Langa Letter: Message In A Bottle - InformationWeek
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Langa Letter: Message In A Bottle

Hidden or undisclosed ISP policies put your E-mail at risk. Here's what you can do about it.

Internal corporate E-mail systems are usually fairly reliable. When you click "send" you can have reasonable (not absolute, but reasonable) confidence that your internal E-mail will reach its destination.

But once your E-mail enters the Internet at large, it's a whole different game: Anyone who sends an important E-mail from any location via normal Internet service providers is at risk because of the way many ISPs handle E-mail. In some cases, you might get better delivery results by stuffing your message in a bottle and tossing it in the nearest river.

For example, just in the last month or so, a huge number of Texas "RoadRunner" cable-modem subscribers failed to get all or some of their E-mail because of server problems. There was a second, lesser group of @Home customers, mostly clustered in Florida, who had similar problems. Verizon customers in various locations also lost E-mail for a while.

These are only the most recent large-scale E-mail problems; similar glitches happen regularly. No mail system is immune. Even highly reliable ones with 99.9% uptime will experience about 9 hours of outage per year--more than a full business day's worth.

For Entertainment Only?
Worse, ISPs can be shockingly lackadaisical about repairing and reporting these E-mail problems, as reader Jack Koestner found out:

"I got a big surprise from AT&T Broadband service this morning. As I fired up MS Outlook, I received 101 new E-mail messages, some almost a month old. Since establishing the account, I had been receiving some messages, but here were all the ones that had apparently gotten lost in the ether.

I phoned my local service office to complain that some were business communications and the late delivery could mean lost business. I was then told that the service agreement states that the service is meant to be 'for entertainment purposes only' and not for commercial purposes. Imagine my surprise that the foremost name in telecommunications, AT&T, would consider E-mail communications to be for entertainment purposes. We should be glad they don't look at long-distance telephone service the same way."

Believe it or not, many ISPs have similar clauses or policies. Cable companies are among the worst; many refuse, a priori, to provide cable-modem service to businesses, period. (Small and home-based offices may be able to squeak by this restriction.) But broadband and dial-up E-mail often suffer from systematic bias against serious use.

For example, many ISPs block their outbound mail port (SMTP port 25) in an attempt to prevent spammers from using the server as a relay station to mask their trial. While this kind of port blocking is well intentioned (though crudely implemented), it can also foul up legitimate attempts to send mail. For example, blocking port-25 transmissions too broadly can leave a user unable to send any messages via his ISP to his own corporate or Web site SMTP server. In this case, the user's only recourse is to send E-mail via the ISP's own mail servers, as reader Bill Volk discovered:

"Your ISP may block access to port 25 on your Web host's E-mail server, thereby forcing you to send your outgoing mail over the ISP's mail server. Microsoft Network did this just last Friday. They not only didn't notify their subscribers they were going to do this, they apparently didn't even tell their tech support.

Over a four-day period, I spoke with eight different 'techs,' two of whom were supposedly senior techs, before we figured out why I couldn't send E-mail. Even after we determined what the problem was, since I don't use Outlook or Outlook Express, MSN couldn't tell me how to configure my E-mail client so I could send mail over their server. Fortunately, I was able to do it after two hours of intensive trial and error. It's fortunate that I did, because MSN never got back to me with a solution."

If you're on the road or working from home and are forced to send E-mail only through the ISP's mail servers, your outbound E-mails may carry a name and address or "reply to" header that's different from your standard work or Web E-mail address. That means replies to your E-mails may go to the ISP account rather than to the work account. The chances of confusion, crossed connections, and misrouted E-mail are enormous.

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