Some of you might be Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) users desperately scrambling to find a new high-speed Internet access method in the wake of the Northpoint debacle. With Northpoint gone and Covad on the ropes, the future for DSL doesn't look very bright. After buying all of Northpoint's assets (for $135 million), AT&T has made noises about supporting Northpoint's residential subscribers, but the company has also stated unequivocally that it isn't interested in business DSL customers. An acquaintance of mine, who is a business DSL user and scrambling to find new service because he's out of business until he does, doesn't understand why AT&T doesn't want his business.

The answer is simple. The Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) and AT&T have no interest in seeing business DSL become successful. The cost of customer support and service for a DSL line is nearly the same as for a digital leased-line connection, but the cost of that DSL line to the consumer is a small fraction of what a leased line costs. In short, AT&T and RBOCs make a lot more money from a leased line. Another friend pointed out that the likely users of business DSL probably won't go for an expensive leased line. I believe that in those cases, the phone companies will tell the customer to buy some sort of residential service. But that residential service will have no guarantees of actual transfer rate or uptime. When businesses complain that that service isn't good enough any longer, it's time to sell them a leased line.

I've been using a 56Kbps frame-relay leased line in my home office for the past 6 years. It's a lot more expensive than 56Kbps dial-up service, but it's always available. And because it's a full business service, when problems occur, the provider fixes them quickly. When I had a broken wire somewhere in the path last year, Verizon (my RBOC) had a crew out late on a Sunday night tracing wires to find the break. My ISP had a back-up ISDN dial-up for me to use until the problem was corrected. Compare that experience to the stories you've heard about DSL customer service. When I talked to Covad about getting business DSL (384Kbps symmetrical), I asked about service and uptime guarantees. The response? You can cancel at any time. This request was for a business DSL account, not a consumer-level service, at close to $300 a month (slightly cheaper than my frame-relay service). And the company's only guarantee was that if I didn't like it, I could go away. When I talked to my current ISP about upgrading to fractional T1 service or faster frame relay, the cost of the ISP service was incremental. However, the cost of the line, from the local RBOC, was $1400 month (about nine times what I pay for the current line).

Believe me, I understand the need for reasonably priced high-speed business access to the Internet. And I think it'll be up to the RBOCs' main competitor in this area, cable television providers, to offer the services that businesses need and drive down the cost of leased-line services. I know cable providers are working on providing these services, and I hope they get to my poorly served area sometime soon.