When we moved to our current Bay Area home in 2010, it seemed wise—given our reliance on the Internet for our work—to get both cable Internet and DSL service, to ensure a connection in all but the worst of circumstances. We had one choice for cable: Comcast, which is under no obligation to share its lines or central facilities. But because of different rules governing copper-line connections, we had more than one choice for DSL. And rather than send money to AT&T, a company that has earned widespread contempt—notably, most recently, for its eagerness to turn over its customers’ data to the government’s pervasive-surveillance maw—we opted for a more trustworthy alternative.
Our DSL comes from a small company called Sonic, based north of San Francisco. It’s an independent in an industry dominated by a cable-phone cartel notorious for greed, customer disservice, and control-freakery. Sonic is innovative and aggressive in good ways, expanding its footprint by providing excellent service at a fair price. It has (from first-hand experience) a genuine commitment to customer service. And, reflecting the civil-libertarian beliefs of its founder and CEO, Dane Jasper, it is the anti-AT&T when it comes to privacy and security.
Sonic consistently gets a perfect score from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for protecting users’ privacy. Unlike most Internet service providers, which hang on to users’ data for months or years, Sonic retains customer data for just two weeks, long enough to troubleshoot network problems and provide law enforcement help in emergencies but not long enough to fuel copyright trolls or government fishing expeditions. “We’re not trying to help people evade the law,” Jasper says. “We're trying to protect the privacy of our lawful customers.”
Sonic also fought back when the government subpoenaed a user’s information during its ongoing investigation of WikiLeaks—“so he would have an opportunity to fight it,” says Jasper. The court let Sonic tell the customer, who was identified in press accounts as Jacob Appelbaum, but the ISP was required to hand over the data.
Like other DSL competitors, Sonic co-locates its own equipment inside the phone company's facilities, effectively renting the copper lines. For the small percentage of Sonic customers whose setup requires the use of AT&T's central-office electronics—most customers are using Sonic gear on both ends of the conection—Sonic provides a virtual private network service at no extra charge. AT&T may be saving and handing over its own customers’ information willy-nilly, but Sonic customers’ Internet traffic (at least, for people taking advantage of the VPN) is subject to Sonic’s data-retention policies, not AT&T’s, a major improvement.**
Jasper says Sonic has business and residential customers—he won’t say how many, and he doesn’t have to since he runs a privately held company—in 125 California communities. The vast majority have some variant of DSL, which uses the copper wires from the traditional phone system. But advances in technology have given companies like Sonic a way to offer significantly more connection speed than was available on DSL a decade ago.
Sonic’s speed offerings, for DSL customers who live close enough to phone company facilities (we don’t, unfortunately), are amazingly fast: up to 100 megabits per second, and occasionally more, for a dual-line setup that connects two phones. The high-speed data comes with a wired phone line—a kind of “double play” in telecom parlance that is only $60 a month plus various fees and taxes. A single-line setup is $40 a month but still, in a good location, is plenty fast. (Sonic has a deal with DirecTV to offer a small discount on the satellite provider’s service). Now Sonic is deploying fiber, so far in two northern California communities with more to come; fiber is Sonic’s most important new frontier. Jasper’s goal is to offer super-fast fiber, gigabit-level connections, plus phone for the $40 base price as widely as possible.*
Jasper and Sonic aren’t the only noncartel competition in the country, though the collective independent footprint is dwarfed by the telecom giants’ installations. There are many wireless ISPs, though their data speeds can’t generally keep up with wired connections. A Toronto-based company, Tucows (disclosure: the CEO is a friend), has moved into the ISP business as well: It’s taken over several small independent systems (one built by a city) in the eastern U.S., with plans to move further into the business. And, of course, Google is a huge competitor to the entrenched telecoms in the few cities it’s been wiring for gigabit service.
Even if Sonic never brings its fastest connections to our address, I’ll stick with them. It feels important to do business with companies that believe in doing the right thing. From what I’ve seen, Sonic is one of them.
*Update, Aug. 26, 2015: This post was updated to clarify that the fastest DSL service requires two linked phone lines, while most customers get a single line at a lower cost.
**Update, Aug. 27, 2015: This post was updated to reflect that while Sonic's DSL customers are using AT&T's lines, only a small percentage of them are using AT&T electronics.