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Talkin' Smack: Broadband Madness

Why I'm off DSL and back to cable By Dave Nagel
By this point you all know me as a reasonable man, one not prone to outbursts of emotion or spurious logic. Perhaps you see me as a peacemaker, one whose aim is always to promote harmony and spread joy among users of technology in all of its forms. Or perhaps you see me as a cool stoic--a philosopher king who's unfazed by the world's troubles. But deep within my cool, slender, handsome exterior I am, fundamentally, just a man, one prone to the same perturbations of the mind as any of you.

And, occasionally, I like to share my perturbation's with you, as I will do now.

This week's perturbation is brought to you courtesy of SBC Pacific Bell, an on again, off again provider of DSL services. Pac Bell has had the honor of appearing in one of my editorials in the past. Back then, the gripes were slow connection speeds, poor customer service and, to cap it off, extended periods of interrupted service. This time it's far worse.

Before I get into it, I'd like to point out Pac Bell's response to the previous editorial. After I published my piece about their service, a company representative contacted me and, to his credit, tried his darndest to make my service better. Technicians worked with me to see what could be done, and, while nothing could actually make my service faster at the time, the effort was a good one. Plus, in the intervening time, the company drastically improved its customer service to eliminate wait times on the phone and to treat customers with respect, at least in my experience. After a while, I also started to experience fewer and fewer outages until there were virtually none.

Up until a couple weeks ago, that is.

All of a sudden, my DSL service stopped working. After a few calls, technicians came out to figure out what was wrong. The answer: no signal. Now how could it be that I had been working on my DSL for more than a year, and all of a sudden the signal disappears? I'll tell you: Pac Bell made a change to my local network that kicked me out of DSL range without any warning whatsoever and apparently without any kind of notice to their technical support people about the change. (I've been going back through their mandatory filings to see whether I can pinpoint this change, but so far I haven't found anything.)

That's bad engineering and downright negligent customer service.

The net result? I wasted six days waiting for technicians to tell me simply that I don't qualify for DSL service anymore, while all the while I continued to be billed for the service. (Pac Bell later refunded my "down" days.)

So after all of this, what do you think Pac Bell's solution was? Well, I could sign up for their fiber service. Of course, I'd have to pay for the installation. And, of course, I'd have to wait two weeks for the installation after I've already burned six days of productivity. To break this time down, that's four to six business days before somebody pushes the "cancel" button on my DSL subscription and another four to six business days for somebody to come out and connect my line to the fiber network.

Nice scam.

As with many of you, I rely heavily on broadband access to get my job done. I hear from many of you quite often when you write to me to complain about the shoddy service offered by your broadband providers and ask for advice as to what you should do about it. But what can anybody do? In any area, two or three companies control the broadband gateways to the Internet. More often than not, it's a choice between equal evils.

Fortunately, in my little part of Southern California, the choice was made a little easier when [email protected] took a dump. The @Home network had been the only option to DSL for quite some time, but then, when the company went under, my local cable provider (Cox) picked up the slack and actually improved upon the service dramatically. I had used @Home for a long period before switching to DSL. They, too, offered little in the way of customer service and liked to blame my Mac for interruptions in service rather than their own technologies. But now with the network in the hands of Cox itself, my service has never been better.

Granted, I've only had this new cable service for four days, but I'm averaging more than 1.5 Mbps downstream and 255 Kbps upstream. That's not peak; that's average. (So much for that "Web hog" nonsense. In my area, Pac Bell absolutely maxed out at 264 Kbps upstream.) Plus their technical support people not only understand the Mac, but they also seem to go out of their way to facilitate Mac users. (Hey, they even know the difference between OS 9 and OS X!) In fact, my first few days with Cox have been such a contrast to my experience with Pac Bell that I'm also going to cancel my Pac Bell phone service and actually wind up paying less money for the total package than I was paying when I was with Pac Bell.

Of course, this is all fine and rosy for me, but what about you and all the others out there stuck with lousy options or no options at all? Frankly, I don't know what to do for you. Telecommunications is an odd industry, one that thinks of customers as a fat man thinks of the shrimp at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And you have about as many options as the shrimp. Short of approaching regulatory bodies or legislators with your concerns or publishing editorials about the situation, there's really little you can do.

It's a shame that the whole future of communications is being held back by the telcos whose responsibility it is to implement and safeguard communications technologies. Maybe at some point in the distant future they'll get their act together and pull this thing off. Until then, we're stuck with what we have.

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. You can reach him at [email protected].

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