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A long road to high-speed access


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000

Full speed ahead
Speed is king when it comes to surfing the Internet. The faster, the better. But it gets complicated as soon as people try to determine the best choice for such high-speed access.

Moving into the fast lane
Here are some things to check before deciding on high-speed Internet access:

It seems a fair question to ask any business: Can I buy what you're selling?

But that simple question stumped GTE when I called to ask about buying its DSL high-speed Internet service to turbo-charge my Web connection at home. "We'll have to check your phone line and call you back," the customer service agent told me. Nobody ever did. Talk about a soft sell.

Weeks later, I tried again. This time, the answer was more detailed, but no more satisfying. I was told I would have to sign up for GTE's digital subscriber line, or DSL, service. Then, at some point in the next few weeks, someone would let me know whether it would work over the phone lines in my neighborhood. In the meantime, I asked, may I schedule a tentative appointment to have the service installed? No such thing, I was told. GTE, now Verizon Communications, mails you a kit that you install yourself.

It was becoming clear why the DSL service offered by local phone companies hasn't caught fire with the non-techie masses. Since my misadventure, Verizon has purchased control of NorthPoint Communications, a company specializing in DSL. So it might get its act together, but not for a while.

Next up: the cable industry's alternative. Time Warner Cable not only assured me I could get cable modem service. It promised free installation (available weekdays only, by the way). And while I was at it, the customer service agent offered to add Showtime to my cable TV service at no extra charge. (I happen to live in one of the neighborhoods where both Time Warner and GTE americast offer cable service. It's amazing what a little competition can do.)

Time Warner's effusive friendliness had its limits. Eventually, I plan to "network" my kids' computers with the one my wife and I use. I asked Time Warner if hooking up multiple computers to the cable modem would create problems. I got three different answers, all incorrect, from different customer service agents.

All of them said I should pay Time Warner an extra $10 a month for each computer. One said the connection wouldn't work unless I did that. Another said it might work but at molasses speed. A third said it would work but it would be on my conscience. He compared it to shoplifting from a department store.

In truth, with the right equipment you can easily hook up several home computers to one cable connection with "virtually no degradation in speed," said Mark Bailey, the regional chief of Time Warner's online services. It's your choice, Bailey acknowledged, whether to pay the cable company $10 a month for additional IP (Internet protocol) addresses or to pay upfront to buy a device called a router. He said Time Warner soon will offer to sell its customers systems to network their homes.

For now, I'm settling for a high-speed connection to one computer. Time Warner's contractors showed up as scheduled and spent several hours installing a new cable connection and a modem and putting a network card inside my computer. They fired up my Web browser and, bingo, high-speed access.

But there was one ominous sign. The installer mentioned he was about to go a few doors down and install a cable modem for one of my neighbors. That's bad news because cable modem service can slow if there's heavy Internet traffic in a neighborhood.

And there was one big problem: Now that I could cruise the Web in overdrive, I couldn't make a phone call. As the installers lugged cable through my attic and walls, they somehow managed to foul up the phone lines into the room where we keep our computer. I complained (vociferously), and Time Warner promised to send out a supervisor the next morning to assess the problem. Instead, a rookie technician showed up and started fiddling with phone wires. Three hours later, he was still fiddling while I was missing half a day's work. Finally, I demanded that this Cable Guy from Hell tell me whether he had a clue how to make my phone work. No, he said sheepishly as I shooed him out the door.

I called Time Warner and demanded (still more vociferously) that we let the phone company fix the phone lines that the cable company had messed up. And that's where we left it: GTE would fix my phone, and Time Warner would pay the bill. One consolation: I'd managed to create my own media conglomerate.

- Larry Liebert is the Times' deputy business editor.

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