I wrote this is in an effort to purge myself of experience in getting DSL service, and in the hope that it helps make us DSL consumers a little more informed about the machinations behind those slick adverts that are popping up around the US. (Disclaimer.. this is only a local interpretation of my efforts in new york, maybe some of this doesnt apply in your area.. however, 2 years ago, I had an even more troublesome experience trying to get DSL in Singapore, so the trials and tribulations below dont seem confined to just NYC!).
PART I: THE BACKGROUND.Ok.. lets begin at the beginning. I had assumed, before trying to get DSL, that ordering it was straightforward. After all, DSL is a technology that has been discussed endlessly in the press and on the web, and there are adverts around the place saying you can get it.. Concentric DSL and Red-Connect are marketing to NY pretty well, and Flashcom is in the national newspapers... but now I realize that almost nobody has DSL. probably a fraction of 0.1% of all internet accounts are travelling on DSL. Getting DSL, from a customer point of view, I now now believe is equivalent in difficulty to, say, rebuilding your car engine over the summer, you will learn more about phones, telecommunications companies, and equipment than you ever wanted to know, pretty soon you will start to hang out in DSL techie mailing lists listening to opinions on the differences between redback and assured access equipment and chatting to Bell vans in the street hoping to get the inside scoop on upgrades to your local switching centre. If you dont believe me, check out some of the previous tales from the frontline, for instance this article about the guy who tried to get DSL from Bel for his power mac...
For some, however, maybe DSL is a simple experience, probably the same kind of people who order from a catalogue then forget about it and are pleasantly surprised when a parcel arrives 2 months later...
The big 56k lie.. in some areas, regular, quality, modems connected to regular, quality, ISPs, will not do more than 26400 (half their promoted speed). This is NOT because of bad wiring in the building etc, it is because your calls go through two digital/analog conversions, apparently this is not un-common in high density areas. Here is the scoop from a tech in the industry that I emailed to ask why my modem wont go faster than 26400, and the Bell guy told me I am on high quality "lightspan" fibre.
- "..... Bell is bringing analog lines out of the digital switch like they would on a standard phone line, then they re-digitize it, send it down to the equipment in the neighborhood(the SLC), and the equipment converts it back to a standard analog phone line. The loss from the D>A>D>A conversions kill anything above 26,400.."
Cable modems, in many areas, are 1-way data. Ie, you have to use a phone line for up-channel. In addition, cable modems are a shared pipe, you share it not with strangers, but with other rabid netsurfers, warez vendors, porn freaks, and quake server operators in your building or street. Your download speed, therefore, varies vastly and CAN be as bad as a modem at peak times in certain areas. In addition, the feeling amongst the isp operators seems to be that this is likely to get worse, not better, as more cable users come on line. Your cable operator has a number of potential bottlenecks that all must be managed correctly to give clean constant speed. In contrast, DSL providers merely have to do the math on backend bandwidth versus incoming DSL lines. DSL providers are pleased that the bandwidth hogs are all jumping into cable.. but you as a cable customer may not be as happy.
Radio and other wireless IP is not anywhere yet, at least in NYC, although there is at least one high speed data net coming on stream, probably designed more for mobile phone use than home internet. There are special exceptions, for instance there is a company that beams down data from empire state building, if you are line-of-sight.
Satellite, for example internet via digital satellite-TV dish, is also an option, but the latency (long ping times) makes less attractive, especially for interactive internet applications (like games) and there is only down-link. Up-link is via your good old modem again... Nobody can fix long ping times due to geographic distance... there is no intel chip in the works to increase the speed of radio waves or electrical signals in conducting materials!
DSL. This is what was left in the bag for me, and with my 26400 data rate thanks to Bells "super duper" optical fibre system, RCNs one-way shared cable modem offering, and time warners non-existant option, and my non-view of the empire state building.
PART II: CONCENTRATING ON DSL
There are two basic types of DSL around now for consumers, ADSL and SDSL. The first is asymmetric, ie, assumes you do more reception than sending. Typically uplink rates are 128 or 384kbps (ie, 1-3 times dual ISDN or 3-9x an average modem speed). Downlink rates are up to 784kbps or even higher. Potentially. Ping times are fast (thats good), probably 40-100ms versus 150-300ms for modems. Basically, this rocks compared to ISDN or any regular modem.
For any DSL service, you are tied to THREE parties. One, the ISP, which typically is your only point of contact, and the people who bill you. Two, the CLEC, ie, Bell Atlantic, which owns the rights to access your house and the wires into it. Three, the DSL carrier, which will be one of several national DSL companies who dont like to field calls from customers, and like to deal with either CLECs or ISPs, but carry your data, and are where 40-80% of your monthly bill goes. In the case of Bell Atlantics own DSL service, they are all three.. the CLEC, the ISP and also the DSL provider!
