Consumer Alert: Broadband Blues

DSL and cable modems promise instant access to the Internet. But service hassles are giving users bad vibes. Here's how to avoid the sour notes.

It was supposed to be the end of the World Wide Wait. For US$50 a month, broadband technologies such as DSL and cable would whisk us onto the Web up to 50 times faster than dial-up modems and keep us connected 24 hours a day.

Streaming media? Smooth as butter. Big bulky downloads? Quick as a keystroke.

But not all users are singing the praises of this new technology. Installation hassles, service outages, and connection speeds that sometimes dip to the level of a 56K-bps modem are giving many customers the blues. "Broadband? It's an absolute flaming pain to set up and install," says Atlanta businessman William Grand, who endured ten weeks of cable modem installation hassles.

Grand has plenty of company. In 1999, intermittent blackouts struck DSL and cable modem customers all around the nation. In Fremont, California, the cable modem service got so bad that the city council hammered out a customer Bill of Rights with the local provider, AT&T Broadband. The agreement requires AT&T to repair service outages within 24 hours in 95 percent of all cases and to answer 90 percent of customer service calls within 30 seconds.

Providers face myriad challenges in trying to correct these problems, including complex new technologies and overwhelming customer demand. According to Cahners In-Stat, a market research company, shipments of cable and DSL modems to customers are expected to reach 6.5 million in 2000, nearly twice the number shipped in 1999. The net result of this complex technology and explosive growth can be chronic problems for users. Consider the plight of Loren Krasner, office manager for a recycling company, who wanted a cable modem for his Richardson, Texas, home. Krasner ordered the service from TCI@Home (now AT&T Broadband), then endured three weeks of installation headaches, including multiple visits from technicians. Though the service eventually functioned, sometimes it ran slower than Krasner expected, and twice it failed altogether. "Installation was frustrating. We had e-mail out for a week. The technicians would say everything was fine -- it wasn't," he says. AT&T spokesperson Angel Biasatti concedes, "We have more customers who want the product than we can serve. It's a balancing act."

Funky Installation

Whether you choose cable modem or DSL, expect at least two installation visits.

First comes the "truck roll," where line technicians check your wiring for problems -- and may install a special piece of communications equipment called a splitter. Next comes the system inspection by a PC technician who confirms that your modem is installed and your PC is configured correctly. Ordering and installation should take a few weeks. But if something goes wrong, you can find yourself waiting considerably longer.

Grand, the Atlanta businessman, describes a struggle with MediaOne cable modem service that would make the average person long for the days of quill pens and carrier pigeons. The first technician arrived at Grand's home-based business on June 12, but the service wasn't working properly until the end of August. For the most part, says Grand, the service didn't work at all. And when it did work, he was limited to near dial-up modem speeds. In the course of his odyssey, Grand went through multiple modems -- and multiple support technicians.

Reg Griffin, a MediaOne spokesperson, responded: "Obviously, we regret the problems that Mr. Grand experienced. ...It clearly took us much longer than normal to fully diagnose the problem and solve it." MediaOne didn't charge Grand for the period when service was down.

Outage Outrage

Occasional outages are a fact of life with Internet access at any speed. But more problems and outages occur with broadband than with dial-up, says Lisa Pierce, director of telecommunications at Giga Information Group. Broadband outages also tend to occur more frequently and to last longer, she adds.

Last summer and fall, users on both coasts experienced loss of DSL service. For example, on July 16, a buggy software upgrade interrupted service for some customers of Bell Atlantic's Infospeed DSL. Users had to wait for hours before their connections were restored. That same day, a faulty router gummed up the works for scores of Pacific Bell DSL customers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In early December, an outage knocked out service to some Pacific Bell customers for 35 minutes, the company says.

Some outages are more difficult to fix than others. Late last September, Chris Arslanyan, a computer professional, ordered DSL service from Bell Atlantic Infospeed for his home in Oradell, New Jersey. It was installed a week later, but it didn't work. Five days and seven phone calls later the modem was up and running, he says, but four days after that it went down again. A pattern began to emerge. "Every week it goes down on Thursday, and it comes back up again on Monday or Tuesday," he says. "Sometimes I call to ask what's wrong, and they say, we don't know, we'll call you back. ... I spend many a Friday night waiting for the phone to ring, like I'm back in high school waiting for a girl to call." Bell Atlantic subsequently credited Arslanyan for his down time.

Joan Rasmussen, a Bell Atlantic spokesperson, acknowledged Arslanyan's problems. "We have had some isolated problems that appear to have affected a few customers, including Mr. Arslanyan," says Rasmussen. Bell Atlantic is working to identify and fix the problem, she adds.

Weak Performance

Speed -- or lack thereof -- is another common gripe, particularly among cable modem users. Throughout 1999, intermittent drops in speed in the AT&T cable network in San Mateo, California led the company to compensate users for their inconvenience. But even under normal conditions, problems can exist.

Performance often dips during peak use hours, and it can gradually diminish over time as more customers join the network within a given neighborhood. "We have had instances with cable systems in Silicon Valley where it slows down to a crawl during the afternoon," says Jay Pultz, vice president and research director at the Gartner Group. Neighborhood congestion is not an issue with DSL, but performance can slip during peak hours if a provider lacks adequate connections to the Internet, says Pultz.

