Five years ago, the promise of DSL captured the imagination of tech heads everywhere. What a concept: High speed, broadband Internet access, through conventional phone lines! There would be few installation worries, no new wiring and soon, the whole world would be hooked up with fast connections to what was then called the Information Superhighway. Competing with that were the cable companies, with their cable modems that many thought would be too hard for already-overtapped cable installers and support departments to implement. It seemed like the smart money was on the various DSL technologies.

What a difference five years makes! Even though frenzied investments built out the fiber optic backbone of the Internet and the last mile of DSL, the bursting bubble of 2000 turned the blue skies of DSL noticeably gray. Meanwhile, the steady progress of cable broadband has resulted in a sizable lead for cable access to the Internet.
Since the bubble burst, the DSL world has been reduced to a shambles. Last-mile providers like Northpoint and Rhythms went bankrupt, leaving users with nowhere to go. Allow me to relate my experience with DSL, which seems to be fairly typical of many users across the US.

Even though the Midwest Test Facility of Digital Media Net is about 12,000 feet away from the nearest central office of the local phone company (Ameritech), in March 2000 an upstart DSL provider, Telocity, lured us into using its service. When the company promised “over 700 kbps,” I jumped at the offer, especially since the local cable provider, Time-Warner, wouldn’t be able to offer cable Internet access here for what would turn out to be another 18 months.

At first, the speed that was promised was the speed that was delivered. It seemed nothing short of miraculous, especially compared to the dial-up access we were struggling with before that. But after only about a week, the problems started. The speed would drop down to an agonizing slowness that was comparable to dial-up. The email server would go down. An odd problem with the http server would happen on a regular basis that made some Web sites (notably, the very ones I needed to get to at Digital Media Net) inaccessible. And then, for days at a time, nothing. Everything would just shut down. The service was downright laughable.

But we had no choice. There was no cable access; I was certainly not going to use satellite Internet access with all its attendant horror stories (not to mention that for most of this time there was no such thing as a satellite uplink – that leg of the satellite equation was fulfilled by my old friend, dial-up), and I certainly wasn’t going back to my old ISDN line that cost $80 a month and was scarcely faster than dial-up. We were stuck. And so were many others, with no choice. That’s probably why DSL, in those days, was able to retain customers.

It’s not that we quit looking. On a regular basis, DSL offers would come in from Earthlink, from AOL, from Ameritech, from others. Each time, I would respond to these tantalizing offers, with hopes of DSL finally fulfilling its great promise. Typically, these companies would act like I could use their service, dispatch a phone company installer to come out here and do who-knows-what, send me a modem and connection instructions, send another technician, only to find out that no, they couldn’t install DSL here. Then, time and time again, I would get caught in a loop where the company was charging me anyway for service that they couldn’t hook up. I’m not kidding – I went through this drill four times over the 18 months. Throughout all these installation attempts, I had the distinct impression that the phone company here, Ameritech, was dragging its feet. Why should it bend over backwards for its competitors? That is the crux of the problem with DSL.

Meanwhile, the Telocity DSL service didn’t improve. In fact, it slowed down, rarely able to top 350 kbps. Then, Telocity was bought by DirecTV, and our last-mile provider, Rhythms, went bankrupt, and was substituted by Ameritech. Suddenly, we were under a new wing, but no better off. Service was spotty, and when I called the company, there was no relief. First, I would wait almost an hour on hold before anybody answered. Then, when someone did answer, invariably I would be sent to someone else, with even more time on hold. And even with all that poor service, refunds were not forthcoming unless each specific outage was reported. But to report an outage required two hours on hold. I was at the end of my rope.

And then, as if by divine providence, when things were at their worst Time Warner finally made its RoadRunner cable Internet service available to us. I never thought I’d hear myself praising my cable company, but this has been a completely painless experience. The installer came when they said he would, hooked up the cable, I plugged it into our router here at the facility, and suddenly, all our computers here were lashed onto a beast of an Internet connection. I’ve repeatedly measured the speed of this monster, and it consistently gives us download speeds in excess of 1900 kbps, even at busy times of the day. The upload speed is also good, at a not-too-shabby 350 kbps.

I hate to sound like some kind of shill for the local cable monopoly, but the contrast between DSL and cable has been stark here at the Midwest Test Facility. Cable good, DSL bad. And, judging from numerous message boards and experience of users all over the US, I have the distinct impression that we are not the only ones who have noticed this. The idea of broadband speeds over copper was certainly compelling. Too bad the Keystone Cops implementing DSL dropped the ball.