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(DSL) Woe is me

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 11, 2001
(Issue 1919, Troubleshooter's Guidebook)

Like many of you, I've been caught up in the NorthPoint DSL crash and burn.

One of the nation's largest providers of Digital Subscriber Lines, popularly known as DSL, NorthPoint's bankruptcy and network shutdown has left tens of thousands of people minus Internet access.

Or at least minus high-speed Internet access.

But when you've spent the last 11½ months with continuous Internet connectivity at 784kbps, well, it's hard to get used to a 56k modem again.

Not that I expect any sympathy from those of you who don't have the option of cable or DSL access where you live. Nor from those who either can't afford the $50 or so high-speed access costs or who feel such a cost is an unjustifiable extravagance.

What is of interest in all of this, of course, isn't my inconvenience, but two very different points:

  • The fact that the Internet and electronic connections in general are playing an increasingly important role in modern life.
  • The fact that so many DSL providers seem to be on shaky ground.

A year ago, DSL was being touted as a major threat to cable Internet providers. DSL carriers started popping up faster than new long-distance carriers had in the '80s. With all the compeitition, prices were soon at or below those of the cable providers.

If the speeds weren't quite as fast as those promised by cable access (and please, let's not get into that debate – it's almost as bad as the Mac vs. PC feud), the point was that consumers had a real choice when it came to home broadband access.

Now, those choices may be shrinking.

What's more telling than NorthPoint's failure is the lack of ready options available to those left stranded.

There aren't that many healthy DSL providers on the scene. My local ISP is scrambling to fill in this sudden gap in their service, and in looking into the options being presented, it turns out that one of the companies offered as a replacement is in danger of having its stock pulled from the NASDAQ listings, while another is trading at less than a buck a share. Switching to either of those outfits might put folks back in the same boat they're now in come summer or fall.

Which leaves cable or the local Baby Bell's DSL plan – two huge semi-monopolies with the bureaucracy to boot.

One of the brights hopes of the Internet was that it would remain out of reach of the large utilities. Instead, things seem headed in just that direction.

Perhaps that's inevitable as the Internet becomes more and more intertwined with daily life, as it becomes viewed more as a necessity than a luxury.

Just as the arrival of refrigerators in the middle of the last century began to make the electricity that powered them an integral part of the 20th Century American life (a job television finished), so are the many online tools and services slowly making the Internet an increasingly indispensable part of 21st Century life.

That point is illustrated by the fact that so many people are willing to pay a premium for the extra convenience of a high-speed Internet connection – and that many see the downfall of NorthPoint and the resultant service interruptions as a crisis. Not comparable to California's rolling electrical blackouts, but a crisis nonetheless.

For a lot of small businesses, DSL is an affordable alternative to the still-pricey T-1 lines that were formerly the only commercial option. A business DSL account also lets a business host its servers in-house, rather than co-locating them on the premises of an ISP or web development firm. This kind of control is attractive to companies worried about electronic security. NorthPoint's failure – and the apparent lack of reliable alternatives – is likely to have a ripple effect in slowing down the growth of the online economy.

And in fact, there are likely to be many ripples on the 'Net from NorthPoint's failure. Software publishers like Sierra (Half-Life, CounterStrike) and Microsoft (Asheron's Call) will find fewer customers able to fully immerse themselves into online gaming. Folks recently downgraded from DSL to dial-up might not be as likely to download large programs for trial use, even free ones like the new versions of the Opera and Netscape browsers.

Whether for good or bad is for someone else to decide, but it also seems likely that those without DSL are likely to spend less time online – without that high-speed access, it just won't seem quite as fun, quite as indispensable..