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Internet speed bumps at every turn

Consumers bear the brunt of the broadband shakeout.

As you might imagine, many of our readers take the time to vent to us about their computing problems. We don’t mind so much. They are the best sources we have for information on the industry. And it fills us with pride when we can fulfill our mission as advocates for our readers. In the past year, the majority of these vents have focused on broadband problems. From all walks of the industry, users complained about the gap between what was promised and what was delivered; they complained about lost service because of bankruptcies; they complained of price hikes amid slowing service. More than anything, they complained of poor customer service.

To say the least, DSL and cable have not served consumers well at all in the past year. The bankruptcies of companies like Northpoint and [email protected] are the largest contributing factors to this poor service. More than a million customers of these defunct providers went without service for unacceptable periods. The second biggest cause of these problems is mergers and acquisitions. The merging companies seemed more concerned about their financials than they did about their customers. For example, several weeks after Comcast and AT&T merged, former AT&T customers are still without service. Pity the AT&T customers who were forced to change from [email protected] to AT&T’s patchwork system and then to a Comcast partner in less than three months. We’re not talking about hobbyists here; these are small businesses and SOHO operations that depend on Internet connections for their livelihoods in a down market.

The latest DSL debacle involves my two favorite companies: Microsoft and Qwest. Qwest wanted desperately to get out of the DSL business–my own experience showed that Qwest was not equipped to handle the service side of the business, though they do have some infrastructure that could be attractive for a partner. Enter Microsoft, who had been bitten by several DSL providers–Covad, Northpoint, even Enron–and needed a stable carrier on which to base its MSL (Microsft DSL) service. Both partners acted according to sound business rules, except for one thing–they neglected to understand their customers’ wishes and instead tried to force every single customer to become members of MSN. Many don’t want MSN under any circumstances. Also, all the Mac customers would not be able to use MSL for at least six months after being forced to try because it’s not ready for Mac clients. So both companies are doing a lot of backpedaling, trying to appease consumer advocates and the state Attorney General of Minnesota. It’s a mess.

And there is no safe haven for users who just want stable, consistent service and are willing to pay up to $50 a month for it. Satellite would be an option, except that the only two providers are attempting to become a single monopoly. EchoStar and DirecTV announced plans to merge amid a chorus of anti-trust concerns. Not only would this merger hurt rural users, but it would further limit user choice for urban broadband. And based on the experience of previous mergers, this one would likely leave some users without service in the transition. Hopefully, the FCC will take a dimmer view of mergers in light of how poorly merging companies have performed this past year.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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