Trouble in DSL's broadband paradise

DSL hell arrives as the 'high-speed line' gets a reputation for late hookups, poor connections, flaky email, clueless tech support and brainless billing

Digital Subscriber Line service, which promises to provide consumers with a path to broadband happiness, is proving it can be its own special kind of hell. Complaints of late hookups, poor connections, flaky email, clueless tech support and brainless billing by many Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) retailers are now commonplace on newsgroups and email lists around the Net. And the much-hyped high-speed access technology is proving to be a customer relations nightmare for many Internet service providers (ISPs), both large and small. Californian-based Flashcom gets heavy criticism from customers for badly botching nearly every aspect of its service, starting with installation. Mickey Williams of Laguna Beach, ordered DSL service from the company on August. 18 and was told the line would be up by September 27. The company never showed up to set up the service. After numerous calls, hours on hold and several unanswered emails, he's still without a high-speed line. "So, I've been waiting two months and I'm convinced that even if some sort of line does get installed, that Flashcom would manage to completely screw up my service somehow," Williams said.

'Run and hide the women and children!'

The company has gathered 33 mostly negative comments at and has become somewhat infamous in that community. "Run and hide the women and children!" wrote one respondent warning others away from the company's service. The complaints aren't new to Flashcom Chief Executive Brad Sachs, who said the problems are caused by a combination of high demand, a highly fallible line provisioning system and more complex technology at the user end. "Everybody expects DSL to be like dial-up [service]. It's more like adding a T1 line. We're pushing a dedicated product into a consumer marketplace," he said. Flashcom has 30,000 DSL customers and is adding 500 per day. Sachs admitted the rapid scaling has not gone smoothly. "The general vibe on Flashcom is it's a pain setting up and a pain getting [tech] support," conceded Sachs, who is heavily hiring staff to handle the load. "A lot of it is growing pains."

Tech support quiet period?

The company is spending $10 million on a new back-office system and is about to close its second round of venture capital for $50 million. There is widespread speculation that Flashcom is pumping itself up with as many customers as possible to improve its chances for a successful initial public offering of stock early next year. Sachs said he wants to have 1 million subscribers by 2001. Flashcom isn't alone on the DSL dishonor roll. GTE, Pacific Bell and numerous other smaller DSL retailers, such as InternetConnect, are getting bashed by unhappy customers for failing to fully deliver on their promises. Poor customer service is a universal complaint, and it appears clear many DSL retailers are working with shoestring staffs. DSL representatives at GTE, Pacific Bell and InternetConnect couldn't be reached for comment. "It they don't get better at supporting the DSL service, they won't have many customers," said Lisa Pierce, director of domestic telecom services at Giga Information Group. "The issue is, how much do they care about fixing it? Some will see the light and some won't." DSL vendors prefer to point fingers elsewhere. Gargage in, garbage out. "DSL is a horrible product," said Max Avroutski, CEO of Terabit.Net in New York. "You have to understand how much garbage we have to deal with." Like other DSL vendors, Avroutski blamed the messy DSL provisioning regimen for most of his problems. To get DSL running for a customer, the retailer must work with a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), such as Covad Communications or NorthPoint Communications, which in turn has to ask for a local loop from the regional Bell company. The complex dance often goes poorly and leaves the customer without service and angry at the retailer. "We get blamed for everything," Avroutski said. Critical customer data -- such as details about the customer connection -- also often gets lost in the transaction between the local Bell company and CLEC partners. Add to that the fact that the Bell considers the CLEC a competitor and the situation is ripe for errors, industry executives said. "There are hundreds of steps that have to be executed perfectly," said Catherine Hapka, CEO of competitive carrier Rhythms NetConnections.

Automation the answer

Provisioning experts said the answer is automation between all the partners in the process, something that probably won't happen for several years. "DSL has a way to go before you can pop a CD in your PC and go," said Avhi Ingle, senior product manager at Covad. That leaves DSL retailer tech support lines jammed with calls. Flashcom wait times range from 20 to 40 minutes, but Sachs said his churn rate is low. "Broadband access services are still rare enough that customers are willing to put up with lousy service, but that situation will change pretty rapidly. People will have choices and they won't have to settle for flaky email or dropped connections," said Warren Wilson, an analyst at Summit Strategies. Larger players such as Bell Atlantic and SBC are moving into DSL, but it remains to be seen whether they can improve their own poor track records in customer service. Meanwhile, DSL wholesalers do their best to duck end-user problems by referring any complaints back to the original retailer. "You can't talk to NorthPoint if you have a problem," said owner Justin Beech. "And your ISP already has your money and is concentrating on new business." NorthPoint Vice President of Marketing Judy Levine said DSL provision issues are improving and that "Everybody in the process is worried about the success and satisfaction of customers." But that worry doesn't appear to translate into pickiness about which retailers NorthPoint does business with. When asked about Flashcom's problems, Levine said: "I won't comment directly on their business." The situation leaves some customers wondering where to turn for dependable service. Many start-up DSL retailers appear to be selling ahead of their capabilities while larger players arrive. A shakeout in the industry is expected before long. "A lot of these [DSL vendors] won't be in the business much longer," Beech said.