For the past two years, I've been one of those
folks you read about in the tech press; an early
"bleeding edge" subscriber to broadband services. It
hasn't been a painless experience. In fact, just
thinking about it has brought some unpleasant, strained
moments to mind. But the idea of saving someone
else the frustration I experienced has prodded me
along as I write.
Why Get DSL?
That's a fair question and the answer is fairly
simple in my case. First, there's a need in this home for
multiple computers to have access to the Internet at
a reasonable speed. Using a shared dial-up modem connection is fine in a pinch, but it's sloowww!
Cable modems offered up by the same folks pumping HBO into your home can be a problem
because you share your bandwidth with all the
neighbors. With DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), if
the neighbor's kids spend hours on Napster, they
aren't as likely to affect your Internet session because
DSL uses switching to separate subscriber network
activity into a more efficient use of the available bandwidth.
A couple of new markets that are just now
coming of age are wireless broadband and satellite.
These technologies are fairly new, can be expensive,
and aren't available in some communities. So, given
my options here, it was DSL for this house!
However, like they say "your mileage may vary."
The Devil is in the Details
If you've never dealt with a DSL provider before,
you need to know a couple of things going in about
how this business is run. In the past, for your dial-up
service, you dealt with a conventional Internet
Service Provider (ISP). The people you sent money to
every month were the same people you called for tech
support and also the very same people who fixed
However, the DSL world is ever so much more complex! The people to whom you send money
are the same people you call for help. They just can't
do much to help you because the people who
actually work on the problem and make your home
connection are working for yet another company. You're
not really supposed to know about these
"middlemen" but if you run into problems, you can't help but
find out because their equipment is where the
problem typically really lies.
What's the Problem?
However, don't confuse that statement to mean
the middlemen actually are the problem. That idea
is only so true as to say that they own the
equipment and that their presence adds a significant amount
of frustration to the problems you might have
because the more people involved in the service, the
more "finger-pointing" you're likely to encounter.
Here's what I mean. DSL is delivered over your phone line and uses technologies that are not
normally used for a telephone system. The
middlemen are really those folks you've heard referred to as
Baby Bells, and it's their equipment that will deliver
your service and their networks over which you will
get your e-mail delivered.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Competition between the Baby Bells and the
traditional phone companies is intense. When you
order DSL, this competition can translate into
installation delays of two weeks to six months. That's not
where it ends, unfortunately. If the DSL link goes
down, you have to call your DSL provider's tech
support center where they open a trouble ticket for you.
But really the middlemen get the ticket. You may
not hear from anyone again until the link is restored.
If the outage were just a couple hours long, that
probably wouldn't bother you. But when the problem
exceeds a day or stretches on for several days,
you'd like and expect a technician to contact you with a
status update. After all, a long outage means there's
a chance that your trouble ticket has been overlooked.
The last diabolical detail also stems from the middleman business model. Many of the Baby
Bells are suffering from dissatisfied customers who are
not paying their bills in frustration with the service
issues. With the recent downturn of the stock markets
and the demands of investors to see a return on their
investments added to the pressures caused by
non-paying subscribers, some of these little
companies providing the DSL circuits are strapped for cash.
The NorthPoint Disaster
For example, one middleman, NorthPoint Communications, recently filed for Chapter 11
bankruptcy protection. In an effort to liquidate and lower
their debt, the company agreed to sell its access
equipment to AT&T for an unbelievably low price. AT&T's
first action was to shut the equipment down so as to
not incur costs from the non-paying customers.
Estimates are that at least 100,000 customers
connected to 1,700 U.S. NorthPoint connection centers
lost service. To restore service to those consumers,
DSL companies have placed orders with the other
middlemen. The sad part is that the companies who
received the orders differ from NorthPoint only in
the fact that they still have cash left.
What To Do?
The good news is that bigger companies will
stabilize the market while eliminating the small
competitors like NorthPoint. Simultaneously, the middlemen
will be removed from the equation.
Until that day comes, though, here are some
things you can do to make your entry into the DSL world
a little less bumpy.
- First, visit www.dslreports.com and find out
who the providers in your area are.
- Contact each of the providers and see which
Baby Bell will be providing your DSL circuit if you
subscribe with them.
- Review the reports from other users at DSL
Reports. In particular, pay attention to their comments on the middlemen and the service
- Visit a financial services site or your own
financial advisor and get the financial low-down on
the middlemen. You're looking for a company that
is solvent, not overly leveraged and whose
financial statements indicate they can survive at least
two more years.
- Don't rush into a subscription deal with any
provider. They may want to charge you for
installation and the DSL modem. You shouldn't have to
pay for either of these with most of the providers.
As a DSL subscriber, you will be getting solid
technology for your buck. Yet the DSL world is not
stabilizing any time soon, so the odds are thatlike
me you may have something other than a perfectly
Just remember that it's nothing personal. The problems are just due to the business model
DSL providers must operate under. So take the
simple steps above to help minimize the potential for
problems before you sign up for service.
DSL Reports: www.dslreports.com
Everything DSL: www.everythingdsl.com
A Few Inland NW DSL Providers:
Cutting Edge Communications: www.cet.com
Icehouse Internet Services: www.icehouse.net
HostPro (formerly Micron Internet) www.hostpro.net