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DSL's Big Push

Service Makes a Splash--Warts and All

December 21, 2000|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS |

Let there be no doubt: 2000 was indeed the year for high-speed Internet access, and especially for digital subscriber lines, or DSL--the broadband technology sold and incessantly advertised by phone companies nationwide.

DSL providers, who started the year at a near-standstill compared with rival cable modem services, rocketed into neighborhoods throughout the year, adding customers at the frenetic pace of more than 1,300 subscribers a day.

Collectively, the local phone companies and competitors such as Covad, Rhythms and NorthPoint will finish the year with an estimated 1.8 million DSL customers, up from a meager 540,000 at the end of 1999, according to EMarketer Inc., a firm that researches technology trends.

"DSL did better than I expected," said John Navas, a Dublin, Calif., communications consultant. "To me, what they accomplished is a miracle."

The miracle, however, came at a price for both consumers and the phone companies whose reputations suffered amid the rush to spread DSL.

"You'd think that since it's the phone company, they'd have things under control, but this has been a Barnum & Bailey circus," said Marc Litchman of Sacramento, who got service from Pacific Bell earlier this year. "When it's on, it's terrific, but we can go days or weeks without it connected."

Throughout the year, angry and frustrated DSL customers have been flooding Internet chat rooms, message boards and Web sites with appalling stories of botched installations, no-show technicians and shoddy service.

Some customers have constructed Web sites devoted to elaborate--and highly comical--timelines detailing their experiences with missing technicians, hours on hold with customer service and conversations with a whole cast of phone company employees. Steve Israel, a Novato, Calif., resident who ordered DSL in March and got it working in mid-May, titles his site: PacBell DSL: One Man's Nightmare.

Even the state Public Utilities Commission, usually the complaint center of last resort, has received a steady supply of invective. By mid-December, the PUC had tallied 1,727 complaints about PacBell's DSL service and 192 complaints about all other DSL providers combined. By year's end, the total will be more than 10 times the number of DSL complaints in 1999.

But some perspective is in order here. For every torturous DSL installation, there probably are 10 or more that went fine. And once the installation is over, the majority of DSL customers love the results.

The big selling point, of course, is speed. DSL uses existing copper phone wiring to provide residential customers with always-on Internet surfing speeds up to 25 times faster than that available with the fastest dial-up modem.

Cable modem service, sold through cable companies such as AT&T, is easier to install and can offer faster speeds. But analysts believe DSL may be the ultimate winner in the consumer broadband race, largely because of the widespread distribution of copper phone lines, as well as the technology's better handling of security matters and neighborhood data traffic.

Armed with those features, DSL providers were anxious to get service to their customers and prove to investors and industry analysts that DSL could compete with cable modems.

"Cable modems have had a three-year advantage on us in key markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, but we have at least evened the score, and in some markets we have surpassed cable," said Jason Few, DSL vice president at SBC Communications, the largest DSL provider nationwide and the owner of Pacific Bell.

"There are clearly some customers that were disappointed in our performance," Few said. "However, we are still doing very well as a company, and California is our largest market. So I think a lot of things went right."

Most of PacBell's problems stemmed from the quick creation of a separate subsidiary, SBC Advanced Solutions Inc., which took over DSL installation and services for both PacBell and its competitors last May, Few said.

But critics say there were other problems nationwide that had nothing to do with the new company and everything to do with DSL's new technology, unprepared employees and unforeseen troubles with copper lines.

"This has been a wide-area beta program for DSL," said Navas, the consultant. "Things [such as DSL modems] were deployed about a generation and a half too early. There was a lot of arrogance, an assumption that they'd work it out as they went."

One of the unexpected troubles stemmed from poor record-keeping at the phone companies. For DSL to work, copper lines must be cleared of all load coils, bridge taps and other gizmos for telephone service, whose existence and locations are supposed to be listed in phone company records.

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