PPP Over Dialup Over Voice Over IP Over Hill and Over Dale

Volume 6, Issue 112; 16 Nov 2003

Some of my colleagues have abandoned dialup. I haven’t yet, so I got to run dialup over WiFi over ethernet from Japan to Boston. Yeah, really.

There is nothing which human courage will not undertake, and little that human patience will not endure.

Dr. Johnson

A couple of my colleagues have abandoned dialup. The volume of email in their lives has exceeded the threshold beyond which it is impractical to collect mail at anything less than broadband speed.

I have the same problem. In the twenty-four or so hours that I was offline traveling to Japan, several megabytes of mail piled up in my inbox. Getting several megabytes by dialup is painful. But I still do it occasionally, when the phone call is free and I can leave the machine sitting for a couple of hours unattended. It’s time for me to give up too, but I haven’t quite yet.

As it turns out, this is a good thing.

For the first time in a long time, I can’t seem to get my corporate VPN connection to function properly. It’s very odd. With VPN up, I can watch the clients on my laptop trying IMAP, SMTP, and POP3 (through a SOCKS5 proxy). In each case, I get consistent, inexplicable behavior. The client connects to the appropriate server and the communication handshake proceeds normally up to the point where a message should be sent. At that point, communication just stops. Eventually the client times out and gives up.

Specifically, the IMAP connection runs long enough to tell me that I have, say 865 messages waiting, then hangs trying to get the first one down. Similarly POP3 runs long enough to tell me that I have, say 2631 messages waiting, then hangs trying to get the first one. And SMTP runs long enough to accept from, to, subject, and other headers, then hangs at the point where it says “enter lines of message and terminate with a ‘.’” or words to that effect.

This is really annoying. These are different machines, some on completely different networks, so it isn’t some NFS wedging or something. Well, that’s statistically unlikely, anyway.

Without VPN, I can get my POP3 mail with no problem. And with a whole lot of irritating fiddling, I’ve managed to figure out how to send mail without VPN running (nevermind that it requires opening a relay host somewhere for a few moments at a time because I can’t figure out how to get a user-authenticated SMTP relay working while I’m 6000 miles from home). But without VPN, there’s no way to get my “work” email. This is bad.

What does all this have to do with voice over IP, I hear you ask? I’m getting to that bit.

Two of my colleagues have Vonage “voice over IP” phone systems. With a few bits of hardware, they carry a “local” phone number to any place with a broad band internet connection. It really works surprisingly well. Having been on many teleconferences with them, I have to say, I can’t tell the difference between Vonage and POTS.

Now, I still want my work email, and I’m getting a little anxious about it. So, I plug my modem into Dan’s Vonage phone and dial an access number in the United States. That’s a “local” call because the carrier tones travel from Japan to the United states over the network then get blasted out into the dialup world from some switch that really is in the United States. The modems talk to each other across, get this, twisted copper, 10 base T, and WiFi, to establish a dialup PPP connection. Several hours later, I have a slug of email downloaded.

Bizarre. And cool. And weird all at once. But it works!