The ongoing saga of how not to run an ISP; problems with IDT and AOL 1995-2001

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The ongoing saga of the problems I've experienced with IDT, as well as older information on problems with AOL (a.k.a. "AO Hell"). The latter is history for me as I rarely use AOL any more. With regard to IDT, they have gone a long time without further snafus, and would be a good ISP if not for the capricious and discourteous attitude which is manifested in the occurrences noted below. More recently, there have been positive developments in this regard and hopefully this will continue.

At the end of December 2000, IDT announced that they will terminate all dialup service as of January 31, 2001. By then I had switched to another ISP as noted below, and this log notes what actually happened by different dates. While SLIP/PPP service may have ceased on January 31, telnet access, including access to one's mailbox, continued until March (as did Webmail access). During this time, there were plenty of other users on the shell, running pine and other programs indicating that their accounts were still in active use. IDT had stated that they would permit ftp access until April to facilitate moving web pages to another server and they would forward mail until July.

[New!]

WHAT'S NEW:

Last update: May 3, 2001

May 3, 2001: Still forwarding mail from nickz@idt.net, though the alias nickz@tribeca.ios.com has been dead since last month as noted for April 13. Last month's forwarding delay is gone; it takes only a few seconds now. Haven't tested FTP access in awhile since my web pages were all moved over in January, but FTP access is officially dead by now:

F:\0401>ftp idt.net
Connected to idt.net.
220 IDT Corporation FTP Server (idt.net)
User (idt.net:(none)): nickz
331 Password required for nickz.
Password:
530 Login incorrect.
Login failed.
ftp>

April 26, 2001:Still forwarding mail, but there is a delay of quite a few minutes between its being sent and the actual delivery to my inbox. Telnet access to my IDT account disabled. But it still gives the login screen:

UNIX(r) System V Release 4.0 (u3.farm.idt.net)

Greetings and Welcome to IDT..

login: nickz
Password:
Login incorrect
Greetings and Welcome to IDT..

login:

April 13, 2001: the tribeca.ios.com alias for idt.net is dead. This was the original name of the system I was on; there also being village.ios.com, gramercy.ios.com and other New York City neighborhood-themed systems; they were all moved to idt.net a few years back but the aliases had been retained until now:

   ----- The following addresses had permanent fatal errors -----


   ----- Transcript of session follows -----
550 ... Host unknown (Name server: tribeca.ios.com:
host not found)

--PAA25269.987199665/mx1.eskimo.com
Content-Type: message/delivery-status

Reporting-MTA: dns; mx1.eskimo.com
Received-From-MTA: DNS; eskimo.com
Arrival-Date: Fri, 13 Apr 2001 15:07:44 -0700

Final-Recipient: RFC822; nickz@tribeca.ios.com
Action: failed
Status: 5.1.2
Remote-MTA: DNS; tribeca.ios.com
Last-Attempt-Date: Fri, 13 Apr 2001 15:07:45 -0700

March 24, 2001: Webmail [and telnet] access to my IDT account not operational.

January 27, 2001: This page and my other web pages have been moved to my new ISP since IDT is going out of the dialup ISP business as of January 31, 2001.

Turn of the Century, End of an ISP

January 3, 2001: Since the last report, there have been no major problems such as those noted below, and I continued using IDT. Zmodem was never fixed, however, nor has the Lynx bug been fixed. To upload larger files, I use Zmodem or FTP to another account and then mail or FTP the files to IDT; for a smaller file I zip and UUencode it then send it as ASCII to a "cat >file" command. The CRC in the zip file tells me whether the transfer was successful; it won't work for larger files at higher modem speeds (it is reliable at 2400 bps [LOL] but that would take forever -- short files do fine at 19200 bps or higher).

