The Computer Corner: Yes, but

By Charles Miller

Last summer a friend emailed me while he was traveling overseas and finding that his access to internet there is not as reliable as here in Mexico. He wrote, “In Greece. Poor service. Getting disconnected about 20% of the time regardless of what I am doing.” Then came the question that forms the topic for this column. He asks, “When connected to VPN, it tries to reconnect repeatedly but fails and I have to quit. Is there some way to bypass total failure?” The answer: “yes, but.”

First, his question reveals a very good understanding of troubleshooting techniques. When his internet connection was failing, he tried to use his Virtual Private Network (VPN) to see if it was any better. Unfortunately, a VPN runs on top of an existing internet connection, so the best VPN is only as reliable as the local internet to which it is connected. It is an example of a chain only being as strong as its weakest link. If the local internet is poor, it will make the VPN connection and everything else equally poor.

A lot of people believe the internet was designed to survive a nuclear war because the engineers at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) designed the first generation of the internet with focus on redundancy and self-correcting protocols. They wanted a communications system that would keep working even while a lot of things were going wrong, such as wartime conditions but also including unknowledgeable people wiring things wrong. The error correction and self-healing abilities designed into the internet protocols have created a very robust communications network, but this all too often conceals its problems.

No matter how badly misconfigured, no matter how much bad wiring, Ethernet-based networks will try to heal themselves so they can work at least for a while. This ability of the system to continue limping along in spite of problems has resulted in a generation of non-technical internet users believing anyone can throw together a home, or small hotel, Wi-Fi network, and it will work perfectly. This is certainly not the case and is often the reason why do-it-yourself Wi-Fi networks work intermittently. One of the common symptoms of this is as my friend described in the first paragraph. The connection works fine for a time, then quits or slows drastically before it starts working again; then the cycle repeats. Unseen by the user, the Wi-Fi router is busy trying and failing to find a fix for its problems.

So, when my friend asked, “Is there some way to bypass total failure?” the answer is: “yes, but.”  Yes, that is what the internet does automatically and without any user intervention. But, if the local Wi-Fi in the hotel is poor, then all the downstream connections will be just as poor. And this is why learning how to use the trace route test is so important. In the case of my traveling friend, his trace route test indicated the Wi-Fi in his hotel was not working well. The rest of the internet in Greece seemed okay. One solution to this situation is to look for a nearby restaurant or coffee shop that might have better Wi-Fi.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or email