BabyBell Hell

SBC's aggressive push into Internet service hits a major digital speed bump.

Speed is as good as gold in the internet economy. So last year, when San Antonio- based SBC Communications—the nation’s second-largest telecommunications company, whose holdings include Southwestern Bell—began offering high-speed Internet access to homes and businesses in Texas over ordinary copper phone lines, cyber-junkies rushed to get connected. The service is called DSL, which stands for “digital subscriber line.” It competes with cable and satellites to offer turbocharged Internet connections with high capacity, also known as bandwidth. And today’s Web sites and even e-mail gobble bandwidth with images, video clips, sound, and plug-ins that seem to take forever to download with a dial-up modem. On paper, SBC’s DSL product sounds like whiz-bang technology. Its minimum connection speed of 384 kilobits a second is up to fifty times as fast as the speed available using a 28.8K modem, and it can range up to four times that fast. A DSL line can carry voice and data at the same time, so users can talk on the phone while they’re surfing the Net. And the cost is comparable to cable-modem service—$39.95 to $59.95 a month (the more expensive offering includes a Compaq Presario computer equipped with a DSL modem). SBC has so aggressively marketed DSL that it now has more subscribers than any other Bell company. Analysts say the number is at least 500,000 (that’s in all the states that SBC serves through its subsidiaries: Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, Ameritech, Southern New England Telecom, and Nevada Bell). The numbers are sure to climb—in September SBC won regulatory approval to expand DSL service in a breathtakingly ambitious plan dubbed Project Pronto. Its goal: to become the nation’s single largest provider of DSL and advanced broadband services.Sounds like a big hit, right? More like hit and miss. In Texas, one of SBC’s biggest DSL markets, the ballyhooed new high-speed on-ramp to the Information Superhighway took a detour onto a side street filled with digital speed bumps. Frustrated customers have complained of terrible customer service, inadequate technical support, long waits for installation, and misrepresentation of DSL speeds. In August a group of consumers filed a lawsuit against SBC and its subsidiaries

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