Think broadband performance is the same all over the Net? It isn't. When you browse a popular Web site that is cached on your provider's servers, performance will be lightning fast. Once you venture out onto the public Internet, however, you may get bursts of several megabits per second, but the average bandwidth can drop to around 300K or 400K bps. Read the fine print, and you'll note that broadband providers carefully include the words "up to" with most bandwidth claims.

A New Tune

Broadband providers and PC vendors say they'll address service and performance problems in the near future. Bell Atlantic and AT&T Broadband plan to hire and train more technicians. But the biggest improvements in service could come from technologies that reduce the number of visits technicians need to make.

With new DSL technology, for example, customers can skip the initial "truck roll" because workers don't need to install a splitter device. Instead, some customers can attach one or more small filters to their phone cords. According to Bell Atlantic's Rasmussen, up to 85 percent of all Infospeed DSL installations don't require a splitter. And when new USB versions of DSL and cable modems arrive later this year, some users will be able to avoid the second visit from technicians.

Some retailers already offer hardware and service bundles to ease installation.

Last fall, Bell Atlantic announced plans to join forces with CompUSA and 3Com to simplify ordering and installing DSL. At select CompUSA locations, you can now enter your phone number in a kiosk to determine whether service is available in your area. You can order service and buy a modem on the spot, and then attempt to install it yourself. For cable Internet customers, Excite@Home has cut similar deals with CompUSA, Office Depot and The Good Guys to permit buyers to check the availability of cable modem service, buy a modem kit and even make an appointment for installation.

New setup software designed to ease user headaches is rolling out, too. For example, in October BroadJump announced that it had developed software designed to streamline installation. The software includes troubleshooting tools to help users install the modems and resolve their own service problems. Broadband providers are expected to offer the software by the end of 2000, according to Kenny Van Zant, a vice president at BroadJump.

Standardization should also help smooth broadband's rough edges. Modem vendors have agreed on industry standards that will have wide support by the end of the year. With the DSL G.Lite standard, users should be able to buy modems at retail that can theoretically work with any provider. A second standard could help address inconsistent performance for some users. Next fall, cable modems based on DOCSIS 1.1 will try to fix problems of fluctuating bandwidth within a neighborhood.

Worth the Grief

When and whether these initiatives improve service is anyone's guess. But even if nothing changes, most users we spoke to said they'd rather wrestle with the new technology than return to the stuck-in-molasses days of older dial-up services. Despite their logistical problems, Chris Arslanyan and William Grand are happy with their services. Loren Krasner recently moved to Plano, Texas, and discovered that broadband Internet access wasn't available at all. "I almost paid a lot more money for another apartment that did have access," says Krasner. At least now Krasner knows that the next time he orders broadband, he'd better be prepared to sing the blues.

Arm Yourself Against Broadband Bandits

If you use a broadband technology, such as a DSL or a cable modem, you need to protect yourself from hackers. Unlike dial-up users, broadband consumers maintain a persistent connection to the Internet. But because this type of connection is always linked to the Net, it allows hackers -- and novices using readily available hacking tools -- to break into your system. Without your knowledge, unscrupulous users can access, delete and rename files, or even format any of your drives. (To determine whether your PC is vulnerable to attack, log on to ShieldsUp, a free security site at http://www.grc.com/ShieldsUp.)Safer SurfingSome broadband ISPs are now taking steps to protect their customers. Road Runner, for example, proactively checks its customers' PCs for weak points that hackers commonly exploit. Still, a personal firewall provides better defense.

Symantec's $60 Norton Internet Security 2000 is the latest and most full-featured example of this new class of product that we've seen (+1-800-441-7234, http://www.symantec.com).

Inside the Box

Norton Internet Security 2000 contains software for creating a personal firewall as well as a copy of Norton AntiVirus 2000. When online, you're essentially logged on to a network within the Internet. The firewall blocks intruders several ways such as by protocol, IP address, port or specific application.

Other Norton Internet Security features make browsing less annoying: The utility prevents Java applets from loading, removes banner ads, halts pop-up browser windows and blocks cookies. The product works on Windows 9x (but not on NT).

If you want something simpler, consider Network Ice's $40 BlackIce Defender (+1-650-341-6886, http://www.networkice.com). Though its interface isn't as snazzy as Norton's, BlackIce provides equal protection. It's also easier to use, and it has extensive online tutorials about hacking attacks.

Cheaper still is Zone Labs' recently announced firewall, ZoneAlarm 2.0, which is free to individuals for personal use. We couldn't test it in time for this review, but it may warrant a look after its scheduled January release (http://www.zonelabs.com).

-- Steve Bass

Four Ways to Beat the Broadband Blues

1. Buy a PC with ethernet built in. Current cable and DSL modems attach to a PC via a network card. If your system already has a card, you'll save on installation time and avoid hassles.

2. Keep your 56K-bps modem.Don't cancel your old dial-up account until you're satisfied that your broadband account is working reliably.

3. Fight bad service. When all else fails, cable users should contact their local cable administrator and file a complaint. DSL users can contact the FCC (http://www.fcc.gov/cib) or their local public utilities commission. In addition, cable and DSL customers can always file a complaint with their local Better Business Bureau.

4. Check your speed. Not sure whether you're getting your money's worth? Check your broadband speed with http://www.speedguide.net or http://computingcentral.msn.com/topics/bandwidth/speedtest.asp.

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