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Whither Northpoint customers?

Despite bailouts, lots of Northpoint customers face Internet blackouts. 4/3 ReleVents hed: Whither Northpoint customers? Dek: Despite bailouts, lots of Northpoint customers face Internet blackouts. By James Mathewson

One of the benefits of being in my position is the unsolicited scoops I get from readers. Some of these stories don’t pan out because they are based on unsubstantiated rumor. But those that do differentiate us from all the other tech pubs out there. Keep them coming–they’re what make CU special.

One such tip came from a friend of a friend. This poor tipster is (or was) a Northpoint customer, and, along with everyone who signed up for DSL from his provider, he has no Internet connection right now. He said he is using his neighbor’s Internet connection while he searches for another provider. He estimates that there were 10,000 similar ISPs cut off from the service when Northpoint pulled the plug, and each one of these averages 1000 customers.

The news today has a story that claims a bailout from Verizon. According to the story, Verizon will support all of Northpoint’s customers, which might give temporary relief to our anonymous tipster. Though it will take more than Verizon’s support–backbone providers will also need to chip in.

Regardless of what happens to the hapless Northpoint customers, the situation brings up an interesting issue. I’ve often wondered what will happen to our broadband providers when Internet service becomes a utility of similar importance to phone, electricity, and gas. Is an Internet outage as important as a power outage? Well, not yet anyway. But there will come a time when Internet outages like the Northpoint shut-down will be as big a story as the rolling blackouts in the Bay Area.

When this time comes, Internet service will be comparable to our current phone service. In this area, we are basically at the mercy of the Baby Bells, and for good reason. It is just not economical to enable local phone competition on a grand scale. And users wouldn’t put up with a volatile situation for their phone service like what they currently deal with in the DSL arena. Because Internet service will be a basic utility in the not-too-distant future, users will begin factoring in the long-term viability and stability of their providers as key criteria–ahead of price, speed, and ease of contact that the smaller providers bring to the table.

I guess this reasoning factored into my recent DSL service hook-up. Because I know I will be using the service for work-from-home situations and not just for pleasure surfing, I chose to go with my local Baby Bell. This was not an easy decision–I have more than paid the price in tech support as a result of my choice. (“What’s a Macintosh system?” asked one recent phone representative.) But I know they’ll be there for the long term. Blackouts with upstarts like Northpoint and Flashcom will continue to drive users towards the Baby Bells–a situation that does not bode well for the few remaining third-party DSL providers. More and more, we simply won’t tolerate Internet blackouts.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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