The Road to Hell is Paved With Bad Intentions

Francis Vale

Sometimes, you can't win for losing, just ask Al Gore, or a DSL subscriber. DSL is fast becoming the totally twisted pair loser of TELCOs and 3rd party service providers everywhere. Just a short year ago, DSL installations were being loudly touted as soon surpassing cable for Internet access, which was being recast as the know-nothing technology for the boob tube clueless. Cable horror stories were trotted out by DSL PR flacks as proof positive that the folks who brought you endless Gilligan's Island reruns were completely lost at Technology Sea.

Prior to the dawn of Internet time, DSL was seen as a way to catapult the phone companies into the lucrative cable TV business. As an added bonus, DSL gave the TELCOs some central office (CO) switch relief; for unlike ISDN, it separated out the voice traffic from the data traffic. But the TELCO video-on-demand race was quickly in the pits due to lack of customer interest. Then enter the Internet. Shazam! DSL was suddenly proclaimed by the TELCO's, et al, as the Next Big Thing.

Broadband DSL comes in a variety of flavors, like ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) service that uses a twisted copper wire pair to deliver differing downstream/upstream rates. For example, Verizon offers a low-end consumer variant, "OnLine DSL Personal" that features from 256 kbps to 640 kbps downstream for $39.95 month. If you are a big spender and need to rip and burn MP3 files faster, you can pop for Verizon's "OnLine Professional" version that ups the downstream ante to 960 kbps - 1.6 Mbps for a cool 100 bucks a month. The upstream rate remains the same for both of these consumer ADSL services, a way slower 90 kbps. Each service range of downstream speeds reflects how close you are to your provider's central office. Due to the fact that an ADSL modem can typically only overcome a maximum of 1,500 ohms of resistance, the longer the local loop, the less the throughput. And of course, there are those nasty issues of line noise, the speed of your PC, cross talk between wires, etc., all of which will happily and parasitically sponge up your ADSL throughput.

Verizon, as do all the other DSL providers, just love to diss the cable ISPs by saying that because those TV guys use shared wire technology, the more people that jump on the Lost in Space rerun party line, the slower it gets. Or, as Verizon proudly extols, "The (cable speed) capacity available to any one user inevitably drops. DSL technology provides a dedicated service over an existing local connection to the Verizon serving office near you. This means that you don't have to share your local access connection with other users." But last I checked my calculator, the difference between 640 kbps and 256 kbps (for Verizon's "OnLine DSL Personal" service) was a whopping 60%. Moreover, as a Verizon "Online Professional" DSL subscriber myself, I have clocked downstream rates (via DSLreports, that range from a high of 1288 Mbps to as low as 675 kbps off the same remote test server. So where's the "dedicated service" beef?

If coax cable usually has a bandwidth of 30 megabits per second, then why do we hear horror stories about some users getting only about 350 kbps, or even much less, downwind? First, that 30 MBPS cable uses a 10 megabit/sec10Base-T Ethernet port at the user's PC, which immediately cuts its speed down by a factor of three. But most bandwidth damaging, TV cable is, as DSL providers love to remind you, a party line system. The TV cable system was not originally designed to act as a bi-directional pipe, or to provide point-to-point access. The cable companies never expected that its TV subscribers would soon be sending their kids' home videos back up the wire to granny.

And then came the deluge, AKA, Naspter. No one could have foreseen what would happen when millions of MTV nation inhabitants suddenly seized on the idea of free rip and burn via cable access. Internet slow downs hit hapless subscribers like a fatty MP3 deposit slamming into a cable coronary artery. Bam! Sudden access death from a cable ISP heart attack. As a result of Napster, many cable ISPs have placed slow upstream speed caps on subscribers, just as Verizon has done with its measly 90 kbps transfer rate.

But if the cable companies originally didn't have the technology or infrastructure in place to compete with DSL, they still had one very important ingredient: Money. For example, AOL/god-help-us/Time Warner was last heard to be spending more than $4 billion to upgrade its cable plant. Other monster cable companies, like AT&T/TCI, are spending similarly huge sums of upgrade money. And that burn rate began before the advent of interactive digital TV over cable, a new phenomenon (finally!) on its way to your set top box. Between accommodating the bandwidth hungry DTV signal and the requisite return pipe for placing your triple topping extra cheese please Domino pizzas, the cable companies now have a huge new incentive for laying down fat pipes right to your tattered leather Lazy Boy.

The OpenCable initiative, driven by Cable Television Laboratories Inc., is shepherding a new generation of interoperable devices into industry existence that will enable a huge range of interactive DTV services for cable customers. The first I-DTV cable receivers demonstrated by companies like Philips contained all the circuitry to interface a PC with a digital cable network and to allow your PC to receive premium TV services. But the next generation of these cable I-DTV devices will also incorporate a data-over-cable service interface specification for sending high-speed data across the Internet for broadband access.