In fact, it seems like IDT totally gave up on updating or maintaining any of their software. For e-mail, the shell account has elm and pine, but only pine is Y2K compliant and uses four-digit years such as 2000, 2001,.... Elm was never fixed, and starting on January 1, 2000 it indicated years as 1 Jan 0 (for 2000), and 1 Jan 101 (for 2001). Oh yes, there is also the rudimentary "mail" program, just like in my 1975 copy of PDP-11 Unix System V (for more information and licensing requirements for ancient versions of Unix and other operating systems, see my DEC page). I don't use IDT's "mail" program anyway but did test it out, noting it has a problem with the format of my existing mailbox which is shared by pine and elm; perhaps it can't deal with MIME?

Also, the command to change one's password broke quite a while ago -- when I tried to do so, I was unable to log in until I called tech support, which was only able to reset my password to the default given to me in 1996 when I first obtained internet service. No ability for anyone to change the password to anything else, or to periodically change it for security's sake! Has anyone ever heard of a Unix shell with the passwd command broken or disabled? Of course, it is not the first time that password problems have been reported, and this situation would have been a totally intolerable security hole if not for my not having any particularly confidential information on this account, and the fact that with the popularization of GUIs in recent years, many would-be intruders wouldn't want to or know how to operate a CLI (command-line interface) if it bit them in the a**. ;-)

On December 29, 2000, IDT announced that they will no longer provide dialup accounts. A perusal of their latest financial statement at http://www.idt.net/ir/q1_01.htm will suggest why, though they did not give a reason for the discontinuation of service in the e-mail they sent to their customer(s). One wonders if the lack of maintenance of their software was due to an attempt to be penny-wise but pound-foolish in dealing with their financial losses in providing internet service (as opposed to their primary business of providing telephone service -- which has done somewhat better but still has been questioned). In any case, R.I.P. I.D.T. Thanks for providing e-mail service for almost 5 years (since March 1996) without any annoying GUI bloatware, and for not repeating the actions which originally inspired this web page. I have obtained a trial account with another ISP and shell provider and will be moving my web pages to them when I determine them to be reasonably reliable. They have been around since the 1980's and have a good reputation except for some saying the system can be slow. Unlike IDT, they allow compiling and running of user programs (in assembly, C, others; even Fortran!) under their shells, so, as with Concentric (which no longer provides shells?), I can update my own software if the system administrators fail to do so.

Summer 1999: The system works reasonably well with the new dialups; if I get a busy signal, there are now many more alternate local numbers I can call. One annoying thing is that Zmodem does not work properly; it can send just fine, but when receiving (uploading) it hangs, perhaps from interference with the telnet connection. Except for a handful of times when it was working OK, this bug has been the rule ever since the change to the new dialup numbers. So I've resorted to using Kermit in fast mode for uploading. Also, Lynx sometimes hangs while looking up URL's; the workaround is to quickly suspend (with Ctrl-Z) and unsuspend the process; if it is left suspended too long it will return an error and not access the URL.

April 28, 1999: Good news this time!

On Friday, April 16, 1999 IDT e-mailed its subscribers regarding new dialup numbers, to provide them with a period of transition and testing before the old numbers are disconnected. This is a welcome change as the old numbers could get overloaded and provide less-than-optimal connections.

The testing period for their new dialup access numbers is now drawing to a close, and today (April 28) subscribers were e-mailed a notice indicating this and providing a final reminder to replace the old numbers in one's records and access software.

The testing went well, with no bugs except for one instance when the modem got stuck "retraining" in the middle of a session and I had to hang up. Other than that, the new numbers are much more reliable than the old ones and always answer on the second ring without delay. Also, there is one number for each of New York City five boroughs instead of one Manhattan number for all of them, which reduces the load on the one number. And a longstanding bug was fixed in their Annex interface; when a Break is sent and sometimes due to buggy software or an overloaded system, one is logged off and gets the Annex screen that also appears when one first logs on. The Break key is the only way to recover from some situations when the system freezes. However, one was unable to log back into the system from that Annex screen; it says another job is still running but has no provision to reconnect to it, so the only option was to hang up. Tech support had either ignored prior bug reports about this or said it was not possible to fix this. Well, now they have fixed it, so one can log back on from the Annex screen. Well done.

