Creating Order out of DSL Market Chaos

SAN MATEO (06/29/2000) - In an example that typifies the experiences of many enterprises, PeopleSoft Inc. 18 months ago ran into problems setting up deals to give its 7,000 employees high-speed DSL connectivity from home because of the multitude of regional players controlling that market. PeopleSoft had given each of its workers a laptop to allow them to telecommute, but quickly found itself having to negotiate separate deals with different DSL service providers in each of the areas where its employees live.

"It was quite a hassle," says Neil Hennessy, vice president of engineering at PeopleSoft's IT Division, in Pleasanton, California.

"Getting nationwide DSL services is a huge problem, and it really does affect the company that wishes to adopt DSL but wants to have a consistent strategy," agreed David Willis, a Plano, Texas-based program director at consultancy Meta Group Inc.

The frustration for PeopleSoft was that DSL seemed the perfect solution for its telecommuting plan, except for the complexity of getting services installed.

"If you do a lot of dial in, which is a usage-based service, it quickly becomes a poor economic model vs. the fixed price for DSL -- which also gives you five to 10 times better speed," Hennessy says.

The problem centers on the fact that local telephone companies -- the Baby Bells -- provide most DSL services but are restricted to certain geographic areas, whereas many newer DSL players have yet to finish rolling out nationwide service.

Recognizing that this issue has held back enterprise adoption of the technology, some new DSL players are now developing provisioning software and forging agreements with local phone companies to make it easier for enterprises to blanket their employee base with homebound DSL hookups.

Some of these are Web sites -- such as New York-based DSLreports.com -- that are touted as DSL ordering portals that connect DSL customers and providers.

"These tend to be a pure informational source," Willis says.

Others are taking it a step further and acting as brokers for DSL services, lining up deals with the patchwork of DSL providers. For instance, Berkeley, California-based start-up NightFire Software Inc. in early June announced a new hosted service that allows enterprise customers to do one-stop DSL ordering, either directly or through an ISP.

NightFire's service -- dubbed BandwidthExpress.com -- is a hub for ordering DSL service and CPE (customer premises equipment), because NightFire has signed up the nation's largest DSL vendors to feed the service: It has inked deals with Bell Atlantic Corp., Pacific Bell Corp., Ameritech Corp., and competitive carriers such as Rhythms NetConnections Inc. and Covad Communications Co., thereby achieving a nationwide footprint.

The NightFire model is aimed squarely at ISPs, which can rebrand DSL service but also harness the effort of the Bell companies.

"Often these are Web portals run by content providers that want to offer DSL to their customers without a lot of work," says Venkates Swaminathan, founder and chief strategist of NightFire.

An enterprise would then work with a particular NightFire ISP customer to provide one-size-fits-all service to employees, or a corporation could work directly with NightFire and rebrand DSL service on its own for employees, says Swaminathan.

The idea behind BandwidthExpress.com was to work through the now classic DSL bottlenecks.

"There has been explosive demand for DSL, but we have got to move from the early adopter stage to mainstream, and to do that, the process of ordering service has got to be simplified," Swaminathan says.

The regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), too, are realizing that they must form new partnerships to offer comprehensive service.

PeopleSoft got some relief from its early DSL purchasing headaches when its provider, Pacific Bell, through parent company SBC Communications Inc., forged a deal with Northern Virginia DSL supplier Network Access Solutions to provide seamless coverage to its corporate customers looking for DSL hookup outside its territory.

"We are working with PeopleSoft, IBM, and others to provide them with DSL access outside of our region," says an SBC spokesman. SBC is also in the middle of a $6 billion effort, dubbed Project Pronto, to put DSL in the reach of 31 million SBC customers.

Meta Group's Willis says the SBC-Network Access Solutions deal is one of the first agreements between entrenched local phone companies and the up-and-coming DSL players.

"But surely this is something that all of the RBOCs are talking about now," he says.

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