For all DSL types, your home modem needs to be less than roughly 20,000 feet from the "DSLAM" (DSL Access Muptiplexor), which I think is installed next to the SLC (subscriber loop carrier) equipment, en-route to the phone company CO (central office), and you must be even closer, down to 10000 feet, for buying higher DSL rates. Some DSL vendors can tell you on the phone how many feet you are from their equipment if you give them your phone are code and first 3 digits, and zip code. @work was helpful to me for that (the business side of @home).
There are three reasons why DSL might not be an option for you: One is you are too far from any SLC, therefore you will never be able to get DSL, unless your CLEC (competitive local exchange carrier), builds a new node closer to you. Two is that no DSL provider has yet installed equipment in your CLECs facility. Three is because your physical copper phone line(s) prove to be too old to be handle DSL modem signals reliably. If you pass on these three items, you should be able to get DSL now.
In NYC, www.redconnect.com is building their own network that you get to via Bell (of course). They are offering ADSL. Unfortunately, in my book, their marketing is ahead of their deployment.. they are happy to accept your DSL request, but then put you on analog 56k until the zone around you "lights up"... which may be next week, or next month, or next....? finding out "when" is almost impossible, so signing up is a matter of blind faith.
They are also firmly residential oriented in terms of using DHCP, limiting the number of IP addresses, and having an upstream cap at 120kbps ... Why is this a problem? well DHCP means your IP address changes, typically, about once every few weeks, but if you ever fancy serving any digital data, (http, ftp, or whatever) you dont want a dynamically changing IP address!
Do any DSL search in dejanews, and you will hear about FLASHCOM. An agressive sales oriented company offering DSL nationally via at least Covad and Northpoint (two big DSL networkers that resale their networks to "ISPs" to on-sell to the customer). Flashcom has, on the face of it, the best prices for residential DSL access, and will sign you up over the phone with a fast talking no-worries type sales guy. Technically, however, they are non-existant. They seem to out-source all the services you will be depending on (DNS, DHCP, news servers, pop3 mailboxes) to subcontractors with little accountability to you the customer, and no incentive to provide good service, and the terms and conditions of the contract are a straitjacket.. read the fine print first! They also have an explicit NO SERVERS rule which means if you do decide to get technical and run any kind of mini web server, remote access server, game server or ftp server, you are jeopardizing your whole contract and could be up for termination and end up owing them penalties. I read the fine print and decided I didnt like the tone, and found that backing out was almost as hard as getting in was easy. Trying to raise them again to accept cancellation (which the T&C says clearly can be made within the really super generous cooling off period of 24 hours and zero minutes), was impossible. Of course they ignored my cancellation attempt and placed the order with Northpoint anyway, so I had to tell Northpoint themselves it was supposed to be a cancel, and go back to Flashcom accounting department to find someone to re-do the cancellation... (flashcom reappear, like a reanimated corpse, later in my story) for me, anyway, Flashcom was NOT a pleasant experience. One positive.. in the process of "almost" getting caught by flashcom, I found out that Northpoint was the SDSL provider that covered my area, and that Covad (the other biggie) had not reached it yet (I already knew that redconnect hadnt reached it yet either, although finding that out for sure was very difficult).
Finding an ISP that would give me SDSL from Northpoint was my new mission, and armed with that, it became a bit clearer.. the northpoint website www.northpointdsl.com, allows you to find the list of "partner" ISPs in your area, and the next job is just one of elimination... visiting each website in turn checking dsl info and options...
Prices and DSL install fees vary incredibly for the same data rates! You can go from, literally, zero install cost and a low red-connect or flashcom type of price, to at the other end of the scale, $800 for install and four times higher per month price!
A lot of this may be because of out of date website info.. prices are changing fast. However getting someone on the phone to talk about DSL at the ISPs I tried is hard.. numbers dont answer, or there is voice mail that is never returned, email enquiries dont get answered either.. The better websites ask for your phone number, at least the first 3 digits and the area code, and produce a list of prices and/or even providers and speeds and availability dates. These automated facilities are very helpful in getting an idea of what is happening behind the scenes in your area!
Oh at this point, I should talk about the phone company... Bell Atlantic is trying to build its own retail DSL service, and they have some nice looking web pages on it, (it is called InfoSpeed DSL). However, the DSL number to call to ask them is as impenetrable as the smaller ISPs.. info I can glean on dejanews and mailing lists shows that they are lighting up areas, but the chances are they are not in YOUR area for another "few" months.. there is also the worry about your phone company (in the "we only understand voice" sense) operating an ISP type infrastructure reliably, and getting them to fix a problem if it occurs..
