Writing

Software, technology, sysadmin war stories, and more. Feed
Thursday, June 30, 2011

My free, unrequested modem with strange custom firmware

I once received a modem totally out of the blue with some funny instructions included. It was an internal ISA bus card version of a USR Sportster, only it had some special firmware running. There was a floppy included with some hand-written label, and a short document which explained things.

Apparently this was some kind of field test for some special phone line measurement code, and I had been selected to take part (again, with no warning). They wanted me to call a few numbers long distance with their special code running both in the modem and on my computer. It would then generate a dump file of some sort which was then to be uploaded back to their support BBS.

I think I was also supposed to add remarks, like who my telco was, who my long distance provider was, and all of this. I sent them a bunch of data points since it was fun and didn't take too long. There was another chip included in the box and a small tool which could be used to do a swap. With that done, it turned the modem back into a normal V.34 Sportster.

A few months later, they released X2. It finally started making sense: a company is about to do some magic stuff which essentially takes phone lines to new places. They're exploiting the fact that it's probably a digital transport from your ISP right up to that last line card feeding your house, and then a short analog loop from there. But, they needed to be sure that it would work in a variety of situations, so why not send a few free modems out to people who might be able to help?

At least, that's what I like to think. Hopefully it wasn't some ploy to get people to run totally unchecked software and hardware on their systems and then upload large binary logs to somewhere. Nah.

Back to reality: it should be noted that I was part of the USR Courier V.FC/V.34 field trial a year or two before this happened, so it's not a huge stretch to think they recycled their lists and I got lucky.