TV cables use an unswitched tree and branch technology, with the main trunk continually being subdivided as it snakes its I Love Lucy way through the neighborhoods. If they need more bandwidth, then the cable company just drops another line into the area, thereby decreasing the number of users on any particular party line. This decrease in user numbers directly translates into an increase in individual user speed. Or, the company could dedicate another 6 MHz TV channel to carrying Internet data, which usually provides for yet another 30 MBPS. But in the increasingly common fiber/coax hybrid system, there are a number of strands of gigabits/sec fiber feeding the cable head. Just by switching on the unused fibers feeding a head, much more cable bandwidth can instantly be delivered to either existing users or to new subscribers. Thus, when I-DTV cable with Internet access rocks onto the scene, all many cable companies will have to do is light up that dark fiber they have been busily laying down all these years. It's ShowTime!

This bringing of light can't happen any too soon as the forces of DSL darkness have truly descended upon the Internet land. DSL horror stories are becoming rampant. It increasingly looks like nothing broadband good will come out of the twisted business pair known as TELCOs and DSL. But should this have come as any great surprise? Back when NYNEX was still NYNEX, before BellAtlantic swallowed up this Northeastern RBOC, and before BellAtlantic merged with GTE to become Lost Verizon, consumer warning signs were flying high that RBOCs should not be trusted to do the right DSL thing.

For example, when it was still NYNEX, the company was required by Massachusetts to cut its rates by $20 million over a period of two years as a penalty for failing to meet minimum service levels required by state regulators. In addition, residential user complaints against NYNEX for poor service soared; some people had to wait for up to two months just to get simple POTS. Business complaints for the same time period were also significantly up. If POTS (plain old telephone system) service was such a shambles in New England, then how well did that augur for NYNEX/BellAtlantic/Verizon massively deploying and supporting sophisticated new technologies like DSL? Voila! We now have, "The website solely devoted to complaining about your experience with Verizon." This web site was "created by a frustrated Verizon DSL customer..." Well, whoever you are, please add me to your bitch list, because I am also one very crazed Verizon DSL subscriber.

As a technology reviewer/writer, I have suffered more than the usual share of technology product slings and arrows. But Verizon's DSL service has now taken the dubious distinction of being the absolute worst technology I have ever had the great displeasure of using. My DSL line drops at least three times a day; the service seems to go down for an hour or more at least once a week across large swaths of the Northeast; Verizon technicians are typically beyond clueless; and finally, my DSL service suddenly and mysteriously stopped working for several days. My DSL modem simply would not reestablish a connection back to the Verizon CO. Numerous upset phone calls and three teeth gnashing days later, the connection finally reappeared, only to similarly disappear again for several hours the following day. And no one at Verizon knew how or why!

I don't know what's scarier; the mysterious service comings and goings or the fact that no one at Verizon seems to have a clue as to what's going on. Or, as a Verizon tech support person told me one day, "Well, it is DSL, you know..." Right. And you know what the real butt-burning gotcha was? On the second day of service outage a Verizon service supervisor said to me that under the terms of my SLA (service level agreement) the company had up to five business days to restore my service. Moreover, as this was Christmas time, it may even take longer than that because it was the holiday season! This is completely outrageous, and it appears from increasingly widespread user and news reports that this DSL nastiness is quickly spreading to people all across the U.S., with many other DSL providers.

Meanwhile, according to an ISP News report of September 1, 2000, some very angry ISPs had rushed off a letter of complaint to William Kennard, the FCC chairman, because "Verizon Online, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc., is offering residential customers up to 768Kbps downstream and 128Kbps upstream for $39.95 with a one-year contract. That's predatory pricing, as far as smaller ISPs are concerned, and subject to antitrust laws." It's also highly misleading TELCO PR, as the Verizon web site has much slower data transfer rates listed for that $39.95 service.

You have to love it. Not only can Verizon not take care of its current customers, it apparently wants to bankrupt its competition, leaving hordes of streamed up, screwed over users with no choice, but, you got it, to switch in droves to cable access. As soon as the Cable Guy comes knocking on my door, it's hello Jim, and goodbye Verizon.

So do yourself a favor. If you should have a broadband choice available to you at home other than DSL, such as cable or even 2-way satellite, run, don't walk, away from that hissing twisted pair. And business users, if you bet your company on DSL, you might end up losing everything at this very twisted crapshoot.

And you wonder why Americans love their TV and hate the phone companies?

Copyright 2001 Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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