Suit Shines Light on DSL Uncertainty

So is DSL an always-on, dedicated, point-to-point, reliable-speed, mass-market broadband technology?

Or is it a sometimes-on, shared, point-to-multipoint, guess-at-your-speed, only-for-the-lucky service?

The question has been raised by a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of some SBC Communications Inc. customers (, DocFinder: 9624). The suit claims that SBC limits promised 384K bit/sec download speeds to 128K at its convenience, and sometimes simply kicks users off the system.

The multiple accusations are not quite as interesting as SBC's response. While it denied some charges and skirted others until its lawyers give the complaint a full read, SBC admitted it limits newsgroup users to 128K and also limits their time online "in order to provide a more reliable service for all our customers using the newsgroups."

The new asterisk on the service adds to the fine print on DSL that looms larger every day.

By now most people realize you have to call to learn if your line is properly conditioned before you order DSL. But now you sort of have to know whether the supplier has built enough bandwidth back to its DSL Access Multiplexers to handle all the traffic that's likely to hit it. That's troubling when you consider that the Bellheads who run these companies always underestimate online usage.

And all this time DSL proponents have been telling us that the technology is not like that awful cable-modem topology in which your next-door neighbor could be fighting you for bandwidth. Ha!

This is not necessarily as big a problem for individuals who are excited about broadband-access options as it is for network professionals who are trying to plan remote-access programs for teleworkers, extranets and trading communities.

Where's the certainty in deploying these programs if availability and performance is still anyone's guess?

One thing SBC could do here is to focus a little less on grandiose statements about DSL and start getting a lot more specific. We keep hearing that SBC is going to cover 80 percent of its territory with DSL out of remote terminals in three years under Project Pronto. That's akin to President John F. Kennedy's 1961 statement that we would go to the moon by the end of the decade. I'm sure it sounded fabulous when he said it, but it's not like you'd rush to the phone to book your space flight.

SBC likes to say it's the nation's leading DSL provider. Well, SBC has certainly sold more DSL service than anyone. But that's a far cry from having all these lines installed and then having them work as advertised. SBC should leave the rhetorical goals to presidents, prime ministers and popes, and start dealing with its local communities in a straightforward manner about DSL availability and performance.

After all, losing local accountability to a faraway corporate headquarters is precisely what users feared when SBC started buying rival regional Bells.

Doesn't SBC want to prove those fears groundless?

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