Why DSL still sucks.

Inside the Internet.
Jan. 17 2002 12:38 PM

Why DSL Still Sucks

Practical explanations and compelling conspiracy theories.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Journalism doesn't get more anecdotal than this, but it seems like everyone I know with a DSL connection to the Internet has bitched about it. At length. To me. Can't get connected. Can't stay connected. Got connected and then, mysteriously, lost the connection for weeks and weeks, and no one could get them back on.

Just how hard can it be to put people in the fast lane and keep them there, anyway?

A flurry of acronyms must accompany any discussion of telecommunication issues, so please bear with me. DSL stands for digital subscriber line, the technology that connects you to the Internet through your conventional telephone line. This dependency on conventional telephone lines is where the connectivity problems begin for many DSL customers. As the phone lines leave your house or office, they join an infrastructure consisting of wires and telecommunications equipment of varying quality, types, and ages, all owned and operated by your local exchange carrier (LEC, typically the local Baby Bell—such as Verizon, Qwest, and SBC).


Your LEC also owns the destination of all these wires: the centraloffice. The CO is just a big building where telephone wires from all the homes and offices in your service area meet. In the old days, the CO was where an operator sat at a switchboard and connected your wire with that of the other party and, eventually, long-distance lines. Over time, the switchboard became automated.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act required your LEC to connect your phone line to competitors' services.Suddenly DSL providers—both independent operators and Baby Bells—sprang up in droves. Note that the Baby Bells could have introduced DSL at any time but chose not to until there was competition.

Into your house these providers installed DSL modems, which turn Internet traffic into high-frequency signals that can be transmitted across normal phone lines alongside lower-frequency voice traffic. Into your central office, they placed boxes called DSLAMs (DSL access multiplexors), which decode those signals back into Internet traffic and then send them on to a high-speed Internet connection. Simple enough.

Regulating Boxes and Wires
Actually, not that simple. The same regulations that made them open their CO to the competition allowed the LECs to establish inscrutable rules to protect the security of the building and the sanctity of the machines and cables therein.

The scattering of responsibility and lack of reliable service from the LECs make it tough for a DSL provider to debug a bad connection. Is it in the phone line? A bad switch at the CO? A broken DSLAM? Or is it a funky user setting on the customer's PC? Or the wires connecting the PC to the DSLAM? Only the LEC can fix problems with the telephone lines carrying your DSL service. But they aren't going to hurry, and they have no incentive to do it right the first time if it's going to benefit their competitors.

The Baby Bells own the CO, the wires, and their own high-speed Internet connections. They are uniquely well-placed to provide their own DSL service. Robert X. Cringely argued a year ago that through a combination of poor service and price gouging, the Baby Bells were attempting to corner the market on DSL for themselves. Whether he was right or not, many of the high-profile independent DSL players (Northpoint, Rhythms) have gone bankrupt, and the Baby Bells are now the largest DSL providers by far.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Conspiracy Theories So, let's say your DSL provider is a Baby Bell. Everything should work great now, right? Wrong! Things still go wrong. Horribly wrong. Why? Pick your theory.


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