For awhile there were changes being made in the Solaris filesystem on which this account resides, so one day I'd log on and the owner of my files would be listed as "nickz", another day as "root" (!) or other names. In fact, one day the command prompt the system gave me was "root@idt.net" (!!). I wonder if every shell user was "root" for a day?? Now these things are back to normal. This was an amusing occurrence but it did not have any material effect on my use of my account, positive or negative. Unless the amusement counts as something positive. ;-)

(For those unfamiliar with the Unix world, "root" means the "superuser" who administers the system and is not subject to any restrictions; the root user can delete files from any account, create and delete accounts, reinstall the operating system, etc. However, when one actually is root, one usually gets a special root "#" prompt which was not the case here. Also, if I write protected some of my own files and then tried to delete them, or did similar tests with read and execute access, I could not bypass the protections. I did not do tests on system files or other users' files, which would be just plain wrong unless done with permission, but such tests were not necessary anyway. So this means I was root in name only, and there was not actually any security breach).

Also I was just billed for another year of IDT service, right on schedule ... so all I can say for this entry is ... "So Far, So Good".

December 28, 1998: IDT almost went a year without a problem. But...

then I logged on today to find that the disk quota has been reduced to 8 MB from 16 MB. No prior warning so I could get it below quota in advance. Phone line quality today was terrible so it was difficult and time-consuming to download files to my PC or to another server; I had 13 MB of files when I was surprised with this "Christmas present" from the Dismal One. How about some common courtesy, IDT?

[Entry added: 1:21 AM 29-Dec-1998]

December 30, 1997: No further difficulties, except...

for the New York City dialup line being too noisy to be used, requiring me to use numbers in nearby area codes which are toll calls. No explanation of why this was the case was given, but it was fixed a few months ago, or at least it has not recurred. When logging on with a 28.8 kbps modem, I connect at actual speeds of 24-26 kbps. No disk quota problems. No further billing errors (next billing should be in March 1998).

December 30, 1996:

Since last summer's difficulties, my IDT account has been operative, though often slow during the day. The "tin" newsreader gives me a disk quota error even when I am well below quota. This is probably due to (1) disk quota reduced; (2) tin "updated" with a BETA version.

Some of these problems have been noted on the survey they've posted on IDT's home page; no response yet (Dec. 30, 1996).

I have kept my account for now as it has offered fairly convenient untimed internet service at a low price.

A problem and a quick resolution

IDT billed my credit card three months before my anniversary date, on December 8, 1996. Thanks to my bank's online service which alerted me to this fact even though my monthly statement was not due till the end of the month. Needless to say, IDT had also forgotten to give a refund or even an apology for the events of last July. I e-mailed IDT and got a typical clueless form response; however, I also sent the message via toll-free fax (the only toll-free support they have, which they do not publicize very much: the current web site lists a (201) toll number), and got a fairly quick response from a representative, who said that I indeed was mistakenly billed early, and that I would be given credit so that I will not be billed again till the end of March, which would seem to acknowledge both the three months for premature billing and the one month for account locked without explanation or apology in July 1996. If they screw up (e.g. by again billing in December, or even in March of '97 instead of '98), I will not fail to notice. Only when customers notice and take action do companies who do these kind of things clean up their act. We are, after all, paying their salaries.

Provided IDT does not return to their "Wild West" behavior of last summer, I will stay with them for the time being. If they got their billing and tech support done right, they would actually be a rather good Internet Service Provider (big if)!

My original article on IDT's Dismal Tech Support:

IDT claims to provide "Unlimited, Uncensored Internet Access". Many people are aware of these claims, as IDT advertises rather heavily, at least in the New York City metropolitan area. IDT also provides dialup access from other cities such as Phoenix, AZ and Los Angeles, CA, which access the same system. All of these dialup numbers access the same system. For tech support, everyone needs to call New Jersey with a toll call to a (201) number, to be put on hold for 22 minutes, if they are lucky.

