- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

Newsletter publisher Marion Morris rushed to sign up for high-speed Internet service when it was first offered by Bell Atlantic.
She was tantalized by the promise of a single broadband line carrying both phone service and a continuous high-speed Web connection.
The problem was, it took five years and two phone company mergers for the newly named Verizon to extend its DSL (digital subscriber line) service to Ms. Morris' home office this summer.
Her frustration as a small business owner underscores a growing national backlash against the mismatch between the promise and performance of high-speed Internet providers. And how D.C. regulators respond could change the odds in the competition for the region's advanced Internet market.
Like Ms. Morris, David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council, signed up for Verizon digital subscriber line service this year. He planned to loose 11 summer research interns on the Web. But their work was hobbled by frequent failures of the "always-on" line. After he discovered his phone system was incompatible with Verizon's DSL service, Mr. Levy gave up and reverted to his old, slow modem.
Scott Pomeroy runs a small Internet consulting firm from his home office along the U Street corridor. His DSL connection is so unreliable that when he moves into a newly refurbished office building this month, he plans to link up to a T1 (trunk level 1) service, an expensive option that typically appeals to very large companies.
These would-be Internet pioneers, and others like them, think local regulators should pay closer attention to how commercial and private consumers are treated when they try to link up with the new economy.
The D.C. Public Service Commission is holding a series of hearings, the next occurring Wednesday, to determine whether some city businesses and residents risk falling behind in on-line competition.

Digital divide?

]Hard facts on the so-called "digital divide" in the District are hard to come by. Most analysts consider the city and its suburbs to be the most Internet-connected region in the nation, with more than 50 percent of households on line.
Although the commission has certified more than 90 DSL competitors, only a handful of other large companies are making a serious pitch for D.C. business customers. None is a real threat to Verizon's residential market.
D.C. regulators are concerned that Verizon's market dominance will leave local businesses and residents behind, and compel some to depart for Maryland or Virginia.
"We see a situation where businesses get a lot of services, but what about the citizens?" said Elizabeth Noel, head of the D.C. Office of the People's Counsel, an independent advocate for small businesses and consumers on utility-related matters. "We need to identify how the gap was created and what is the appropriate forum to address it."
Ms. Noel petitioned the commission to investigate whether a digital divide exists in the District amid increasing complaints that some businesses and consumers could not get access to high-speed Internet services.
Verizon carefully guards information about its Internet market. But company officials boast that the District is among its fastest-growing markets, leaving only 15 percent citywide without access. But Anacostia lags behind with only 32 percent.
Company officials said Ms. Noel was acting in part on misinformation reported in another newspaper, which published a map indicating that there was no DSL access east of the Anacostia River.
In fact, Verizon's DSL is available in all four quadrants of the District, including neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, said Susan Miller, the company's regulatory affairs manager. Verizon which took its new name in June after the merger of several Bell-Atlantic companies and GTE says it has installed the needed equipment to speed Web access in each of its 14 D.C. central offices, the neighborhood switching stations that support the grid of telecommunications services.
There are several central offices in Southeast Washington and east of the Anacostia, Ms. Miller said.

Taking control

D.C. officials and others around the nation are scrambling to assert oversight powers over telecommunications. It is a regulatory environment as bewildering and freewheeling as the Internet itself. With the sharp focus of the Public Service Commission and the People's Counsel on DSL access, it would seem that telephone lines are the primary source of high-speed Web service.
But most broadband Internet customers get their service from cable-television companies. The Federal Communications Commission reported in August that of the 1 million subscribers to high-speed Internet service nationwide at the end of 1999, approximately 875,000 were hooked up through cable systems and only 15,000 had DSL access.
Yet the cable Internet companies are largely unregulated because they do not come under the jurisdiction of local utility boards.
That could soon change as local officials look to the cable providers to help fill in gaps created by technical hurdles to DSL and other phone-based services, said D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck.
She said that Mayor Anthony A. Williams is pushing an array of Internet-access initiatives designed to bring the entire city on line. "We are currently attaching those initiatives to our cable franchise agreement," Ms. Peck said. The city licenses a private cable operator to offer service to residents.
As the city approaches final terms of a new cable contract, it is demanding that a portion of the cable bandwidth be reserved to form the critical backbone of the D.C. government's own communications network, she said. The city will be able to use that capacity as leverage for winning the best terms from private high-speed Internet providers competing to serve and manage the District's own network.
The cable contract expected to bring the city more than $500 million over the next decade will also give the Williams administration the option of making a portion of the cable bandwidth available to the public as well as make it sort of a safety net to assure universal high-speed Internet access, Ms. Peck said.
The gentle persuasion the District is exerting under its cable-contract negotiations contrasts with the brutal jockeying for advantage by private companies elsewhere.

