Another Story about BellSouth's Florida Woes
by joepwpb 08:40AM Sunday Aug 12 2001 Another article
detailing BellSouth's continuing DSL service woes in south Florida appears in todays (August 12) online edition of The Palm Beach Post."...for many DSL customers here and across the country, the letters could easily stand for Dreadfully Slow Line. Many complain their DSL modems routinely fail to connect them to the Web. When they finally get connections, uploads and downloads often can be timed with calendars. And when they call for help, none is available."
Here is the article The DSL dilemma
By Stephen Pounds and Deborah Circelli, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 12, 2001
Dick Wagonseller of Jupiter took a flier on what BellSouth promotes as the fast lane on the information superhighway. In May 2000, he ordered the company's FastAccess Internet Service, which promises to end the World Wide Wait with data speeding up to 50 times faster than the dial-up modems most personal computers have.
But Wagonseller rarely made it to the FastAccess lane; the ramp often was closed.
"At least a third of the time, I couldn't get hooked up," Wagonseller said. "I'd dial and dial and dial and couldn't get on."
After nearly a year of frustration, he dropped the service in April.
FastAccess is BellSouth's name for DSL, or digital subscriber line, service, a technology that applies the afterburners to data traveling on old copper phone lines. Plus, a computer's connection to the Web is supposed to be on all the time without interfering with regular voice calls.
FastAccess costs residential users $49.95 a month; business customers pay $79.95.
But for many DSL customers here and across the country, the letters could easily stand for Dreadfully Slow Line. Many complain their DSL modems routinely fail to connect them to the Web. When they finally get connections, uploads and downloads often can be timed with calendars. And when they call for help, none is available.
"It never worked," said Barbara Gavin of Jupiter, a BellSouth subscriber until January, "When we could get on, we got on fast. But the thing is, we could only get on a couple of hours a day. That was the window."
The Florida Public Service Commission has received more than 100 DSL complaints this year against BellSouth, which it has passed to the phone giant. The PSC is powerless when it comes to DSL, although commissioners are considering whether they should step in to regulate the service.
The state attorney general's office also plans its own review.
"It's definitely something we are going to pursue if there are that many complaints," said Assistant Attorney General Mark Fistos.
BellSouth spokesman David Blumenthal pleads for patience. "It's a new technology, and with any new technology there are service issues dealing with new deployment. . . . This is an evolving technology and a pretty complex technology."
For now, the alternatives for a consumer with a gripe are to drop the service, check out fast Internet connections offered by cable companies or satellite services -- or maybe sue.
James Mallamo of Palm Beach Gardens chose the latter. He filed suit last month in Palm Beach County Circuit Court and alleges that BellSouth lies about DSL speed and reliability.
The suit seeks class action status. Mallamo's lawyers, Hackney & Miller in Palm Beach Gardens, have received about 100 calls from BellSouth subscribers interested in joining the suit.
Atlanta-based BellSouth points out that the suit's allegations are from last year. Since then, many of the glitches plaguing DSL service have been fixed, the company says. BellSouth also says it has taken steps to ensure that customers receive the technical help they need.
Phone companies across the country began to offer DSL in 1998. BellSouth made it available locally in mid-1999. (Some local consumers actually gained access to high-speed Internet service two years earlier when cable TV company Adelphia Communications began offering service through cable modems.)
DSL service requires a special modem, but uses the copper lines that connect most homes and businesses to a telephone company's main network. DSL service can move data as fast as 1.5 million bits a second; the fastest conventional modem moves data at 56,600 bits a second. (That makes DSL a little more than 25 times faster than a 56K modem; BellSouth compares its DSL speed to a slower 28.8K modem.)
DSL gets its speed by using more of a copper wire's "bandwidth," or carrying capacity. It does this by "splitting" the wire into as many as 247 separate channels through which data move. The system shifts data from channel to channel to find the best paths available.
Phone not tied up
The split phone line also allows one person in a household to make a voice call while another surfs the Web.
But DSL has its limits. Customers generally must be within 18,000 feet of a phone company central switching office for it to work. Speeds diminish the farther away a customer is from a switching office; heavy network traffic also tends to slow it down.
As of March 31, about 2.7 million households in the United States used DSL services to get to the Web, or about 4.4 percent of the 62.1 million online households in the country, according to the Boston-based research firm The Yankee Group.
