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What ever happened to DSL?

It might be down, but it’s not yet out.

There was a time when a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) promised a brighter broadband future, when Internet enthusiasts envisioned using the technology as a cyber speed pass for zipping through downloads and Web pages. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

What began with such a potential bang appears to be whimpering, as past installation difficulties, lack of full-blown adoption, and technical troubles have plagued providers. Cable modem adoption is outstripping its broadband kin at about double the sign-up rate of DSL.

According to research firm IDC, there were 7.3 million cable modem subscribers in the United States at the end of 2001, compared with 4.2 million DSL lines in service. Of the DSL users, approximately 3.5 million were residential. The cable surge is uniquely American-elsewhere in the world, DSL is the predominant technology, but regulation and technical fumbling has caused the service to falter on U.S. soil.

Is a formerly heralded technology destined to go the way of 8-tracks and Betamax? Providers are determined that it won’t be, and they’re touting new technical advances and better customer service procedures in an effort to change DSL’s tarnished image. First, however, they’ll have to confront the past.

Troubled history

When Marcus Lewis, owner of a tennis center in Massachusetts, attempted to get DSL two years ago, he was hoping for faster Web access and rapid downloads with a mere double click. Like others who signed up for the service, he soon found himself struggling with his provider and cursing the technology.

“My ‘always on’ DSL was intermittently on at best,” he says. “E-mail would show up anywhere from an hour to three or four days after it was sent.” Most frustrating for him was that the service would get cut off for weeks at a time, and he’d have to call several times, with waits of up to 45 minutes per call, to speak with someone who was usually unable to help.

Lewis’s experience is not unique. As more people yearned to dump their dial-up, DSL horror stories began to abound, rife with complaints about spotty connections, questionable ISP practices, and false advertising. He says, “To state that a service is ‘always on’–as Verizon had done in their initial campaign slogan–and supply such a poor product was another grand shortcoming.” The problem wasn’t always demand, nor supply, but rather the ability to get the two hooked up by means of a slim copper wire.

With DSL, broadband access is delivered via a phone line, and therefore can suffer from the same problems that send a telephone repair person out to scurry up the poles by your house. These include old circuits, thin wires, bad connectors, and line noise. Also detrimental can be utilization of a load coil, an inductor placed on the local loop that adds to the line length but also suppresses high frequencies–the precise signal that DSL modems need to operate. All of these somewhat common difficulties can cause modems to run slow, lose connection, and make that new online Madonna video impossible to download.

Of course, all this was dependent on whether someone could actually get DSL. Often, people who craved the service from their ISPs found out that they weren’t close enough to a telco’s central office (CO). In order for DSL to work properly, it wasn’t enough to simply use the copper wire that ran from a house or office building to a telco substation, and then to a CO, because what runs from a substation to a CO is fiber, not copper wire. Although a flavor of the service, IDSL, can sometimes skate through fiber, most other DSL cannot. Hence, the difficulty setting up customers with DSL in rapidly growing areas, like Atlanta or Phoenix, that relied heavily on substations and fiber loops.

Even if the copper wire is present, its length is certainly an issue. Beyond 18 feet, the signal begins to degrade, sometimes significantly. Only those who live within 10 feet of a CO can be assured of a pristine and mostly trouble-free signal. More than a mile away from the CO, and you’re SOL.

Currently, some of these troubles have been fixed, but large problems still exist in the looping system. Mike Apgar, CEO of private Seattle-based DSL service provider Speakeasy, says that the company’s site has high traffic, and gets thousands of requests per month from people trying to find out if DSL is available in their area. Many go away disappointed.

“A tremendous number don’t qualify,” Apgar says. “The equipment just isn’t available.” Regulation troubles and ISP flame-outs only worsened the problem, as DSL providers attempted navigation of changing rules, compliance with mandates to play nice with competitors, and awareness of growing customer distress. Around the time that Marcus Lewis was trying to quicken his connection, anti-DSL sites began to sprout (Lewis started one himself) and the movement toward cable started to build up speed.

Plotting a resurgence

DSL availability is still hampered by location, location, location; but no longer so prevalent are the waves of rancor about the service. Grumbles about difficulties with dropped connections and bad customer service definitely remain, but DSL providers seem confident that with new technology, reduced rates, and plenty of optimism, adoption rates will rise.

