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News flash: Verizon thinks the Internet-access market is just fine

My most recent column on network neutrality -- posted online Friday, in Sunday's paper -- has drawn a lengthy response from Verizon. You may not be stunned to hear that the company doesn't agree with my read on the situation.

In a post on the company's policy blog, the assistant vice president for Internet and technology issues, Link Hoewing, argues that my column oversells the virtues of dial-up and DSL competition and undersells people's current choices in broadband service.

Now, there may be days when I miss the chance to decry a standards war as utterly pointless as the squabble between "K56flex" and "X2" 56-kbps modems. But let's stick to the two basic critiques in Hoewing's post.

First, we have Hoewing writing that "the vast majority of dial-up services were not differentiated in meaningful ways for consumers" and making the same observation about DSL. He further cites his own experience at the then-Bell Atlantic to suggest that government line-sharing requirements not only failed to spur useful competition but made DSL "very shaky," unlike today.

Well, I was reporting on Internet access back in those days myself. And not only did I cover some notably superior dial-up providers -- for instance, ClarkNet, Digex, Heller Information Services and PatriotNet -- I saw a similar differentiation among DSL services.

And for many years, those sold by Bell Atlantic and then Verizon ranked well below those of competitors in reports from readers and in coverage at such third-party sites as DSLReports. After the jump, you can read two columns I wrote in 2000 and 2001 about the company's troubles -- troubles that led me to pick a third-party DSL firm, Speakeasy Network, when I upgraded from dial-up in 1999.

I can attest that Speakeasy's service was anything but shaky and remained so for many years. But I eventually upgraded to a Fios connection because its pricing and bandwidth couldn't match up with Verizon's, while I was no longer seeing so many complaints about Verizon from readers and neighbors. (Writing this will probably jinx everything, but you can count me as a satisfied Fios Internet customer.)

But what if you don't have Fios to upgrade to? Here, Hoewing tries to put a good spin on the company ending its Fios expansion into new markets, writing that "Verizon has multi-year projects currently underway to deploy FiOS in major urban markets such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia." That list omits the major urban markets of Baltimore and Boston, each now shut out of Fios.

It also neglects Verizon's plan to unload many of its DSL customers to Frontier Communications. As this excellent Ars Technica piece outlines, Frontier has offered some of the country's most expensive, most limited DSL service packages, complete with the sort of bandwidth caps normally confined to wireless broadband.

Finally, there's his argument that where Verizon can't reach, cable will fill the gap:

The top five cable companies currently pass 103 million housing units, or more than 80% of the country's homes. So it appears large portions of America will have very capable broadband network technologies and many already do.

I leave it as exercise for the reader to imagine how happy Hoewing would be to have a cable operator as his only choice for reasonably fast broadband. You're welcome to conduct that exercise -- or opine that my rebuttal is as unfounded as the original column -- in the comments.


-----

Published on: Friday, 3/10/2000, Fast Forward section,
edition, zone, E01

LOGGING ON For Some Bell Atlantic Customers, It's DSHell
By Rob Pegoraro


Instead of fast downloads, some Bell Atlantic DSL customers are getting down time, hold music and hang-ups. Users of the company's high-speed digital-subscriber-line Internet access report persistent, recurring outages, compounded by a customer-service meltdown of Chernobyl-esque proportions.

Quantifying the problem is hard; Bell Atlantic doesn't have concrete figures on the situation, and some customers say they have no complaints at all. But the ones who do are enraged by this state of affairs.

"Their phone lines don't work, they put you on hold, they drop you, they don't know what they're talking about--their support is just, just awful!" said Brad Gibson, a technology journalist in Arlington who uses Bell Atlantic's DSL to connect to his Internet provider, Silver Spring-based Atlantech Inc.

Customer gripes start with service outages, which appear to come and go unpredictably: Connectivity collapses repeatedly for some users, but others log on without a hitch.

Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen said that overall DSL uptime is at 99.5 percent--meaning the network is down "something like 3 1/2 hours a month," which she noted is short of the company's goal of the same reliability as voice phone service. But she added that some outages are the fault of software bugs that afflict only certain users--meaning those people will experience worse performance than the overall number suggests.

