Life in a
A month or so ago, I, with great excitement, finally got around to signing up for an Earthlink DSL account. Why Earthlink? I have my personal home page, email and dial-up account with them and didn't feel like moving all that. To make sure DSL was available in my area, I went to the Earthlink site, typed in my zipcode and was congratulated on my good fortune. DSL *was* available. I signed up and was told my DSL self-install kit would be in the mail within weeks. One week later, I received a letter and software from Earthlink. They welcomed me to the REAL Internet. As I waited for my new hardware, I continued to receive email messages telling me DSL was now available in my area and offering me various sign-up deals. This was rather annoying -- they should know I'd already enrolled in the REAL Internet -- but mostly, the messages only heightened my anticipation for the arrival of the hardware. I also viewed the heavy-rotation TV ads with, I must admit, a little bit of smug elitism. Soon I would be among the ranks of 21st century netizens, downloading apps, CDs, TV shows, netflix, etc. with little thought for those poor bastards still poking away on oh-so-20th century dial-up connections. The day my hardware was supposed to arrive came and went. I didn't sweat it -- I figured they must be so busy trying to bring the REAL Internet to the masses, and they were just a little behind schedule.
While I was waiting for the future to arrive in a box on my doorstep, I began researching wireless home networking options and DSL routers. My wife and son have been bugging the crap out of me to get them on the Net from their desktops. Since junior downloads MP3s at an alarming rate, I wasn't too keen on trying to share a 56.6 connection with him. But hey, the REAL Internet would change all that. Finally, the cobbler wouldn't have the shabby shoes anymore. I had swanky images in my mind of a gleaming new Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless network connecting all of the computers in our house, all of us merrily surfing the REAL Internet as we please, without a Net lag in site.
After several weeks went by beyond the arrival date of the REAL Internet, I started to worry. I called Earthlink and waited... and waited... and waited. Finally someone got on the line. I gave him my account info and he went away. I waited some more. Then a different guy answered as if he was taking my call for the first time. I told him my particulars all over again and then HE went away. More waiting. Finally, after being on hold for what seemed like at least 45 minutes, the customer service guy returned and said: "I'm sorry to have to tell you this way, but we're not going to be able to provide you with DSL service." WHAT?! After being congratulated by their Web site, after signing up ON THE PHONE, after being welcomed to the REAL Internet by mail, after continuing to receive email telling me that DSL was available in my area, after waiting nearly a month and then having to call THEM (and waiting on hold for what seemed like another month), NOW they tell me there's no DSL in my future? Several weeks before, they had sent me information on my five new email accounts (that come with their DSL). Luckily I hadn't done anything with these. When I asked about them, I was told: "Oh we cut those off already." They knew to cut off the email accounts, but they didn't bother to tell me about it or the non-existence of my DSL service!? The customer service guy was COMPLETELY unsympathetic to my anger and disappointment. It is astounding to me that a company can screw up something this bad, and then have no sympathy for a customer being upset over it.
After getting over the shock of the Earthlink call, I decided to try another DSL carrier. Knowing that all DSL service really comes through the same infrastructure, (the local telco), I knew there was little-to-no chance anyone else was going to provide me with DSL either, but I thought it might be interesting to try. I went to Covad's Web site (are THEY still in business?) and entered my zipcode. Well, would you look at that -- they're congratulating me on qualifying for DSL too! I call them, don't tell them about Earthlink or that their site had already welcomed me to the future and give the CS guy my zipcode. After HE congratulates me, I tell him the backstory. He excuses himself, is away for a few minutes, and then returns with the bad news. No DSL. But wait, he says, for me they'll make a deal: IDSL (a dedicated type of DSL used in business). The price? A mere US$600 in hardware and mandatory professional installation fees and $80/month. All this for speeds LESS than ISDN. I try not to laugh as I politely decline.
So DSL is now out of the question and will remain so forever, or at least until the technology changes -- or the phone company's nearest switching station gets up and lumbers closer to my home. I resign myself to cable. Now some would see cable as an even better option than DSL, but I was one of the beta testers for Arlington Cable (in our old house) and my experience had NOT been positive. They'd since been bought out by Comcast/@Home, certainly a company with a much better track record than Arlington's Media General, so I figured I should give them another chance... and what choice did I have? I headed for Comcast.com, and again, entered my zipcode, entirely prepared to be congratulated once more, and then to be walked through a simple online sign-up process for my new cable modem service. I was not prepared for: "Cable Internet service is not yet available in your area, but may be in the future." Not available!? MAY be!? Suddenly it hit me -- hard. We had moved, from the richer, whiter, NORTH Arlington, to the poorer, immigrant-heavy SOUTH Arlington. We had looked into the schools, the neighborhood, the crime rates and all the rest of it, but we had overlooked one hugely important factor: network infrastructure. I felt surprisingly sad, helpless. It would be never before we had DSL and maybe years before we had cable Internet service (if ever). That image from the first Superman movie popped into my head of the three criminals from Krypton being banished to 2D space and crying "NOOOOO!!!!!" as they float off in their 2D prison.
Now I'm stuck with either my 56.6 connection (which rarely connects any higher than 49Kbps) or buying a satellite system. I guess I'll go with the sat modem, but I'm NOT happy about it. A quick look at the DirecPC website reveals that going this route is not as simple as other broadband options. It's more expensive, you have to have the system professionally installed, you need to keep an Internet dial-up account (for telco return), you have to pay per desktop for a home network (what's up with THAT?), and other annoyances. There's also the issue of the big investment: $200 for the Duo dish (for Internet and sat TV) and the installation fees. What if I get it and hate it? Having a dish bolted to your roof makes things a lot more complicated than calling up your cable provider and telling them to come pick up their shitty modem (which is what I did with Arlington Cable).
So what's the point in all this whining? There is a point. Several. Hopefully you can learn from my experience:
- You've probably heard many horror stories about broadband over the last few years and have been wondering if we've moved out of the rocky early adopter phase. We haven't. I continue to hear hard luck stories, and now I have my own. So if you're planning on getting a high-speed connection, do your homework and proceed with caution.
- If you move into a new area, find out what sorts of high-speed connectivity is available. And don't take the provider's Web site's word for it. Call them. And when they congratulate you, ask them to double check. Tell them that a friend of yours went through all this, waited for the future to arrive, but it stopped just short of his neighborhood.
- If you sign up for a high-speed connection, don't assume you're going to get it till you get it. Don't start using the free email accounts they send you, don't cancel any old accounts, don't spend hours (as I did) researching home network hardware that's dependant on the broadband hardware you think you're going to get. And for heaven's sake, don't buy any home network tech dependent on the broadband type (as I almost did).
- When you see those ads and emails for the REAL Internet, and you already have a high-speed connection, have a heart for those of us who not only don't have cable or DSL access, but may never have it (or at least not until it's really old news to the digerati). And if you live in a digital backwater too and have to suffer through all of those TV ads telling you that you're not living in the future until you have a cable or DSL connection -- knowing that they're teasing you with something you can't have -- try not to "pull an Elvis" and shoot up your TV set.
- And stay tuned to Street Tech as I learn everything I didn't want to know about satellite broadband and share the results with you.
- Gareth Branwyn [5/25/01]
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