2017-06-20

NBN: The Somewhat Expected Journey

In the beginning

About three and a half years ago I was planning on purchasing a house with my then-girlfriend and choose a location that was earmarked to get Fibre to the Premise (FttP) National Broadband Network (NBN)​ with a three year build date. Within a few months of settlement an election was called and my location was wiped off the NBN map completely.

Three years on and I receive an email from my ISP advising that HFC is going to be available. Then junkmail in the mailbox with offers from one random unknown and a couple of known much disliked Retail Service Providers (RSP) - in the NBN world, they are now referred to as Retail Service Providers (RSP) and formally known as Internet Service Provider (ISP). Yes there is a difference.

The only thing that I think our government may have managed to achieve with their three words slogan for NBN during their campaigning is simply "cheaper" They appear to failed on the "faster" and "sooner" parts.

Back on track with the story, I jumped at the RSP email and decided to 'pre-order' my NBN (which turned out to be a mistake) as I learned from an NBN representative that that a pre-order is actually a new order and would have created a whole new account not linked or related to my existing, long tenure one, which I want to keep at least until the day I decide to switch to a new RSP. But that's not all I learned, just not from my RSP.

Curse of the cabling

Not only did I not realise that there was an existing Telstra cable/Foxtel box out the front of the house from a previous owner/residents installation, but it was in an inconvenient location and I needed to remediate the coax cabling before the NBN appointment (to install the Network Termination Device (NTD) - otherwise known as an NBN "Connection Box".

So in preparation for the NBN appointment, I decide to cancel the NBN order (also under advise by the RSP), except I wasn't quick enough to cancel the router that was immediately sent out. No biggie. It only cost $10 to have it sent to me.

So that brings me to the next part. The cabling. I forgot about the existing Telstra cable box at the front of the house outside, but since there was also foxtel dish on the roof (I actually thought the foxtel dish was the source of the cabling point), so I decided to remove the foxtel dish, but not before a trip to Bunnings to get two blank wall plates so that I could make it appear as though nothing was cabled or points inside the house, whereby upon removing said dish, I discovered that the dishes cable didn't actually go to the wall point I expected, but I continued to remove it anyway, putting aside the dish, mounting bracket and cable once removed.

I then located the actual coax cable drop (after realising/remembering about the cable box out front. Derp) and proceeded to pull that across to the (new) location where I wanted it. At this point I realised I had to go to Bunnings again, this time for an electrical snake, electrical tape, 16mm masonry drill bit and a new coax f-type wall plate.

Thinking that I had everything I needed, I tidied up the wall plates from the previous coax cable points and started to painstaking pull the existing cable through the roof eves trying to keep minimal turns to maximise length only to find out that the cable still fell short of approximately three metres. Being the engineer that I am, I saved myself I some money by reusing the cable from the foxtel dish I removed earlier and joined the coax with a connector salvaged from a removed f-type wall plate. Brilliant!

So after wrapping the join with a generous amount of electrical tape, there was more than enough length for the cable to reach the new wall point, for which was not as straight forward as just drilling a forty five degree hole to the wall cavity as I managed to loose the coax connector after I managed to get the snake and cable wedged in the bend of the newly drilled hole thinking I could stupidly un-wedge it by pulling harder on the snake then on the actual cable (minus the connector) and then on the snake again - finally dislodging the snake (minus the connector - which now lives somewhere inside the cavity walls). All this only because I mistakenly taped the coax cable and it's connector to the top of the snake instead of the bottom to allow it to go around the the bend of the newly drilled hole for the wall plate. Lesson learned.

Once I had the coax pulled through, I went off to Jaycar this time to get the replacement F-type connector (including a spare in case I borked it), but quickly realised that they were for a coax cable with a smaller core, so after yet another trip to Bunnings for the correct F-type connector, I got the wall plates finished and titles put back on the roof. Lucky for me I didn't break any tiles during the walking about on the roof!

Order in the court!

After all the saga of cabling was completed, I contacted my RSP and requested a new NBN order, this time under my existing account. So far so good except I receive another email telling me a router is being delivered. Again.

The next day I contact my RSP via reply email for the hardware order asking to cancel it. No response. I call them the following day to cancel it. They tell me there is no evidence of any charge but by that time I already have an email telling me it's been dispatched and on its way (It arrived the next day shoved into the mailbox, whereas the previous one I had to sign for at the local post office).

