Issue 221, May 14, 2001  

Rolling DSL Blackouts: 'Always On' Ain't

By Stephen M. Lawton

      You know what I like about my digital subscriber line (DSL) service? It's always there. I sit down at my desk at 2 a.m., click on my Mail icon, and zap, here's the latest spam from around the globe. Oh, yeah, and maybe there's a note from someone I actually want to hear from.
      My old dial-up account is oh, so clunky. I have to click on the icon to dial out, then wait an eternity, well, maybe a minute or so, for my computer to link up. But DSL — it's always there — except, of course, when it's not.
      Not always on, you gasp? You bet. In fact, it's a gamble today to pick a DSL provider, because you need to pick both the retailer and the wholesaler. I picked wrong a year ago when I opted for Flashcom the retailer, and Covad the wholesaler. Flashcom, which had great service when it was solvent, is now bankrupt, while Covad carries on — barely.
      At MicroTimes' Pasadena office, we opted for InternetConnect as the ISP retailer and NorthPoint Communications as the wholesaler. In this case, the opposite scenario occurred — the wholesaler failed but the retailer lives on. InternetConnect and Covad are both working to turn on the DSL spigot of the poor souls whose service was lost.
      Flashcom and Covad, at least, gave some indication that Flashcom customers had to find new accommodations. AT&T acquired NorthPoint and, in its infinite wisdom, unilaterally turned off the power switch to some 100,000 NorthPoint customers with no notice.
      "There oughta be a law," I hear DSL customers cry when their service goes dark. Well, folks, there is — and there isn't. The law that does exist is called the law of economics, and it was restated eloquently this past October by no less an authority than former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now chairman of the executive committee at Citibank. Speaking at InternetWorld, he told the attendees that while the Internet might drive economic growth here in the U.S., don't lose sight of Old Economy rules and discipline. In other words, if you can't make a profit, you're out of business.
      While there isn't a law that requires ISPs to give you a warning when they want to shutter operations, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) said ISPs like NorthPoint must give customers 30 days notice before shutting off their servers. Several days after the March 30 decision, NorthPoint was still dark, and its customers were still cut off. It's nice to know the CPUC believes "always on" comes with a 30-day always-off notice, even if the companies don't.
      Reminder: If you're shopping for service and your prospective ISP retailer won't tell you who your wholesaler will be, find a new retailer.
      No one knows what the full impact the rolling DSL blackout will have on NorthPoint users, but suffice to say that when New Economy companies lose their lifeline to the Internet, their profits are sure to suffer. As Secretary Rubin said: Old Economy rules still apply.


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