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Extras - What's Wrong and What's Right With Pacer

By Carl Oppedahl, Published on May 1, 1998

A Cry for Help

Carl Oppedahl's Response
Joann Howard Swanson's Response

I need some technical help in the use of the PACER BBS. Yesterday I dialed the new Party/Case database, got in right away but got gibberish. I discovered that my computer was set on VT52 terminal emulation instead of VT100 as PACER requires, so I ended the session, reset my modem for VT100 and redialed. I got an "answer" but all I got were a series of "modem sounds" ending with what sounded like four separate chirping rings and then it disconnected me. I tried several times thereafter with the same result. I then tried to get into the Pacer service center BBS. This time I got an "answer" with modem sounds followed by one long tone that wouldn't shut off until I disconnected. I tried access to the same number again with the same result. I then set my terminal emulation back to VT52 just to see if I could get in again even if I got gibberish, and I couldn't get back in.

I called PACER and we went through the litany about terminal emulation, parity, and bit settings and everything was OK there. They then suggested.  I try fiddling with my modem speed. I have a 14400 modem so I set the baud rate down to 9600, then 4800, and tried again, each time with no success.  The PACER people have no further ideas. My modem's working fine, at least
for access to e-mail and the Internet. In January I used PACER several  times without a hitch. Has anyone else had any problems like this with PACER? Does anyone have any suggestions?

--- Frustrated PACER User





Carl Oppedahl was one of the founding partners of Oppedahl & Larson, and has served as an adjunct professor at Cardozo Law School where he taught Advanced Patent Law. He is on the faculty of the Practicing Law Institute's Patent Bar Review Course. Carl Oppedahl writes a column on legal technology for the New York Law Journal. Carl Oppedahl's email address is oppedahl@patents.com and he has a PGP public key.

Carl Oppedahl's Response

One of the problems with Pacer is that it is extremely modem-based and there is little uniformity from one modem to the next. You might dial into one federal district and find that the standard recommended Pacer modem setting (8 bits, no parity) works fine. Then you end the call and dial into some other federal  district and it develops that the only way you can even get your password to be recognized is if you change  your modem to 7 bits and even parity. Two successive calls to the same federal district can connect you to two different modems, one of which is working properly and the other of which is malfunctioning in some way that is not your fault. Some particular baud rate that works once may not work when you dial back ten seconds later, because of some oddity in the behavior of the new modem that you have just been connected to.

Unfortunately the people in the Pacer service center in Texas seem to have no capability to manually test individual modems in each modem bank, and the irregular service quality makes me think that they probably have no automated testing system in place.(A well-run ISP will test and monitor all of its modems and all terminal server ports in an automated way and will discover right away if a particular modem is acting up.)

What is desperately needed is for Pacer to shift over from a modem-based system to an Internet-based system. It ought to be possible for Pacer customers to reach each federal district by means of telnet sessions or, better, by means of web access. This would eliminate problems with modem parity and data bit settings, and would remove the "roulette" aspect of getting one modem this time and a different modem ten seconds later. It would also get rid of the problem of getting a busy signal when all of the incoming telephone lines are in use by other Pacer customers.

Right now a non-negligible portion of your sixty cents per minute of access charges is spent on rental of telephone lines (for the modems) and on the long-distance charges for the toll-free numbers that are used to get in to Pacer in many federal districts. If Pacer were shifted over to Internet access, there would be little need for all those phone lines and modems and long-distance charges.

The way it is now, Pacer customers have to consult a list of hundreds of telephone numbers to find the correct number to dial for a particular federal district. The numbers keep changing all the time, of course, making it more difficult. If Pacer were shifted over to Internet access, there would be no need for long lists of telephone numbers. Addressing could be quite simple, e.g. Southern District of New York would be http://sdny.pacer.uscourts.gov, District of Connecticut would be http://dct.pacer.uscourts.gov, and so on.
What is desperately needed is for Pacer to shift over from a modem-based system to an Internet-based system.







...it should be clear that modem-dependent connections are out of date and there is no reason to have to tolerate them when error-free and convenient Internet access is available.

























To recap: a shift to Internet access would benefit Pacer itself, by saving money on telephone lines, by eliminating bills for the toll-free telephone numbers, by removing the need for the posting and updating of an ever-changing list of telephone access numbers, and by reducing greatly the need for tech support people.
Such a shift would also save money for Pacer by eliminating the need for tech support. Right now, there are people in the Pacer center in Texas who do nothing all day but spend time with customers who are trying to get their HyperTerminal settings right, their modem settings right, etc. etc. etc. In contrast, setting up a web-based user interface would essentially eliminate the need for such tech support. For example, if you wish to track a package at http://www.fedex.com/us/tracking/, you will have no trouble doing so, regardless of whether you have a PC or a Macintosh, regardless of whether you use Netscape or MSIE, regardless of what type of modem you have or how it is set for data bits or parity or baud rate. The folks at Fedex tech support have an easy job -- all they have to do is ask you to try using your web browser to go to places other than Fedex. If your web browser works for places other than Fedex, it will work for reaching Fedex. The Fedex tech support people don't have to deal with talking you through the configuration of your browser or phone connection or what kind of computer you have or the brand of your modem.

