Off-the-Rack DSL Not a Good Fit Yet

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - Your shopping list: milk, butter, coffee beans, and broadband. Don't laugh. Already, you can pick up a Digital Subscriber Line bundle with a modem and service at some retail outlets. Upcoming deals promise to save time and reduce aggravation by letting you install DSL yourself. And do-it-yourself cable modems are also in the works. But temper your excitement:

The reality we experienced was far from trouble-free.

Several national retail chains let you order DSL from their stores. Since November 1999, 3Com Home Connect modems bundled with Bell Atlantic DSL service have been available from some Best Buy, Staples, and CompUSA Inc. stores. You can get one of these 3Com Corp. modems for $229, or $99 after a rebate. The bundled DSL service costs $50 monthly.

Despite its seeming convenience, the arrangement turned into a fiasco when we put it to the test. The CompUSA clerk said we qualified for service; after we installed the modem, Bell Atlantic said nope--but then changed its tune a week later, an omen of the muddles to come. Two months and 40 exasperating phone calls later, the service still didn't work. The phone line itself went dead for a week and a half. Bell Atlantic dispatched technicians only after we identified ourselves as PC World journalists. Company techs arrived the next day and fixed the problem. It was an "isolated incident," says Colson Hillier, Bell Atlantic marketing manager, but DSL installation problems are not uncommon across the nation.

Future Options

Other DSL services are venturing cautiously into retail. US West has had a retail presence since November at five Denver-area CompUSA outlets, where customers can see a DSL demonstration and order service from a kiosk. Then US West will ship a modem that the customer can install independently. US West spokesperson Barry Hawkins says 93 percent of the service's retail DSL customers save up to $150 by installing the modems themselves--and 86 percent finish the job. US West won't charge for a technician if you've made a good-faith effort to do it yourself.

America Online and Gateway have joined forces to sell do-it-yourself AOL Plus DSL service. The program began in December, though it is available through only two Gateway Country stores thus far. The staff checks whether you qualify for DSL, records your service order ($42 a month), and ships you the $99 USB modem.

Free installation help is available by telephone.

Microsoft, NorthPoint Communications, and Tandy (Radio Shack) intend to bundle DSL modems and DSL-equipped PCs with MSN Internet Access and NorthPoint service. They'll announce pricing when the service debuts in early spring.

Activation initially will include installation, but "ultimately we will have user installations," says NorthPoint Communications' Jim Monroe.

Retail broadband still has a long way to go. For now, do-it-yourself installation remains chancy. "There's no guarantee that you can install DSL on your own," says Laurie Falconer, DSL analyst at TeleChoice. As with any new technology, patience and realistic expectations are advised.

--Eric Brown

Beware of New No-Cost Broadband Options

The cheapest DSL service costs $42 monthly, but soon you may get it for free--or more precisely, in exchange for sharing demographic information and looking at ads.

In January, Broadband Digital Group opened registration on In exchange for the free service, you accept a permanent browser window containing advertisements on your screen. Southern California Internet service provider Staruni is launching a similar free, ad-supported DSL service via its portal this year. In New York, INYC ( plans a free DSL service based on reward coupons--you click on banner ads. And free dial-up vendor Smart World Technologies ( introduced an ad-supported service, FreeXDSL.

Analysts are skeptical about free broadband. The services seem like marketing gimmicks to get consumer information, says Joe Laszlo of Jupiter Communications. Moreover, the viability of free DSL services remains a question. If the service goes under and disappears, that's no bargain.

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