At this point the NBN appointment to install the NTD had also been brought forward but in the meantime I decided to break open the HG659b since I had two of them, so one of them was doomed to become my sacrificial test unit (read on to find out how/why).

./hack

Hacking the sacrificial unit involved soldering header pins to the empty holes where a serial port has been identified thanks to an openwrt hardware wiki article on it. De-soldering the factory solder points to put the header pins took far longer than actually soldering on the header pins though.

Having access to the serial port it was easy to get into the Common Firmware Environment (CFE) by interrupting the boot sequence so that I could flash spark (NZ) firmware onto this unit as it was more likely to include the download configuration file exploit not available in the crippled TPG firmware.

After doing the configuration file download exploit on the sacrificial unit with alternative firmware, I decrypted the configuration file with the help of a whirlpool knowledge article, and then the root password from the modified unit, I was then able to successfully use those credentials to log into the unmodified unit with normal, unadulterated, uncripled access.

With noob access defeated, I quickly discovered that not only does the unit only allow static routes, on the WAN interfaces but it is very picky about its LAN management IP address and subnet mask. According to the admin UI, apparently 192.168.2.1/24 is invalid and the Command Line Interface (CLI) over telnet is cripled and you cannot get a shell whatsoever. By this stage you can probably imagine the eyetwitch starting.

By now, it was blindingly clear that the HG659b is complete rubbish (ESPECIALLY WITH TPGs CRIPLED FIRMWARE!) - even more so for a network engineer such as myself.

In between all this, the NBN contractors had attended the premises (at the very end of the appointment window no less) to install the NTD (yes, it took two of them) and found the existing Telstra cable to have no signal! Thinking that it was my fault, I simply explained that I "had the the wall point moved". They then opened up the telstra cable box out front and not only found two cables coming from it but one of them was not connected - which was obviously the one I had remediated. They switched the cabling and the line had signal and they where able to activate it. By now one of the NBN contractors - what looked like the junior of the two - had left. The NBN contractor then used the excuse that his phone battery was flat so that he didn't have to wait around for the half an hour for confirmation of the service being activated. I wonder where the other cable leads to then?

MOAR HARDWARE!

Knowing that the HG659 is completely useless to me for my requirements, I dug around for an OpenWRT compatible router (not an AP and ADSL and everything all-in-one-gateway-that-everyone-calls-a-damn-router!) and settled on a MikroTik RouterBoard RB750GL from WISP - these guys have a questionable website security wise (certificate is fine but pages may include a form(s) with a non-secure "action" attribute.) but they shipped this thing in record time!

With the new router in hand I took a quick look at the very ugly UI for RouterOS and promptly installed OpenWRT on it using a combination OpenWRT installation methods from both the device page and the general common procedures (the latter of which mentions the missing initrd).

Before I got it off the default IP address (and adding a static summary route for all my subnets), I realised was getting annoyed at this point having to deal with equipment which ships with IP addresses which conflict with my own network, so I decided to change my Local Area Network (LAN) subnet to something more sane, which took about three hours of solid uninterrupted work to migrate configuration to a previously unused Cisco 48 port PoE switch (some things are outstanding but I can defer those for another time).

Lastly, I added a new PPPoE connection to the the port already tagging on VLAN ID 2 and viola! I'm connected to the NBN with a device which I have much more trust and configuration options. Even the default firewall rules where reasonable.

Summary

I have learned a few things these last few weeks: how to save some money, how not chase a cable through a wall and not to necessarily jump onto something no matter how exiting it seems and could help with working from home and studying in the future but even more recently, how NBN HFC is delivered and more recently, how important security is with the NBN (more on this in a new post hopefully).

It has been an interesting journey and the thing I enjoyed the most about this was the hardware hacking (however futile it was) and the handyman type work (drilling holes chasing cables etc). What I least enjoyed was the level of service from my RSP and the fact that they managed to bork the username on the account, but all-in-all the actual throughput/bandwidth of the service seems reasonable for now and by the time you read this, I will probably have shut down my ADSL service.

The funniest thing about all this all is the fact that the wife hasn't noticed the improvement in speeds, since I told her (and she agreed) to the experiment of not telling her when it was actually done!

Oh and NBN sent a survey asking about how likely I was to recommend NBN, based on the "excellent" service I received with a scale of 1-10, only to tell me that I had to choose 4 or higher. Go figure.


If you have read this far, thanks for reading and feel free to share your experience with me by posting in the comments or via Google+ (link to post is best).

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