Unfinished Business for the Bells and DSL

When the history of high tech is written, the second half of 1999 will be remembered as the era of massive and occasionally mindless consumer e-commerce advertising.

But it's also likely that the same period will be known for something else - the time when DSL deployment began in earnest. And the fact that DSL got real just when the government began letting Bell companies into long-distance is creating tension among the Bells, their competitors and regulators.

Last month the Federal Communications Commission authorized Bell Atlantic Corp. to sell long-distance in New York state. The 244-page decision, with - I kid you not - 1,387 footnotes, describes in detail how Bell Atlantic has improved its performance providing local loops to competitors in New York. That's what the law requires before a Bell can go into long-distance.

But the FCC analysis - based on a test by KPMG and backed by data from New York regulators - is overwhelmingly concerned with plain old telephone service (POTS) and T-1s.

Because the FCC must rule on long-distance applications within 90 days, it requires Bells to present a "snapshot" of their local-competition systems, rather than waves of evidence as in the usual FCC proceeding. Thus the problem.

When Bell Atlantic made its application in September, it had just begun to provide DSL-capable loops to competitors - seven in June, 56 in July, 449 in August and 653 in September, the FCC says. On such a small sample, huge disputes arose.

Bell Atlantic told the FCC it only missed 7% of DSL installation dates in August and 3% in September. But DSL provider Covad claims that through August, Bell Atlantic only provided loops on-time 29% of the time. Bell Atlantic retorts that sometimes Covad's orders are filled with mistakes.

When it came to POTS, the FCC report did a good job resolving statistical disputes, showing how sometimes it's poor customer service on the part of competitive local exchange carriers that causes local orders to get botched.

But when it comes to DSL, the regulators admit they don't know who's to blame.

Another problem: DSL carriers must have access to Bell Atlantic's Loop Qualification Database. After all, Covad can't promise DSL if the line is filled with analog-era junk that would degrade the digital quality. The FCC believes DSL carriers have adequate access to the database. But it admits that Bell Atlantic is still in the process of surveying its entire loop inventory for DSL capability.

The FCC says all future Bell long-distance applications will have to provide rigorous DSL provisioning data. Maybe that's unfair. Bell Atlantic has hardly been a DSL leader, and by sitting on the technology, it managed to win its New York long-distance bid without having to prove it can provide DSL fairly to all.

But it's time to move on, and anyway the FCC's new demand will apply when Bell Atlantic files for long distance in its 12 other states. Want to read the New York decision? It's available at www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Orders/1999/fcc99404.pdf. Think you'll skip it? Not to worry. That's what I'm here for.

Rohde is a senior editor with Network World. He can be reached at drohde@nww.com.

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