For annoying reasons that I won’t get into here, I’m finally building out a home office. For me this meant getting another IKEA desk, and then making sure that the network path from my main network rack out to the garage where my office will be is built well and reliably installed.

This has so far been a case of pulling wire through the attic, and then putting in a network terminal in the closet where all the network gear lives. From this NT down to the 9U rack that most of my network lives in I will run a bundle of Ethernet cables to supply data services out to the rest of the house. So far so good, though I will say to anyone wanting to pull cable: buy a cheap boroscope/endoscope for looking at what’s in your walls, its way more useful than it sounds, and flexible auger bits are really cool.

So far so good, pulling cable and patching networks is easy. In doing this though, I realized that I have an artificially short cable between the optical modem and the wall mounted splice box where AT&T drops off the line I get my Sonic internet on. No problem, I’ll just unplug it and plug in a longer one and oh, wait, splice box…

In my network the aerial drop from the pole outside comes to the eave of the house, then goes all the way to the back and punches through a wall into a closet where the network equipment lives. Then, it goes into a small wall mounted box where it is spliced directly onto a short length of cable with an SC/APC end on it. When I say “a cable with an end on it” I literally mean that. I watched the installer open a sealed cable much like this one and just cut one end off of it. This means that I have a fixed length that the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) must be within to be connected. Further, you know that fiber is relatively fragile, and that this being a non-socketed cable means that if I need to replace it I need to call out a tech to replace the cable, which then AT&T will most assuredly bill me for.

This is cheapness number 1, and its the one that I am most annoyed about right now. The splice box can accept a port on one side via a knock out, and had the tech done this, I could have plugged in a cable of a more appropriate length and been done.

“But maldridge!” I hear you say, “you can’t have a connector there because that would be on the AT&T side of the network, you only get connectors once you’re past the point of demarcation!”

While correct in the most technical sense, this doesn’t matter for a point we’ll get to in a minute. For those that don’t know though, a point of demarcation or demarc as its more commonly referred to is the point at which responsibility for network elements formally changes. In a POTS service this is usually a gray plastic box (called a Network Interface Device or NID) on the outside of the building, or in a business its in the Main Point Of Entry (MPOE). Both the NID and the MPOE are strictly defined components that are regulated and enshrined in federal code for telecommunications equipment. Now, in an optical network the point of demarcation is most commonly the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) which is the point at which the operator’s network is converted into something that the customer can use. Very rarely would you ever see a network in which you as a customer are allowed to plug your fiber directly into an optic that you provide. This is where the connector argument above falls apart. The cable has an SC/APC connector on the end of it because that’s the socket that’s on the ONT. It must be there, because the ONT does not take a raw fiber strand.

Calling the ONT the point of demarcation though doesn’t actually work in an AT&T FTTH setup, because you can’t just plug into the ONT and pull down an address. No we are firmly into the era of micro services and internet of things, so the demarc is an embedded Linux box running practically unmaintained software that’s misconfigured at best, and massively overpriced for what its capable of actually doing. In AT&T terms this is a Residential Gateway (RG) and they come in various flavors. The important thing to know though is that regardless of flavor this is a box that is uniformly junk. The RG negotiates an EAP-OL transaction with the carrier network, which it then establishes the outbound service on. It also is responsible for providing the Analog Telephony Adapter if you purchase or otherwise end up with “landline” phone service, and it provides a handful of other features that I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone using (seriously, have you ever seen a HPNA network with your own eyes?).

Oh, and I’m being billed for renting both of these devices that I need to consume the service that I’m already paying for. The ONT I can understand, though its price should really be folded into the monthly service bill, rather than being a line item. The RG I do not accept, because its completely unnecessary. Sure, it can and probably should be offered to customers as a value added appliance, as for customers that don’t want to build their own network it will probably meet their needs. For anyone else though its a box that runs hot and slow and breaks from time to time for no readily explainable reason.

A quick side note: I’m aware that methods exist for performing the EAP-OL transaction without the RG. This is not the point. The point here is that a completely unnecessary hop has been added to my network, when the ONT could have negotiated that transaction on its own as it has some limited onboard smarts.

So, this brings us to the final point, the dubious design. Both of these devices, the RG and the ONT are required to use the service, and both are static components, they will be installed in a location and not moved. In the case of the ONT it is best it never move since the cable that is plugged into it is not user replaceable. So obviously both of these devices must have keyhole mounts on the back, or have mounts that I can order or request from the provider right? Wrong again. Neither device has the keyhole mounting points that one would expect in a modern bit of molded plastic, and neither appears to have a ready-made mount that I could find after an hour of searching.

So now I am writing this rant having just placed an order to Amazon for some generic mounts that should be able to secure both devices to the wall such that I can keep them out of the way and hopefully lessen the risk of damage to the fiber.

What are some takeaways though? If you’re an AT&T person reading this what could you have done to not earn my rant? Well, probably not much since I’m actually a Sonic customer, and strange business rules apply, but here’s some points anyway:

  • I don’t want the RG, and I don’t need it. I have had AT&T/SBC service since DSL was considered unobtainably expensive, and I remember being able to go out and buy a DSL modem that I could plug into the line and it worked just fine. There weren’t thousands of lines of poor quality code from Southwestern Bell in my network requiring a reboot every few days. This should be the way it is now as well, offer the RG as a value added service, but if I don’t want it then hand me an Ethernet circuit I can pull DHCP from or perform SLAAC on.

  • If a cable may require replacement, both ends of it had better be socketed. Even the most technologically challenged customer understands the “unplug it and replace it” concept, and this could save field visits by just mailing customers new cables if they need to replace them. Or in proper telco fashion, I suspect it would be making people drive to a local store to buy a spare cable that’s still on the network side of the demarc…

  • Provision for hardware to be installed in various ways. The ONT has rubber feet on it, but no provision for mounting it to the wall. I would buy an AT&T branded mount for the thing if one existed, but one does not. Similarly, the RG is a large device with fairly thick plastic, it should have had keyholes molded into it. Baring that it should have a mount available either from AT&T or Arris. These were really simple things that should have been done, and I find it really surprising that an industrial designer looked at both devices and signed off that they didn’t need any facilities for rigid mounting.

That’s all I’ve got in this rant, hopefully you found it at least mildly entertaining to read. As always, if you want to discuss this post or other annoying artifacts of the “modern” internet, I am maldridge on freenode.