One of the most important developments on the scene is line sharing. Previously, a technician had to tromp around in a customer’s basement, peering into the mess of wiring for a separate, unused telephone line that could support DSL. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be one. Now, providers are able to pipe the signal over an existing telephone line, which makes it a far more convenient and cost-effective option.

Cost is a closely watched item in the DSL and cable modem arena. San Francisco-based Covad Communications, one of the biggest providers to survive the abundance of ISP failures, believes that DSL adoption has been lagging not because of the stunning array of technical snafus that have besieged the broadband offering, but rather because its price tag was too high.

“Broadband is available to most customers who want it,” says Bryan Bennett, senior project manager of consumer services at Covad. “The problem thus far has been getting consumers to pay for it.” The company polled potential broadband users and found that 36 percent shunned the service because they didn’t want to shell out $50 per month. The solution, according to Covad, is the equivalent of a Blue Light special: Its new TeleSurfer Link offers 200Kbps downstream and 64kbps upstream, at an introductory rate of $21.95 for the first four months and $39.95 for each month afterward.

The price drop was even lauded by lawmakers, who are pushing for wider broadband access and agree that lower rates might entice more households. However, the cheaper new service will require Covad technicians to tap into the networks of carriers like Verizon and SBC, and it remains to be seen whether the copper line troubles of the past can truly be surmounted in the midst of higher demand and rock-bottom prices. Also, to make money, Covad will have to put more users on each line, but the company says even that’s not a problem, since it’s running at only about 10 percent of capacity now.

Covad, like other providers, is also banking on the introduction of self-installation kits. Previously, new customers had to wait at home for a technician to appear and rig the telephone line for DSL. Similar to wails about cable repair personnel and delivery people, complaints about DSL technicians were all too common. The clearinghouse for this kind of complaint, DSLreports, was awash in stories about people taking days off work and having only a better knowledge of daytime TV to show for it.

Self-installation kits allow customers to plug and play, often without a hitch. Bennett says, “Now, when I talk to customers, I never hear anyone talk about installation issues. I don’t think that’s even an issue anymore. Obviously, there will always be technical problems that might arise, and people who can’t get service, but at least installation is removed as an issue.” Alcatel, a supplier of DSL infrastructure to telcos, was a pioneer in developing self-installation, and the company’s senior director of marketing, Jay Fausch, thinks the technology will change the minds of the anti-DSL crowd.

“There are, and will be, lots more happy campers,” Fausch says. “The ability to activate service for you without having to put a technician in a truck is a great cost-saver for the telco, but it’s also tremendously convenient for the homeowner.”

This new empowerment boosts DSL’s chances, Fausch believes. “Complexity is taken away from the end user,” he says. “As people begin to see more of a comparison with cable, I think you’re going to start to see more interest in DSL. The coming decade is going to be a very interesting time.”

Cautious optimism

Speakeasy’s Apgar says that in the past, demand was too great for adequate service. “People got caught up in the promise of broadband. But because the service emerged in synch with the Internet in general, people got confused with broadband availability being on Internet time. That’s not realistic.” The enthusiasm didn’t get sparked in a vacuum. Apgar points to an abundance of inexperienced companies in the early broadband boom that tried to get the industry to grow too fast, at the cost of hindering adoption.

Now, he notes, the service is finally becoming refined enough to meet the need. He suggests that line sharing, self-installation, and early identification of potential line problems is giving DSL a better chance in the DSL vs. cable prizefight.

Pat Hurley, an analyst for Tulsa, Okla.-based TeleChoice, insists that even though cable might be tanning DSL’s hide right now, the service could still prove a formidable challenger in the future.

“DSL has not been a failure,” he says. “It’s growing at 15 percent, it’s still bringing in new customers.”

One thing that could reinvigorate the telcos is the move toward voice services on the part of some cable modem providers. That means telcos aren’t feeling just their broadband market share threatened, but their core revenues as well. Hurley says, “This could motivate phone companies to become more aggressive about DSL again. It’s going to get them to fight back against cable, and that could certainly cause a resurgence.”

Hurley says that his own experience is probably typical of a new DSL user today. “When I got DSL,” he says, “they sent me the modem, and I plugged it in, and it took me 15 minutes to set up. It’s worked fine ever since. I think a lot of customers are having that experience now, compared to a year or so ago. There are fewer horror stories now. That’s helping make customers happy, and they’ll tell their friends. As more people have positive experiences with DSL, its reputation will change.”

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