Web Informant #259, 27 August 2001:
The wild west of DSL


"We are now at the point with the Internet that they were with the railroad in 1850. It's just beginning."
--- John Steele Gordon, quoted in this Sunday's NY Times.

I have been thinking a lot about the rise of railroads with respect to Internet access, particularly the rags to riches to rags evolution of digital subscriber line (DSL) connections. As you probably know, DSL has gone from darling to disaster in just a few short years. Those of you unlucky to pick the wrong DSL supplier such as Rhythms or Northpoint have been frustrated because both companies have gone out of the DSL business. It is a heck of a way to run a railroad.

DSL seemed like a great idea when I first wrote about it back in 1994. But it was also a lot of work and required a great deal of cash, people, and skills to connect up every telephone company central office to the Internet.

When the DSL suppliers go bust, they have left their customers in the lurch, scrambling to find another ISP and another DSL supplier to maintain their Internet connection. Many customers had less than a month to switch their lines. This may or may not be easy, depending on where these customers live and what alternatives there are for DSL service and whether they can navigate the dark technical waters of the switching process.

The only DSL suppliers that are left are the phone companies and Covad. Covad was the first to start the entire DSL gold rush, and they happen to be my own DSL supplier for my office (I have a cable modem at home). I also happen to be a stockholder; as a result of some consulting work I did for them in their early days.

Covad just did a few financial tricks of its own to stay solvent for a while longer, and they still are providing service to several hundred thousand customers. I hope they continue to thrive, if for no other reason than we all need some competition to the Bells for DSL.

The beginning of the railroad era is a good history lesson for those of us considering DSL today. I happened to stop by a great museum on a recent trip to the Denver area. At the museum I found lots of old maps of where the rail lines went in their heyday of the late 1880s. There even was an analog switching console that was installed by the Burlington Railroad at Brush, CO in 1937. The panel was used to control about 150 miles of track east of Denver to Akron, Colorado. You can see a better schematic diagram of a similar one here.

When I first saw the console I thought, wow, all the way from Denver to Akron, Ohio - now that is one long network! Still, it was impressive thinking that someone (actually several people) sat at this thing and monitored the trains that ran back and forth and kept them from colliding. And it was also impressive that this console was in service up until 1995 when it was taken to the museum and replaced with digital switching technologies.

I don't think DSL will go away or even decline. But DSL is losing the battle for mind share because of several factors. First, because of the spectacular rise and fall of Rhythms and Northpoint, many corporate customers are reluctant to get involved with the technology purely on the basis of corporate stability. Second, DSL service costs more than most cable modem access, making it a difficult sell to home consumers. Third, it isn't as rock-solid as ISDN or leased line technologies, and I have heard of several corporate IT managers who are again considering the higher cost of these lines over DSL because they want reliable network suppliers.

Now, I don't think that ISDN will be making a comeback. But I do look wistfully over in the corner of my office where several ISDN modems are kept, once so valuable and now just curious relics of a bygone era, like that analog switch console from Colorado.

So what will happen with DSL? I think that Covad and the Bells have to do a better job. The phone companies have to learn how to sell data circuits -- they never did with ISDN, and they still don't with DSL. They have to learn to work with ISPs to deliver as seamless a product as possible, which is a tall order given that all three parties (Bells, ISPs, and Covad) are sworn mortal corporate enemies and trying to put the others out of business.

I don't really want to rely on my cable company for my Internet access, although these days they do offer service to my office building, something that wasn't available when I made the switch from ISDN to DSL several years ago. It is nice to have competition. However, getting cable Internet service at home it is one thing, although with my wife working at home it is stretching her patience and productivity to have an Internet connection that is out of service for minutes or hours.

I don't want to have to go back to dealing with The Phone Company to get my Internet access. I also don't want to have to go through switching the line again to another ISP. But I do wish my ISP would be better at billing me: my monthly bill rarely comes the same day of the month, which is something that my phone company has down to a precise science.

So I am hopeful about DSL. But cautious too: I think I'll keep those ISDN routers a few more years. Perhaps some museum will want to put them in an exhibit of their own.

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David Strom
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