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Sound Internet

A David-vs.-Goliath story results in grass-roots action.

When Qwest decided to get out of the retail Internet service provider (ISP) business and hand its clients to Microsoft subsidiary MSN, Eric Osterberg, network engineer at St. Paul-based Sound Internet, thought it would only be a matter of time before residents began asking one of the dozen or so local, independent ISPs to hook them up to Qwest’s DSL service.

But when the phones finally started ringing at Sound Internet, Osterberg was surprised and dismayed by what he heard from current and prospective customers.

“Customers were seeing ads for deals on DSL service that said ‘Powered by Qwest’ with a tiny MSN logo at the bottom,” says Osterberg. “So they would call Qwest to request the service via a local ISP, and Qwest would discourage them. They would describe the horrible relationship they had with the independent ISPs and say, ‘If you choose MSN, it’s just much better.'”

The marketing tactics bothered Osterberg, but in addition, there were serious complaints about the way Qwest was handling its DSL customers. Grievances included grave billing errors and losses of service. Some customers chose a local ISP but were hooked directly to MSN. Others claimed they had been switched over to MSN without proper notification, a move that cost them their e-mail accountsÑaddress books and all. Some of those customers switched back, only to receive a service bill for more than $400.

“In some cases we accepted that Qwest was playing an underhanded game,” he says. “If a customer chose MSN, then the customer made that decision. But what was extremely aggravating was when customers did not make that decision [and were switched anyway].”

Osterberg and many others in the local ISP community had formed Qwest “support groups” in the past to discuss Qwest-related issues and problems. The most recent batch of customer complaints, and an overarching feeling that Qwest’s DSL advertisements were extremely misleading, led him to rejuvenate a support group with the help of friend Gary Elfert, sales manager at Burnsville-based ISP Infinetivity.

Efforts to get local ISPs together were met with overwhelming support. All had had difficulties with Qwest, and all had been inundated with complaints similar to what Sound Internet had heard. Many simply were uneasy about the way local ISPs were being shut out.

“We knew that the only way to get [Qwest’s] attention was if every ISP called the company at the same time,” says Osterberg. “So one day, we each called individually and asked for co-op marketing dollars.”

Requests to establish a fair marketing agreement, when finally answered, were denied. The group set up a Web site devoted to their endeavors, and decided to file a complaint with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Most Minnesotans are familiar with the complaint. Efforts to secure some sort of relief for Qwest DSL customers were successful: The switchover was delayed, and Qwest was ordered to notify customers that they could choose a local ISP instead of MSN. But for the local ISPs, these developments were not so fruitful.

Osterberg claims that stall tactics and a conflict of agendas during discussions of the issue forced the local ISPs to pull out of the settlement at the last minute. He says that spending any more time fighting for non-discriminatory access and fair marketing from Qwest would have delayed a decision and put at risk the settlement that had already been secured for customers.

“Our interests were not reflected in the agreement,” he says. “So we backed out with the general idea that we would wait until things are [better] for consumers, and when the 60-day migration period ends, we’ll re-file our complaint.” But in the meantime, he says, new laws and changes made by the FCC continue to alter the landscape for homegrown Internet service providers. The fight for equal access will require support from Minnesotans who would like to see more than just a few choices for high-speed Internet access.

“Laws are changing so that cable providers like Qwest aren’t required to operate their services in [a competitive] way,” he says. “Companies like Qwest will be able to say, ‘AT&T, you’re qualified. AOL, you’re qualified. Earthlink, you barely make our qualifications, but we’ll let you in the door. All you little guys, you’re out of business.'”

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