By 2005, DSL's share is expected to grow to 13 percent of online households, or 10.5 million, as the service becomes more widely available and as consumers' demand for speed grows, said Yankee Group analyst Rob Lancaster.
High-speed service via cable modem, such as Adelphia's, still leads DSL and is expected to grow faster. Nearly 16 million households are expected to access the Internet through cable modems by 2005, up from 3.6 million at the end of 2000.
Overall, about 7.1 million U.S. homes and businesses had high-speed Internet connections by the end of last year, a 63 percent increase in six months, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That total includes Internet service via satellite.
Adelphia charges $39.95 a month for its Power Link cable modem service. The cable giant has faced customer complaints that mirror the gripes about DSL service. Also, area subscribers lost e-mail service for more than four days in March when security problems rattled Adelphia.
Rollout too fast, critics say
BellSouth's DSL growth is a microcosm of the national picture. The company had 49,000 DSL customers in its nine-state area as of March 21, 2000. The total had grown to about 303,000 a year later, about 13 percent of DSL users nationally. The most recent number: 381,000 customers.
But the quick DSL rollout -- critics say it was too quick -- has turned the major phone companies across the country into targets for withering criticism and lawsuits. "HellSouth" is the name some wags in online chat rooms use when talking about the phone company's DSL push.
During the past year, Verizon and SBC as well as BellSouth have been sued by angry DSL subscribers who say the companies rushed into DSL before they could offer reliable, fast service. They moved quickly to scuttle DSL competitors clamoring to lease their lines to offer the service.
Robert Johnson, executive director of Consumers' Voice, an Indianapolis-based consumer organization, said BellSouth and its Baby Bell siblings went into the DSL business without a plan or corporate commitment.
"There have been a lot of complications rolling it out and a lot of consumer frustration," Johnson said.
BellSouth disagrees with the assessment that it was hasty in bringing DSL to the market.
"We started a little slower than some of the others to be able to manage our growth and entry into the business," company spokesman Blumenthal says. BellSouth, he says, is installing remote terminals that deliver DSL to neighborhoods that otherwise might be too far away from switching stations to receive the service. Just Monday, BellSouth began using new software to provide customers with an easy way to solve technical problems. The software also provides BellSouth technicians with more precise information about a customer's problem.
It also has a Web site -- www.fastaccess.com -- where customers can test DSL service and check whether it's available in a neighborhood.
Even so, users say the service still isn't reliable enough and isn't as fast as BellSouth promotes.
"The advertising was just total bull," Jupiter's Wagonseller said.
A handful of non-Bell companies also offer DSL -- and seem to do it better. In fact, a survey by NetAction, a California-based nonprofit organization, found that DSL subscribers of these so-called competitive carriers had fewer complaints than those who used the Bells. Competitive carriers lease Bell lines to offer the service.
Small companies complaining
The non-Bell companies' share of the market is tiny. They must rely on the Bells to deliver it, and they have their own set of complaints against the phone companies. They say the Bells are trying to drive them out of business by delaying installations.
The largest of these, California-based Covad, is planning to file for bankruptcy protection this month.
BellSouth didn't help its image when it boosted business fees by $20 a month to $79.95 in May when a DSL competitor, Northpoint Communications of California, went out of business.
The increase was justified, said BellSouth spokesman Blumenthal. "It was really to recognize the value of service and what companies are getting," he said.
Ken Kuzmick, a disgruntled DSL business user from West Palm Beach, describes BellSouth as the "king. They're making the rules."
The state PSC in February began studying whether it should regulate DSL service. From Jan. 1 through July 22, it received 177 complaints about high-speed Internet service, with BellSouth accounting for 102. Verizon had the second highest with 39; Sprint had 30.
Commissioners question whether they have the authority to regulate the service. But in a report expected next month, PSC staff members will argue that DSL regulation is within the agency's purview because customers' calls to FastAccess originate in Florida. The report also will outline how the state can go about regulating the service.
Even if the PSC decides to step in, don't expect a dramatic increase in reliability, said analyst Imran Khan of The Yankee Group.
"We think DSL will improve," Khan said, "but we're looking at a longer-term horizon of beyond a year or so."