Their "unlimited" internet access claim is a fraud considering their dismal tech support. As for uncensored, I have found that this situation is much like that in the former Soviet Union. In the USSR, many things could not be spoken about or engaged in, such as criticizing something in the party line, or otherwise protesting. No law prohibited it, but the police or KGB would get you on "hooliganism", defined as any offense not prohibited by law which the state arbitrarily chose to penalize someone for. So far, IDT has not censored this web page; if they do, I would not hesitate to take any appropriate action including, but not limited to, legal action, notification of the Attorney General (already swamped with complaints about IDT), and bad PR).

Now, I am not claiming that IDT is causing anything near the level of misery that the KGB did. However, their claim of uncensored access uses a similar principle. If you use a four-letter word on America Online, the TOS "police" will get you, sometimes via an automatic program that looks for such words; this caused embarassment when the program censored a discussion of breast cancer: the program thought that no one should be able to ever use the word "breast" online for fear of prurience. If TOS censors you, they are very bad at stating what you have been charged with doing, and one gets the impression that AOL thinks that everyone should be treated like a small child. They do not even respond to constructive criticism of their TOS.

For the record, I have little interest in four-letter words, but it is not the state or AOL or IDT, etc. who should be entitled to decide whether to use that. Has anyone ever heard of discretion? That requires no rules and no laws. I have much interest in speaking freely, however, and have been censored on AOL for a posting totally devoid of anything possibly obscene. TOS did not respond to my request to say what was objectionable. I had responded to another posting and was engaged in literary criticism, in fact. Not only was the forum not offended by my posting, but I got a e-mail request to repost it because the others were interested in the posting.

That is why I only use AOL rarely now, always staying below their 5 hour monthly minimum. It is ludicrous to pay $50 a month to a service that treats you in a condescending manner. But I am not happy about IDT, either, because it is only satisfactory when nothing goes wrong.

Now, how does IDT tech support resemble the USSR's treatment of "hooligans", or de facto non de jure "outlaws"? (there's a nice oxymoron)

IDT has no Terms of Service whatsoever [that was true in 1996 when I originally wrote this, but later this changed and now they do]. AOL does and enforces it; Concentric does also, but I have found it tends to butt out of people's personal business unless someone complains; I have even seen GIFs of nude women posted in their pubic, er, public areas. I'm sure that will cause the end of civilization as we know it. ;-) IDT, to my knowledge, has never taken any action against me or any of my friends on IDT for anything which is or is perceived as obscene. IDT allows its tech support personnel to have hackers' home pages with software cracking codes available. However, my account was suspended for a month, and would still be suspended if not for my loudly complaining through all possible avenues. It was suspended because I posted a short ad, about 7 lines, advertising SIMM (memory) chips on behalf of a friend. I posted it to several comp.* and biz.* newsgroups, all of which had plenty of ads already, so that no inappropriate posting would be made. I was never notified "you have done this; if you do it again you will have your account suspended". No, my account was suspended for a different reason, which they fixed, and then on a whim logged me off, and logged me off again when I complained and asked why they are doing it. The IRC tech support personnel had a free rein to do whatever they pleased, with no concern to courtesy or solving problems. They acted like adolescents who are given a Unix root account and think themselves superhuman as a result. Even the "helpful" personnel really did not do much; a little common sense and courtesy can go a long way.

Text of my letter to IDT:
  • My July 13, 1996 letter to International Dismal Tech-Support

    Other individuals who've had trouble with IDT:

    Frank S.

    A friend of mine who I referred to IDT. I had to get on IRC tech support to request IDT to fix his account. As with my and other accounts, the user ID and password supplied for the new account was not operational. He canceled service while traveling in Europe and now, after hearing my experience with IDT, is looking for another Internet provider. His former address: frankss@tribeca.ios.com

    Lou W.

    Reach him at: LouW95@AOHell.com.

    He had the same login problems, and also was double billed for about 5 months (billed for 2 accounts when he had only one); after that time someone made the effort to spend a few seconds correcting that error in their database and refunding Lou's money. Add your story of woe here! Click here!