PART III: ORDERING DSL
So now, I found an ISP (i wont say which) to get me SDSL via northpoint, without caring about bandwidth used or servers, and at a price better than flashcom. So here is the process for northpoint and NYC and ISP XYZ.. You order it from the ISP, and fill in forms, pay money, and then wait. After a day to a week, depending on how lazy the ISP is, they contact Northpoint with the order. It then goes into Northpoints system and 48 hours or so after that, a "local loop" request goes to Bell Atlantic from Northpoint (ie, please link customer X to our equipment at your switching centre number Y). At this stage, there is a wait that seems to vary depending on the phase of the moon.. some people say weeks. This is a delay you cant check up on, for Bell need a work order number before they give out info on where you are in the queue, and your ISP is 3 steps removed from knowing that number. For me, I had an order for a 2nd phone line via RCN in the queue anyway, and the visiting bell guy saw the DSL request in the system also, and did both on the spot! The time for me between Northpoint getting the order from the ISP, and me getting a socket on the wall (looks identical to a phone socket by the way), was about 3 days! What is supposed to happen, though, is Northpoint gets some warning, and comes by to do the "inside wiring" and test the install. Inside wiring takes the line from where Bell left it, to the room you want it in. In my case, Bell Atlantic kindly did that also.
Equipment: for DSL, you need a "DSL MODEM", and a PC network interface card of some kind. The other option is a combined dsl-modem- router-hub, I think, which is better for small offices. DSL deals now usually allow you to rent the modem, or buy it outright.
For my case, I was presented (for my $20/mth), a 3COM DSL modem (they only make one, its on the 3com website). This is apparently supposed to magically appear at your doorstep, from Northpoint themselves, but in my case, I went to the ISP to pick it up, as this home modem delivery system from Northpoint hadnt really started yet. The modem is simple: plug it in and watch "das blinken lights". There are no local configuration options or diagnostics with this modem.. either green DSL light means go, or red means problem.. (I wonder if redconnect swap the leads on the LEDs ;)?
You also need a NIC, as I said, which you can buy for $29 to $100 from any decent PC store. Try to buy a popular one, because if you ever have any problems you are more likely to see other people on the net posting about it... you need a NIC because out the back of the DSL modem comes pure 10mbps ethernet, just like you have in your office.
Setup. Tthere are two important things here. One is the MAC address.. this is a unique number allocated to every IP card in the word... equipment makers get ranges, and then allocate them to equipment they produce. Amazingly, no equipment has the same MAC address.. but in reality, I believe, manufacturers re-use them, either by accident or plan, so conflicts on the same LAN do happen. The MAC address needs to be given to your ISP, so they can track you as you, and also, probably unblock your circuit... The IP address is the other important thing, or rather, whether or not your ISP is going to automatically configure your network options via DHCP, or statically allocate an IP to you. For my case, they gave me an IP, a subnet mask, and a default gateway, and a DNS server.. basically the same stuff as anyone who has configured networking for an ISP by using the windows control panel knows.
So now, you have a DSL socket on the wall, a green DSL light (hopefully!.. some people get this far to discover the line isnt good enough after all and have to unwind the whole order), and a NIC and a PC plugged in, and you can send packets to the modem by pinging your default gateway... if you are very lucky, you even get a ping reply and your machine is now active, live and on the web, and will probably get hacked by somebody because you know absolutely nothing about IP security... this DSL line will be up and running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (hopefully), and you have loads of bandwidth available should you need it, and a fixed monthly bill. For my case, I pay $139/mth for 416k SDSL, plus $20 for the 3com modem.. and thats basically it. Its expensive compared to AOL or a 56k ISP, but I will be able to work from home.. how much is that worth to you?
Part IV FOLLOWUP
Although the green light is on, I cant ping anything. After poking around with my PC and doing everything else to prove it wasnt my problem, I have to query the ISP on what the problem could be. Here is where dealing with 3 companies really slows you down. The ISP says, basically, its NPs problem, and they, like me, leave a voice mail for NP. (-getting- northpoints number in NYC was very difficult anyway, I expect its classified information...).
After a week of effort to get in touch with Northpoint local technical guys, they finally come through and tell me the reason I have a DSL line, and a green DSL light, so quickly after application, is that it is connected via Northpoint to flashcom!!! the buggers didnt cancel the workorder with Bell! Northpoint confirmed this was not my fault, and are now looking to switch me over to the local ISP that I chose, rather than cutting me off, and having me start again. I am hoping this can happen in relatively short order.
After deciding over a month ago that DSL might be nice, I have got this far. I estimate I have picked over about 20 websites, read about 30 dejanews articles, joined several DSL mailing lists, written about a dozen emails, made about two dozen 1800 calls, listened to the sentence "for quality assurance purposes, this call may be recorded" about four dozen times, visited the new ISP twice, bought and configured one piece of equipment, installed a modem, written a cheque for $220, and so far, I still cant ping anything.
But I am still hopeful!