Lessons Learned from a Year with DSL

For more than a year now, I have been one of the lucky few to have digital subscriber line (DSL) service to the office. Overall, my experience has been positive. However, I've learned a few lessons that may benefit other users out there and may also help you understand some of the issues you may face in the battle for the last mile.

First and foremost, I have found that DSL providers are selling services faster than their infrastructures can handle. In the race to sign up customers in mass numbers, customer support, network facilities, trouble ticketing, escalation procedures and other back office systems are lagging way behind.

One of the main challenges I have had with my DSL provider is that it does not have a real escalation and coordination system in place, relying instead on e-mail. There was one incident where I actually identified the exact interface IP address in the DSL provider network that was experiencing trouble; it took me over 30 hours of my own time to get all of the provider's operational arms to finally fix the problem.

My DSL provider "owns" the last-mile copper (and the phone system), the ISP network into which the DSL service interfaces and the DSL facilities themselves. These three parts typically make up a DSL service. In many cases, different players may own these parts. If a DSL provider that owns all the parts of the service can't seem to get escalation procedures in place, how can DSL service providers that rely on outsourced parts of an incumbent local exchange carrier's network offer high-quality services?

An oversubscribed infrastructure inevitably leads to a slowdown in DSL service, which I have experienced over the past few months. Using some very basic tools, I found the performance slowdown is not in the last mile, but between the DSL Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) part of the service and the ISP part - exactly where you would expect to find it if the provider were playing the oversubscription game. As the sales side of the equation continues to fill the DSLAM ports, the network infrastructure that sits behinds the ports can't keep up.

In addition, few providers actually offer a real guarantee for their services, such as a committed information rate (CIR) or minimum time to repair. Most just offer a "best effort" approach to their service. I even asked my provider if I could purchase a CIR service for an additional charge - the answer was "No."

Don't get me wrong - on balance I am happy with my DSL service. But if I were a small or midsize business investigating DSL or a large company looking to set up DSL services for its branches, telecommuters and partners, I would make sure a provider could address the issues raised here before I bet the farm on DSL.

Johnson is principal of The Pita Group, a consultancy in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at (503) 287-7542 or craig.johnson@worldnet.att.net.

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