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Is DSL worth the hassle?
(IDG) -- One evening last month at 10:28 p.m., Becki Snow of Dallas dialed the tech-support line for Southwestern Bell, her DSL provider. Her call ended more than six hours later.
Snow got to listen to some very nice music that night, including Ravel's "Bolero" and Strauss' "Blue Danube," but she never got her DSL running. It still operates sporadically. Snow, a mother of two and an early-childhood development guide for About.com, refuses to concede defeat. "I'm like the woman from Fatal Attraction," she says. "I will not be ignored."
Snow has joined a growing legion of disaffected, disconnected DSL customers from coast to coast. To the grand tradition of lousy phone service is added the new wrinkle of horrible Internet access via digital subscriber lines.
Joseph Singer, a networking technician and Bell Atlantic customer from Brooklyn, N.Y., averaged two hours on hold a day for several weeks, waiting to resolve his DSL problems. Last month the company double-billed him. "It's a joke," Singer says of the company's DSL service. "Everyone I know is having the same problems."
David Solomon's New York Web development company has been waiting three months for Bell's DSL service. His home DSL is running, but getting it set up took many fruitless calls and one conversation with a tech-support person who admitted, "We never return messages."
Everybody loves fat pipes when the water is running. And DSL, which is still not widely available, works well for many people. But, anecdotally at least, it's the least reliable new communications technology to come along since talking drums. And customers are fighting back. In New York, Bell Atlantic is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by seven customers accusing the company of deceptive advertising and breach of warranty. Bell Atlantic lawyers, arguing for dismissal, have resorted to the "we never promised you a rose garden" strategy.
Not to be outdone, US West ö a Baby Bell not known for its customer service ö now has customers declining its DSL service, scared off by the multiplying disaster stories.
Why? What's making the DSL rollout such a death march?
"Pick any four U.S. companies today, and what's the chance one or more of them are growing too fast, short on trained people [and] cutting corners?" says Justin Beech, publisher of New York-based DSLreports.com. "On top of that, consumers want DSL and don't want to pay much more than nothing for it. So there you've got all the ingredients for an evil brew."
"This is a new technology," says Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen. "We can expect that there can be hiccups, and we acknowledge that some customers have not had the kind of experience we want them to have."
The problems with DSL installations are manifold, but mainly they fall under two broad headings: unexpectedly high demand for service and scarce qualified personnel.
Evolving hardware technology and changing standards are forcing on-the-fly upgrades akin to changing the wiring in an airplane while it's in the air. So why let the airplane take off? Because of what economists call "latent demand." People want their DSL and they want it now. And providers, loath to give up market share, are selling more lines than they can successfully install.
"People were just knocking down the doors to get the service," Bell Atlantic's Rasmussen explains. "And if you told them it's not available in their area they got mad. I can't remember another product that's been like this."
"Demand has certainly exceeded any analyst expectations," concurs Southwestern Bell spokesman Shawn Dainas. "The demand is strong. We're moving fast [to meet it]."
What's more, in a historically tight job market, phone companies are having trouble hiring and keeping trained DSL technicians. "This is new business," Rasmussen points out. "There is not a trained DSL workforce out there. We had to create a whole new workforce. This is not what they call plain, old telephone service. It's not yet plug and play. It's not there yet."
There are now 550,000 to 600,000 residential DSL subscribers in the U.S., according to Fritz McCormick, an analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group. Another 900,000 are likely to sign on in the next seven months. (Cable-modem subscribers are expected to reach about 2.4 million by the end of the year.)
Bell Atlantic's customer count ö including businesses and households ö hit 62,000 at the end of the first quarter, after more than doubling since Jan. 1. The company may not meet its original estimate of 500,000 customers by the end of this year ö not due to service problems, Rasmussen says, but from weak sales to companies that buy DSL from Bell Atlantic and remarket it.
US West, meanwhile, has 136,000 subscribers, which is "right on plan," according to Jon Lentz, director of product and brand for data services at US West. The company projects 250,000 DSL subscribers by the end of the year. Can it handle that many?
"Yes, we can," says Lentz. "Early on, the road was a bit rocky. I think that we have the process pretty well down now."
SBC Communications, which owns Ameritech, Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell and others, now counts 201,000 subscribers. The company has added hundreds to its DSL support staff, Dainas says, adding, "The vast majority of our customers are having a good experience with DSL."
McCormick estimates that 95 percent of problems occur during installation ö an indefinite time period, considering that getting a DSL connection running can take weeks or months. "One of the problems is that things are scaling very quickly," McCormick says. "That's dumping a lot of extra work and problems onto the networks and the service providers, so they're certainly in a jam."
Meanwhile, Beech founded DSLreports after picking "the worst possible" provider himself and then replacing it with "an even worse one."
In certain areas, Beech estimates, 30 percent of new subscribers have preinstallation problems, such as "techs missing in action, setup problems when they do supposedly have a working line ... and generally long delays." That percentage is "considerably lower" for Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell and US West, Beech contends. "Bell Atlantic is later in the game, and the pent-up demand just makes their learning curve tougher on everyone."
Bypassing the Baby Bells for an independent DSL provider carries its own risks, he adds. "I would say if you're a casual user of the Net, then the default choice of your local phone company is going to be the safest. Any other choice requires a lot more online research to avoid some of the pitfalls."
Tell that to Becki Snow and her husband, David, a private investigator who specializes in fraud cases. They did their research, and they still don't have DSL. "If it can happen to us, it can definitely happen to other people. I'm very shocked that my local phone company is doing the things that they're doing," Becki Snow says.
Ultimately, the thirst for high bandwidth will outweigh the potential nightmares of new DSL service.
"If you want [the service], you want it," Beech shrugs. "I haven't had anybody say it wasn't worth it in the end."
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