've wondered what it's like for consumers with less technology background to wade through the maze, particularly given that the sales clerk obviously had no idea that there are security issues related to cable modems and given that the cable provider dismissed our concerns out of hand. We particularly wonder about such issues when the network suddenly slows down and we have to reboot the router.

Is it expending all of its router energy dealing with attempts by hackers to break into our network? We'll never know.

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