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Talkin' Smack: The Broadband Fiasco

Why high-speed access is still a dream for many

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

Some time ago I started a rant about ISPs and, in particular, my cable modem service. The argument went something like this: With all the commerce and information at stake on the Internet and with such limited choices as to how we access the Internet at high speeds, it seems almost a crime that those few companies that control access should take such a cavalier approach to service and support. I used my former cable modem service provider as an example of the sorry state of high-speed access.

I don't think any column of mine has ever received such an outpouring of support. People flooded my e-mail account with their own tales of woe about their own high-speed access providers. Users seemed especially bent against their DSL providers, with comments ranging from, "What can I do?" to "These guys just suck." We are all, after all, at the mercy of these providers.

Nevertheless, the cable service in my area was so shoddy that I sent back the modem and ordered DSL from my local provider, which just happens to be Pacific Bell. I could have chosen from a couple dozen providers, but, in the end, it all runs off Pac Bell lines anyway, and, besides, I had always had good experiences with Pac Bell as my regular phone service. (Having moved from a GTE area, Pac Bell was like heaven.)

The first thing I noticed about my DSL was that it was pretty slow, at least compared with cable modem service. I've mentioned this in the past, but generally I've let it slide because at least it worked, unlike my cable modem service, which, toward the end, was going down literally every 15 minutes. (That service provider has supposedly fixed this problem now, but I wouldn't know.)

I revisit the subject now for two reasons. First, Pac Bell has started up another round of ads blasting cable as being slow during peak periods. Second, I've started working from my home office, so I'm using it a lot more often and am always willing to share my own tales of woe when they crop up.

As regards speed compared with a cable modem, Pac Bell is obviously on crack. At its best, DSL is half the speed of my slowest periods on the cable modem. That is to say, I can download files at about 39 KB per second tops (or 312 kilobits per second) on my G4. I average more like 29 KB for downloads. I can't remember a time I dipped below 80 KB on the cable modem, and, at its peak, I was nearly maxing out my old 10Base-T NIC. And we're talking about all times of day. As I say, my only real problem with my former cable service provider was the fact that the gateway for my neighborhood was constantly going down. (If any of you live in Irvine, I'd love to hear how your cable service is now.)

As regards service and support, the story is much worse. First of all, the Pac Bell DNS server is constantly going down during the day. At first I tried to resolve the issue with Pac Bell. Now I just use other service providers' DNS servers, and things are working much more smoothly.

Nevertheless, I do plan to dump Pac Bell entirely, and I highly recommend against anyone signing up with them. Your first call to DSL customer service will explain why.

Four hours.

That's two hours on hold and two hours of me trying to explain that I'm a professional Macintosh journalist, that I know what I'm talking about, that, no, I don't have to reinstall my system to make my DSL work, that, yes, I've checked my TCP/IP settings and that, no, I don't need to reinstall my TCP/IP software or any other software to make your DNS server work. How do I know it's your DNS server? Hmm. Maybe it's because I can only resolve numeric addresses. Remember how I told you that an hour ago?

This is not an exaggeration. I've made about 10 calls to Pac Bell's DSL customer service, and each time it was the same story—45 minutes to two hours on hold as I wait for somebody to walk me through all the steps I've already tried on my own. The last call will be when I cancel the service altogether and sign up with a company that knows what it's doing. Maybe DSL Extreme, which I've heard good things about. Either way, I'm looking at a minimum of two weeks without any kind of high-speed access because I can't simply call and have the service switched. I have to cancel the service and then wait for the new company to do its own installation.

This is the kind of garbage that's holding back total acceptance of broadband Internet access and therefore holding us all back from taking this medium to the next level in terms of content and commercial viability. And it has to change. Please let me and everyone else know what you think by posting your own experiences in the Creative Mac user forum. (That link is a numeric address, for those of you using Pac Bell.)

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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