Rasmussen was unable to provide a log of outages in the Washington area. After looking at one Capitol Hill resident's records, she did, however, confirm that DSL was out of service in that customer's area on Aug. 16, Nov. 2, Jan. 26 and Feb. 15, while a "fiber cut" interrupted access for both DSL and dial-up customers (as well as those of other Internet providers) on March 4.

Other customers reported widely varying performance. "Sometimes a major router blows and affects a broad area. Sometimes it's just a user or two, most commonly when there's a problem with the equipment serving the last mile. This causes the user to 'lose synch' with the central office (CO), and may affect that user only," wrote Shawn Winnie, a customer in the District. He cited two-day outages in December and February, as well as a day-long loss of service in January.

S.K. Ahn, a BellAtlantic.net customer in Arlington, said he has encountered only brief interruptions after going through a rough stretch last fall. "There are still intermittent outages lasting anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes," he wrote.

But Kenneth Bass, another Bell Atlantic.net customer in Arlington, said things were fine. "We had an additional short outage during one of the snowstorms . . . but otherwise have been running smoothly since then," he wrote. "BA did give us some credits for the period of outages, and they did try to be responsive on a couple of occasions when we complained bitterly about the whole process."

Another Bell Atlantic user in the District, who asked not to be identified further, also gave the service a thumbs-up. "Occasionally the system will be very slow, but that is only once every month or two for a short duration, maybe half a day at most," he wrote. "In general, we've been very happy for the last several months."

Meanwhile, the comp.dcom.xdsl newsgroup--one of the most popular forums for talking about DSL--has been buzzing with complaints about Bell Atlantic outages in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Queens, N.Y., that last for days or even weeks.

But the anger over service outages is just a murmur compared with the screaming about technical support.

"BA's tech support has been the most aggravating I've ever seen," said Winnie. He summarized his experience: "After convincing a Level 1 tech that a problem exists, get put in the queue to wait for a Level 2 tech. The Level 1 tech may offer a nine-digit 'trouble ticket' number. This system allows the next technician to claim that there is no such number in their system and ask the same questions again. Then either (a) wait for an hour or so, or (b) wait for an hour or so and get disconnected."

He slammed Bell Atlantic for not offering alternatives to the phone line, saying that e-mail queries go unanswered and that the company is "stupid" for not setting up a newsgroup where it could post announcements and customers could share tips.

Gibson reported an experience much like Winnie's: "I called them Saturday morning at 8 a.m. EST. I waited on hold for about an hour to get to tier 1." After being quizzed on the state of his equipment, he was sent up to the next level of tech support: "So finally they bump me up to tier 2, and I'm on hold for an hour, and all of a sudden . . . click, I'm gone."

"Tech support is abysmal. Individuals there are poorly trained and obviously overworked," said Greg Close, a software consultant in Arlington. "They promised to call me back half a dozen times and never did. I had to give the same information over and over about my system configuration each time I called."

Rasmussen couldn't give the average hold time--a standard metric for customer-service quality--but said: "We're aware that customers have . . . been on hold for longer than we would like. We're working to improve that situation."

Those promises aren't good enough to people with Bell Atlantic's Muzak echoing into their heads after hours on hold. Gibson put it succinctly:

"I realize that my $40 does not pay for that much technical support. But how much should it? Tell me! How come I get service twice as good as this on my electric bill or my regular phone line? Why should I get any less?"

My advice: Think hard before signing up with Bell Atlantic's DSL. It's not that the company is evil; its cell-phone service, for instance, has many happy customers (me included). But its DSL division just seems swamped. And you have a choice: You can take your business to competitors such as Covad (http://www.covad.com), Rhythms (http://www.rhythms.com) and Northpoint (http://www.northpointcom.com).

If, however, you are a Bell Atlantic DSL customer, I hope your connection does stay up--and that you have a speakerphone handy if you do need to call tech support.

-----

Published on: Friday, 3/30/2001, Business section,
edition, zone, E01

Customers Still Have Issues With Verizon DSL
LOGGING ON
By Rob Pegoraro


Is a digital subscriber line Internet connection from Verizon a safe bet? The answer is often another question: Do you feel lucky?

