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Not Ready for Prime Time Technology

©01 The Media Desk

Or- Is DSL really all that?

         The Desk has been doing a lot of research into the Digital Subscriber Line technology. And, in the last few months, things have changed dramatically on that front. What was the hottest thing going in 1999 has seen its star fall from the sky as we work into the summer of 2001.
         Several DSL providers have fallen on some serious hard times. Their stocks have dropped like Florida ballot chads and at least one, Zyan in California, has filed for Chapter 11. HarvardNet in the Northeast has laid off nearly 300 employees. Other providers are reorganizing and looking for merger partners. A few have simply turned out the lights and gone home.
         Why all the fear and loathing in the once promising DSL market?

         Well. Several reasons, and we'll look at a few of them.
         First: Cost. DSL is not cheap. Even three years into its availability in some areas the cost factor has actually risen. On top of the connection price, which ranges from just over $30 a month to better than $200 a month, you end up paying for an ISP link. Add to that a range of other charges including basic telephone, equipment lease, and so on. The average total bill was in the eighty to one hundred twenty dollars a month range. Making it one of the priciest ways to get online.
         Second: Service. One of the biggest complaints found was the customer service factor. This is a nearly constant chorus throughout the DSL community. Even if you say 'Yes' to the Provider and order it, you have only begun to sing and dance with them to get it going. From the initial install, which takes from two to three weeks to a couple of months. To problems once it was up and running. When it worked, it was fine. But if something went wrong, because there were two or three players in the game, you never got hold of the right tech the first time. And when you did, the customer was left in the dark for days before they got things sorted out. Meanwhile, you are paying about four dollars a day for the privilege of not logging onto the Net. No refunds.
         Third: Reliability. Some tech writers have gone so far as to recommend to businesses looking for a higher bandwidth connection to NOT invest in DSL if the application is e-business or mission critical because it is so prone to hic-coughs and sporadic connections.
         Fourth: Speed. While 1.5 meg downloads are touted as the standard. Actual connection speeds sometimes get down into the 250K rate depending on local conditions. One writer boasted that he had a 'fairly steady' 768K connection. That's not what the commercials say you're going to get is it? It is also dependent on the gateway between the ISP and the Net itself. If your provider is pushing T-3's as a central pipeline, you'll probably be fine. However, if there is a local bottleneck, at the ISP, the phone company, or somewhere else downstream, during prime net time, your access speed is going to slow down no matter what your connection speed is. They seem to forget that in the sales pitch.
         Fifth: Security. It is an 'always on' connection. Making your system vulnerable to hackers and thieves and viruses. Unless you invest in some sort of guard dog software or hardware that breaks your actual computer-to-Net link when you are not on, you might find your system hijacked in an attempt to bog down the Pentagon in a denial-of-service attack.
         Lastly: Availability. Some of the major vendors say their service is limited to between three and five miles of the phone company's central office or outlying remote office. Well. Not really. That window shrinks when you get outside major metropolitan areas to less than two miles in some locations, and in smaller towns with older equipment and shakier infrastructure, not at all. DSL requires clean lines between the CO to the customer's house or business. If you, as many of us do, live in an area where the actual wire on the pole was run sometime back when Elvis was in the Army, well... Don't hold your breath no matter how far you are from the CO.

         Cable modems are coming in in a big way. Lower overall costs, and somewhat better reliability may make them a more attractive option. With speeds running at 1 Meg almost guaranteed many people think it is a much better deal. Also wireless technology is making strides in both reliability and bandwidth offered. Fiber networks are springing up here and there. Other players are getting into the field, such as cities offering connections over their infrastructure.
         BUT. And there is always at least one but in the group.
         Depending on the configuration of your local cable provider, the more people that subscribe to the service, the more signal the company is pumping through the coax (which actually does have a limited bandwidth) the more things will slow down. That is a fact of life. But even a slow cable connection may be faster than an average DSL connection, and at a lower price, a much more attractive option. Also, with cable modems (a cable modem is NOT a 'modem' per se, but that's what everybody calls it), your cable company could also be your ISP, not so with DSL in many places.
         Wireless is subject to local interference and weather conditions. Every time your neighbor uses his cel phone you may get gibberish on your screen. They say it doesn't, won't, can't, happen, yet it does.
         Optical connections offer high bandwidth and good reliability, but the hardware on each end is costly and once you sign up with a provider, you are pretty much locked in.
         Then other technology is coming in as well. A really gee-whiz version of wireless, satellite connections are available with the only restriction being how heavy your checkbook is. Some talk about a new generation of ISDN with fewer of the eccentricities of the older edition.
         While T-1 connections are still pricey for small businesses and out of the question for home use, DSL may not be the answer you are looking for. Once billed as the broadband solution for them, it is not living up to the hype. There are tradeoffs in everything. Cost versus bandwidth. Ease of use and reliability. Turn on costs weighed against monthly bill. Is a long-term commitment required? You could run a fiber optic connection into your network room, but is the installation costs worth it? Will your vendor be around this time next year? Can you get service on the equipment in reasonable time? Should you get a backup connection? Do you have to hire a consulting technician to come in once a week to maintain the system? Is a fractal T for you?
         Maybe not all of these factors will come into play, but many will. And given that this could easily become a hundred dollar a month commitment for home use or several hundred dollars a month for business. It all should be considered.
         For business type applications it should be studied carefully and nothing rushed into until the long and short term ramifications have been looked at. At home? DSL is probably not going to be your answer any time soon, unless you just HAVE to have high speed access and cable isn't offered in your area and you live within sight of the Phone Company CO.


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