Although unknown to and ignored by most people, cable modems have a diagnostic that can help you troubleshoot connection problems.
What Diagnostic Page?
Unbeknownst to most people, cable modems (and other broadband modems) have diagnostic and logging functions built in, just like routers. While some people do occasionally peek at the control panel of their router, very few people ever look at their modems–or even realize they can do so.
So why look at the diagnostic page and logs of your cable modem in the first place? Think of this familiar scene: something weird is going on with your internet access, so you dutifully unplug your modem and router, start them back up, and things work well again…for a spell. Or maybe your internet connectivity drops out intermittently and no amount of tinkering with your router has solved your problems.
While we all tend to over-focus on the router as the source of potential problems, oftentimes the modem (or the line it’s connected to) can be at fault. In those cases, you need to peek into the modem to see what’s going on. By accessing the tiny little web server hidden inside your modem and reading the diagnostic pages, you can learn a ton of things about your modem and connection like general status, signal strength, and event history via the system log.
Armed with that information you can then say something like “Okay, it’s not the modem or a signal strength issue, so I’ll focus on the router and other elements of my network” or “Something is clearly going on with the modem so I’ll call the cable company.”
We want to emphasize that last part. Even if the diagnostic control panel in your modem does have user-editable settings (which is very rare), you shouldn’t mess around with that stuff unless expressly instructed to do so by your internet service provider. While it’s unlikely you’ll actually break anything if you do wipe your modem in a fit of frustration, you might end up spending the next hour getting it reprovisioned. This is intended to help you find the problem, not necessarily fix it.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how you can access the diagnostic page and what to do with the information you find therein. For demonstration purposes, we will be using the using the diagnostic interface of the incredibly common Motorola/Arris Surfboard 6141 broadband cable modem, but the general layout will be similar across modems.
How to Access Your Modem’s Diagnostic Page
In order to not interfere with the common address pools that are doled out by residential routers (such as 10.0.0.X and 192.168.1.X), most modems use an address subnet that falls outside the most commonly used address pools.
Not all modems use the exact same address, but many do. Try typing 192.168.100.1 into your address bar and pressing Enter. If that doesn’t immediately pull up a diagnostic page, you should consult the extensive list of broadband hardware at SpeedGuide.net. There you can narrow your search down by brand and model number to find the address of your modem (and any default login information you may need).
What to Look For
Once you have access to the diagnostic panel, there are some basic things you want to look at: the modem status, signal strength, and the activity log. While there may be additional pages to investigate (like the general configuration of the modem), these settings are generally not user-editable. And even if they were, the settings are so arcane and ISP specific that they are of very little diagnostic use to most users.
At the very minimum, this is the page you want to check if you’re having connectivity troubles. Everything on the general status page should look positive. You want to see lots of entries that say things like “Done”, “Operational”, and “OK”. You don’t want to see entries for things like “Failed” or “Offline”. Many modems, the Surfboard series included, will allow you to click directly on a failed/negative entry to access a help file about what that failure means.
The other very important thing to look at on the main status page is the system up time. The up time should reflect your experience with the modem. If you reset the modem by power cycling it four days ago, then the up time should reflect four days and change worth of operation. If you haven’t reset your modem recently and the up time is a few days (or less) then it’s time to dig a little deeper.
In the screenshot above, you can see the general status page for our modem. Everything looks great and the up time, although short, does reflect our interactions with the modem: after this new modem was provisioned a day ago we power cycled the device.
Modem logs are pretty arcane (like most logs). Your goal in examining the log is not to have a perfect understanding of every single code, but to have a general understanding of what is going on. You can always search online for specifics codes to get a clearer understanding of what is going on if need be.
If we look at the log of our modem, shown above, we can see that everything is currently super smooth sailing. Don’t be alarmed by the odd “Jan 01 1970” date–on most devices, the log function activates faster than the time-sync function, so the default hardware date is used during things like reboots.
The log clearly shows that roughly a day and a half ago, the modem was restarted do to a power reset (which we initiated by physically unplugging it), after which there is a MIMO Event (which looks scary because the priority code is “warning” but it’s actually just our modem talking to the cable provider as part of a IP configuration/provisioning routine).
What you don’t want to see in this log is a bunch of error codes that don’t make sense. If you see power resets that weren’t caused by you physically resetting the device, that’s a problem. If you see a lot of timeout-related errors where the log indicated that the modem has lost connection (often called T3 and T4 errors), that’s a problem. Ideally, your log should be boring and you should see very little activity other than the time it boots up, a rare error here or there (because no system is perfect and your modem will occasionally fail to connect), or a rare bit of downtime because your ISP pushed out new firmware.
If your log is packed full of errors and timeouts (and you’re experiencing temporary or extended loss of Internet connectivity that correspond with the timestamps of these errors) you’ll probably need to contact your internet service provider.
Barring a defective modem (or issues with your router), the biggest source of broadband connectivity problems is out-of-spec signal strength. Notice that we didn’t say “poor” signal strength. It isn’t just a weak signal that can cause a problem, but overly strong signals, too. If a bad connection, splitters on the coaxial lines, or even old television amplifiers are dropping the signal below or pushing the signal above the operating range, then you may experience a connection problem.
It’s important that you consult with your individual service provider to see what the acceptable range of signal strengths are for your particular service and device. But as a general rule, consider the following values when debating whether or not your physical lines and the connection to the provider are a problem.
The “Downstream Power” reading should be between -15 dBmV to +15 dBmV and, ideally, should be closer to +8dBmV and -8dBmV. In the screenshot above you can see that the individual channels in our modem are all at 8 and 9 dBmV which is acceptable.
The “Upstream Power” reading should be between +37 dBmV to +55 dBmV and, ideally, should be closer to the middle of that potential range. In our screenshot here, the upstream signal squeaks by with a 39 reading (and we’re receiving the full speed we pay for without connectivity issues), but we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it.
Finally you want to pay attention to your signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). You want this value to be greater than 30 dB. Lower than 25 dB causes signal and packet loss on most systems. The lower the value, the more problems there are with your signal. The higher the value, the less noisy the signal. Ranges from 32 to 55 dB are typical, and our rather-average 39 dB signal-to-noise ratio is more than acceptable.
How to Use this Diagnostic Information
As we noted earlier in this guide, there aren’t a lot of things within the modem that you, the user, can change. Most of the time you need to contact your provider and ask them to either remotely make adjustments or dispatch a tech to your home.
That said, checking your modem’s diagnostic system allows you to quickly save yourself a lot of hair-pulling by ruling out other sources of Internet connectivity issues. You’ll quickly see if your modem is to blame, or the problem lies somewhere else (like your router).
You’ll also be able to use the modem itself as a handy signal checker. If you, for example, have your cable modem plugged into a coax jack in your home office and you’re having connection problems, you could unplug the modem and plug it directly into the coax line coming into your home from the street. By rechecking the signal at the point of entry, you’ll be able to rule out any problems with the wiring in your home as the source of your Internet woes.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), knowing how to use the diagnostic page makes you an informed consumer. You’ll no longer be at the mercy of a disgruntled tech support worker who says “yeah, everything looks fine on our end…have you tried turning it off and on again?” because you can read your own logs and signal strength to see if everything is, in fact, within acceptable operating levels.