Many Verizon customers soon found out that they weren't. After the former Bell Atlantic began offering high-speed Internet access over regular phone lines in the fall of 1998, the complaints began to mount -- illogical hardware requirements, botched installations, unexplained downtime, poor newsgroup access, clueless tech support and more. I've gotten a steady stream of such laments in my e-mail and in my online chats.

And yet DSL customers keep signing up. Verizon says it's on track to reach 700,000 users by the end of this quarter, up from 540,000 at the end of 2000 and 87,000 a year earlier. (This includes people using an Internet provider besides Verizon over the DSL connection -- more on that in a bit.) These people can't all be wrong. Right?

It's hard to say. Satisfied customers are less likely than unhappy ones to fire off an e-mail about their service. But the tenor of what I hear from Verizon users actually has shifted. They seem less aggravated, if still bitter over past mistreatment.

The single biggest problem, verified by almost every Verizon user I've ever communicated with, remains tech support -- "awful, horrible, horrendous," in the words of David Shulman, a customer in the District.

"Usually, I know exactly what the problem is and make the mistake that the level-one tech is actually a tech," he said. "But each time I call, the level-one people always make me go through the same song and dance about what operating system I am using, whether everything is connected properly, et cetera."

Using a first tier of support reps to handle the easy problems is a common, and commonly exasperating, practice in the tech business. Verizon spokesman Larry Plumb says the company is working to make this more effective. "We've hired hundreds of additional people, beefed up training, added diagnostic tools. . . . We've made a lot of progress," he said.

He added that the average hold time is down to 3 minutes from its former peak of 18, although "at peak times, it can be longer."

And if you can hang in there, you should be able to reach somebody who can fix the problem, and possibly waive part of the $39.95 monthly fee to compensate.

"Up to this point, they have been responsive on complaints," said Judy Tankersley, director of operations for the Washington area Better Business Bureau. "Most of them have been resolved."

Quality of service is another issue. Justin Beech, who runs the DSLReports.com site -- an online forum that's essential reading for broadband users -- still calls Verizon's DSL "well below average," considering its recent e-mail delivery problems. But several users volunteered that Verizon's uptime has improved remarkably. "After a good seven or eight months of constant DSL problems . . . I'm happy to report that the service now works well, 90 percent or more of the time," said Ira Rifkin, a Web producer in Annapolis. Plumb said uptime is now "well over 99 percent." Even that, however, would leave plenty of time for the brief disconnections other customers reported.

Finally, there's the protocol Verizon uses to connect customers to its own network. Along with several other large DSL providers, such as EarthLink, Verizon employs what's called PPPoE -- point-to-point protocol over Ethernet.

That lets Verizon assign its users temporary numerical Internet Protocol addresses on demand -- a cheaper option than letting each user keep one, unchanging IP address. Plumb said PPPoE also offers more security for Verizon, allowing it to tell who's using its network and when.

These advantages can be invisible to its customers.

"After booting up, I have to run a sign-in program," Shulman groused. "What's even worse is that it will sometimes disconnect me, and there is no automated reconnect sequence. I've found that if I'm on Napster [or Gnutella], and I have too many uploads going at once, it will automatically cut me off."

Many smaller DSL providers, by contrast, use simpler protocols with no goofy sign-on procedures, haven't had Verizon's storied meltdowns and offer better tech support. They also charge more. Such a deal might appeal to some Verizon victims -- but many are too afraid to try.

Said Arthur Guilani in Alexandria: "At this time I wouldn't even think of going with another provider. Based on my experience with Verizon, I am scared to switch service."

Arlington customer Sam Stetson offered another explanation I hear a lot: "Since they all lease [the connection] from Bell Atlantic, what advantage would you have?"

In fact, the only part of Verizon's equipment that competing carriers Covad and Rhythms use is the copper telephone wire and racks in Verizon's neighborhood central offices. Everything else -- the DSL hub in your house, the gear in the central office and the network connection out of there -- is run by the other carrier.

The fact that these other companies don't have Verizon's ad budget doesn't mean they don't exist. You can visit their Web sites (http://www.covad.com and http://www.rhythms.com) to see what ISPs offer their services.