Growing debate

Not surprisingly, Verizon is in the thick of debate over how cable telecommunications services should be regulated.
Verizon lawyers testified before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond last week in support of a Henrico County, Va., cable-franchise contract requiring open access to cable lines for independent Internet service providers, just as they enjoy access to DSL networks operated by local telephone companies.
The case has drawn the attention of all Internet providers. The court in May left open the question of whether Henrico County's open-access contract was pre-empted by federal law, which does not impose as heavy regulations on cable operators as it does on phone companies.
But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in June in a similar case involving the City of Portland that cable service is a telecommunications service.
But while Verizon lawyers were making the case for imposing open access on the cable industry, company President Ivan Seidenberg argued that it is time to scrap most of the regulatory structure imposed on telecommunications companies.
During a speech at the National Press Club last week, he said that a level playing field must be created for all forms of Internet access and other communications services, and the way to get there is more competition and less regulation.
Mr. Seidenberg said consumer protections should be preserved but he otherwise called for eliminating economic regulation at both the state and federal levels and proposed a unified oversight system modeled after the wireless industry.
Meanwhile, D.C. officials will continue operating within the regulatory system that provides the possibility of tighter controls over phone-based Internet access.
Public Service Commission Chairman Angel M. Cartagena Jr. said that one of his primary questions is whether advanced Internet access should be considered a basic service.
That question could dictate whether the commission decides that a universal access mandate could be imposed on DSL providers.
Mr. Cartagena said, "If it is most people's opinion that these are not basic services then we have to ask is it fair to impose on Verizon a requirement that they provide this citywide."
Verizon, which maintains competitive advantages because of Bell Atlantic's past status as a government-approved monopoly, insists there are legitimate reasons why 15 percent of the city has no access to its high-speed Internet services.
Either it's a technical problem or the laws of physics, Mr. Miller said. But local regulators are concerned about complaints that DSL providers are devoting too much time to marketing an untested service and too few resources making sure they can deliver on what they promise.
Mr. Cartagena, who was sworn in as the D.C. Public Service Commission chairman in July, said he has not yet formed an opinion as to whether a digital divide exists in the city.
But he said he is eager to examine whether DSL providers are paying excessive attention to large commercial customers at the expense of residential subscribers.
"We want to make sure that services provided to residents are of the same caliber of quality offered to businesses," Mr. Cartagena said.

Barriers to service

Complaints have poured in from across the city, whether caused by physics or technical barriers as cited by Verizon or simple failure to meet basic standards of customer service.
Physics explained the five-year delay Marion Morris faced before she could begin using a high-speed Internet service to download research for her Inside the Beltway newsletter. The Woodridge resident simply lived too far from Verizon's central office in Northeast when the company first began touting access to its ISDN (integrated services digital network), which would have provided speeds twice as fast as a dial-up modem.
That didn't help ease Ms. Morris' long frustration with having a slow and unreliable Internet service that interfered with her getting the latest on housing and banking legislation out to her 100 subscribers.
"My business depends on timely information and I was spending five hours a day on the Internet doing research," she said.
But all that time on line also allowed Ms. Morris to stay on top of high-speed Internet technology. She was delighted when a visit to Verizon's new DSL Web page alerted her that the service, which offers speeds at least 10 times faster than a dial-up modem, had a longer reach than the ISDN.
High-speed Internet access is witnessing rapid advances. Verizon initially limited service to phone lines within 12,000 feet of a central office. But new technology has expanded that to 15,000 for the company's ADSL (asymmetrical) service, which allows users to receive data much faster than send it. Verizon expects that range to expand to 18,000 feet next year, with the advent of symmetrical DSL.
Although Internet access might be improving, Ms. Morris said the opposite is true for simple customer service. She said once her DSL was operative, (after a two-day on-line marathon getting hooked up) both Verizon and her old provider, AOL, pointed to the other guy when she sought help in transferring her bookmark and address files from the old service to the new.
David Levy blamed technical glitches and incompetence for his high-speed breakdown this summer. Although the Children's Rights Council sits in the shadow of Union Station, it might as well be miles away when it comes to gaining DSL access.
His organization spent $3,000 to have Covad Communications Corp. install phone equipment and modems compatible with Verizon's DSL. But the service never worked properly, leaving Mr. Levy's interns to rely on the poky old dial-up modem to go on line.
"Both companies made several visits before Covad finally said the service wouldn't work here," citing incompatible equipment, he said.
Six months after ending the DSL service, Mr. Levy is still trying to collect a promised refund.
Scott Pomeroy, co-founder of Carbon Network Consultant Services, suggested darker explanations for many technical problems. DSL providers might be neglecting customer service as they seek lucrative new areas to expand, he said.
"I'm concerned that the providers will have little interest in moving further east and south into the city while they're building market share out in the suburbs," he said.
He repeated a common complaint that customers buying DSL from Verizon competitors face: repeated canceled hookup appointments because the incumbent local phone service provider is reluctant to share its lines, as required by Congress.

A river apart

One of the more explosive issues to be aired at the hearings this week will be the disparity between Anacostia's high-speed service coverage rate and the overall 85 percent rate Verizon claimed for the rest of the city.
Verizon's Susan Miller would not provide a citywide breakdown of how well the market is served. But she said the one central office in Anacostia can extend service to 68 percent of phone lines that are compatible with DSL.
Verizon contends that while it does have DSL customers in Anacostia, overall demand there is minimal.
Evidence of a gap in services to the city's poorest neighborhoods could prompt a formal investigation, Mr. Cartagena said.
The People's Counsel's Ms. Noel said, "It would be unwise to assume that only the poorest neighborhoods are underserved." She said those neighborhoods next to business clusters are the best served with DSL access.
Even so, community activists focus on the contrast between service access in Anacostia and the rest of the city.
"This digital divide is no different from other divides that exist," said Marilyn Preston-Killingham, a deputy chairman of the D.C. Umoja Party and a member of the board of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "Just as it was back in the olden days with reading, so it is now with ramping up to the Internet."


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