The shift away from modems and toward Internet access has been well recognized by all other information providers. It has been four years since the last time I used a modem to reach Lexis or Dialog for example -- I reach each of them through my local area network which is directly connected to the Internet. Westlaw is similarly reachable through the Internet. Likewise the bank I use for computer banking (Citibank) has shifted to Internet access rather than using only modems. My firm prints Fedex airbills and tracks the packages via the Internet rather than via modem connections. The last time I installed a printer, the installation program checked to see if the HP web site could be reached through my local area network (and indeed it was reachable since our LAN is connected to the Internet) and rather than installing the driver that was on the installation disk, it installed the newest driver by downloading it directly from the HP web site. From all this it should  be clear that modem-dependent connections are out of date and there is no reason to have to tolerate them when error-free and convenient Internet access is available.

In a law firm office, it is unworkable and inefficient and costly to think of equipping each desk with its own modem and telephone extension. But it is quite easy to supply Internet connectivity to each desk through the local area network. An office that uses only modems generally is stingy with them. At many firms the only such computer is in the library, meaning that the lawyer has to trudge down the hall to the library to do even the simplest thing if a modem is required. For this reason, law firms ought to be glad that Lexis and Westlaw and Dialog have shifted to Internet access, and ought to encourage stragglers such as Pacer to do the same.

A couple of months ago Pacer surveyed its users asking how service could be improved. I expect that some Pacer users responded by suggesting shifting Pacer away from modems and toward Internet access. But many other Pacer users may have discarded their surveys unanswered or may have omitted to mention the importance of Internet access. My suggestion is that you should write to Pacer (email addresses to use are pacer@aottsd.uscourts.gov and Joann_Swanson@ao.uscourts.gov ) and urge them to waste no time in making this shift.

Government agencies and contractors being the way they are, I expect that even if Pacer were to decide to shift to Internet access, it would take years for it to be actually accomplished. Between now and then, you have to struggle with Pacer's modems. What can you do to trouble-shoot and overcome the difficulties of dealing with Pacer?

First, when you make a trouble report, be sure to mention which federal district you were trying to reach. That way, fellow readers who have experience with that particular federal district can offer their tips and suggestions.

Second, when you have trouble reaching a particular federal district, immediately enlist the aid of some friend or colleague who can try dialing into exactly the same federal district using the exact same telephone number. If that friend is able to get logged in, then you can redouble your efforts to see if something is wrong in your own setup. On the other hand, if that friend can't log in either, then you have a little more information to go on when reporting the trouble here (and to the Pacer center itself).

To recap: a shift to Internet access would benefit Pacer itself, by saving money on telephone lines, by eliminating bills for the toll-free telephone numbers, by removing the need for the posting and updating of an ever-changing list of telephone access numbers, and by reducing greatly the need for tech support people. The shift would benefit Pacer customers by eliminating busy signals, saving having to look up access numbers, reducing problems in making connections in the first place, eliminating the need to reconfigure modems depending on which federal district is being called, improving the quality of service generally, and making it possible for people to reach Pacer from any place that is connected to the Internet (rather than confining customers to computers that happen to have modems).

Again, the email addresses for Pacer appear above.

Response from Joann Howard Swanson
EPA Program Manager

Mr. Oppedahl,

I was sorry to hear about the difficulties experienced when attempting to connect to PACER. Each court maintains their own PACER machine and accompanying modems. As a result there are over 200 machines spread across the country. There are a total of 700 modems available to the public from these computers. In FY 1997 we upgraded those 700 modems to 33.6K baud to provide a consistent modem for connection, and to increase the speed at which our systems could communicate.

Unfortunately there are times when those modems fail and it becomes necessary for the court to substitute a different modem until repairs have been made.

There are three people located in the PACER Service Center who staff the help desk in support of our 30,000 registered users. In addition to providing connectivity support, they also handle the user registration process and assist the courts with PACER technical issues.

I wanted to specifically address your desire to have the PACER information on available on the Internet. The survey you referred to was responded to by 2,731 users. Of those, 1,956 indicated a desire for access to PACER on the Internet. The judiciary is moving toward utilizing the Internet for this purpose. A number of policy and technical issues must be revisited before we can deploy PACER on the Internet. Specifically, there are many infrastructure and security issues that need to be addressed. In addition, we need to redesign our software to accommodate this new technology. We are hopeful that we will be able to make this transition in the next year.

Although you are correct in pointing out that there is little need for telephone lines, modems, and toll free lines once we transition to the Internet, there are costs associated with the Internet itself. The cost of establishing the Internet connection to over 200 points of access and providing appropriate levels of monitoring and security must be considered. In addition, you may be very comfortable with Internet technology, but many or our users are still unable to access, or are not comfortable with accessing judiciary information via the Internet. The movement away from telephone lines and modems will be accomplished over time.

I appreciate any input you have toward the enhancement and improvement of our electronic public access services. If you have any additional comments or concerns, I can be reached at  Joann_Swanson@ao.uscourts.gov.

There are three people located in the PACER Service Center who staff the help desk in support of our 30,000 registered users.