If you'd rather not rely on an upstart telecom firm, you can use a few other Internet providers with Verizon's DSL -- America Online, for instance. Read DSL Reports to see what other customers say. And don't forget to consider cable modems, if you're in a neighborhood with two-way service.

You do have a choice. That choice could be Verizon -- but, please, do your research first.


By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 19, 2010; 4:31 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Telecom , The business we have chosen  
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Comments

Back in the day, it pained me leaving Speakeasy because there service and always-on connection was stellar, but bandwidth wise, they weren't in the same league as Comcast.
And, lol, Verizon dsl was very dependent on distance to the CO & I was too far. -those were the days of dsl choice, at leaset. Now, it's pricey Comcast or Fios.-ugh.
Keep up the good work, for us conusmers, Rob!

Posted by: Hattrik | April 19, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

I missed your 2000 article on Bell Atlantic DSL, but could have been one of the quoted former customers. For a year my DSL worked fine -- early adopter. Then, for a month, nothing at all -- I guess why a free dial-in service was included with the DSL subscription. I called regularly, no solution provided. On the last call, I asked firmly "What exactly was the problem" and was told blandly "Can't tell you, that is proprietary information".

I'd had it, replied here's my proprietary information -- my account with you is cancelled right now! Take care of it. I called Comcast, and within two hours I had two techs in my house installing two-way cable.

Eight years later, I succumbed to the siren call of FiOS. It took two months and numerous tech visits before all three services were working, but I must admit it was the TV portion which was the repeated problem. And that gave numerous difficulties over the year, and then required eight (?) tech visits the next summer. I finally called Verizon up and cancelled again, 9 years after my first cancellation with Bell Atlantic -- and went back to Comcast, which satisfies my TV and Internet needs perfectly well, and costs me a lot less.

I hope I have enough sense never to give Verizon (Bell Atlantic, C&P) any business again. Maybe I do.

Posted by: optides1 | April 20, 2010 4:22 AM | Report abuse

Some of us still have Verizon DSL! In Arlington I use FiOS and have been satisfied, though at a second home in Spotsylvania County, other than satellite, Verizon DSL is the only reasonable choice. Their reliability is much improved from back in the day, but their arrogance remains unmatched. During several months when I was not there, and without so much as an email or phone call, Verizon remotely changed the operating mode of their DSL modem from a bridge to a router. Guess what that did to my ability to connect!! After way too long futzing around, I discovered that I had two devices with the gateway address of 192.168.1.1 and two active DHCP servers. It was crazy since I had no way of even knowing that the DSL modem had anything other than a bridge mode. I could not connect to my router. Finally it dawned on me what was going on and was easy to fix after I set a new static IP address form my router and turned off its DHCP server.

Thank you, Verizon, for your fine customer focused service and communication with me.

BTW, has anyone every tried to talk to a human being on a Verizon support call? Hint: Yell "attendant" a few times to cut through voice response hell with the phone company.

I never used Verizon DSL in Arlington. It was either Earthlink, Flashcom or Cavalier, as I recall

Posted by: Arlington4 | April 20, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

What do customer service quality and outage frequency have to do with network neutrality?

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 20, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

FiOS has been terrific in my household. The actual network service is excellent and pricing competitive. And the FiOS telephone customer service and support, in our experience, has been stellar. Truly amazing. And, no, I do not work or have any interest in Verizon other than obtaining good service.

After going through hoops with our cable provider's customer service after a billing error and seeing the FiOS advertisement, we said goodbye to cable for Internet connectivity. Once FiOS offered video service in our area, it was bye bye to all things cable service provider related.

That is not to say that the cable service provider's Internet access was bad. It wasn't. But their poor customer service and high prices made the choice clear. Nice to see market forces at work in what was and still is a highly monopolized environment.

Posted by: CB12 | April 21, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I think Verizon makes a huge public relations error when they refuse to give any hint as to when service might be available. If I knew that Verizon intended to wire up (fiber up?) most of Capitol Hill within the next two years, for example, then I would feel that FIOS was one of my options. Being kept in the dark for years about Verizon plans really leaves me feeling quite negative about Verizon and all its works.

Posted by: NeilF1 | April 21, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Verizon always says everything is ok. Except that users of their email service have no access AGAIN.

Posted by: rickglearningexpress | April 21, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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