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Glowering at Local Bandwidth Empery, January 24, 1999 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: January 24, 1999
"Glowering at Local Bandwidth Empery" [permalink]
    keywords: internet, companies
    soapbox #: 171
    written: January 24, 1999
    words: 2759

"Glowering at Local Bandwidth Empery", an Essay

Oh, it's such a wonderful time to be an Internet user! AT&T, @Home, Time Warner, and the Baby Bells are bringing high bandwidth into our American homes! Various areas of Europe are setting up testing markets for DSL and LANs for buildings! The newspapers and magazines are full of articles detailing the latest mobilization efforts of the telecommunications companies.

So why am I still on a modem in Austin, Texas, one of the fastest-growing mini Silicon Valleys and technological hotbeds in the country? Why am I still on a modem when I'm at one of the most well-networked universities in the world?

POTS, or Plain Old Telephone Service, is still king for many people. Although it's comparatively inexpensive and easy to buy a modem, install it, contract with an ISP, and log onto the Internet, people still have to contend with poor telephone lines and distance from the main connectivity hubs. In other words, even with the fastest modems available, some people can't connect at the highest modem speeds (56Kbps), or receive a lot of distortion with them.

DSL and cable modems are supposed to be the future of Internet connectivity. They use digital connections instead of the POTS analog phone lines, which means they have little data loss or interruption, plus they are able to transmit at much faster rates than modems.

Well whoopdee-fucking-do. Have you seen the fees and "options" available? DSL modems are issued through the local telephone companies, of which there is of course only one in your area, and the same goes for cable modems, available through companies like Road Runner (Time Warner, et al) and @Home (Rogers, Shaw, TCI, et al). Let's look into the immediate future for fast bandwidth Internet use by examining a local case scenario, shall we?

So I'm staying in a private dorm which has decided not to invest in setting up a network until next semester. Naturally, many of the dorms at UT Austin, both private and public, have become networked in the past two years. Naturally, I'm staying in the dorm that doesn't have a network (called ethernet). Just my luck. You're thinking that I should've moved. Well, you're right, and we'll just skip that topic of discussion for convenience.

(or to save face)

So recently I've been trying to come up with ways to free up my phone line (for work, or so I tell myself) and possibly get myself fixed up with a high-speed connection. As usual, I checked the Web first, in search of timely, detailed information regarding local DSL and cable modem access. After wading through Time Warner's site, I found a link to the Austin branch, and as soon as I found the page with information about cable modems, I bookmarked that sucker. Don't you hate it when you spend three hours looking for a web page, and then you get that oooh-I-am-so-proud-of-myself feeling and you begin reading it and forget to bookmark it, only to find yourself looking for it for another three hours the next day? Yeah. Me too. You're thinking that I should've checked my browser history. Well, you're right, and we'll just...you know.

Time Warner's Road Runner service (that's what their cable modem outfit is called) has very little fresh, up-to-date information on the site. I filled out the form to be placed on the waiting list for installation, and I was apparently number 9054 or something. And then I called them up (after trying to find the damn phone number on the site, another thing I hate) and they were ready to place an order immediately. First rule of using the Web: if you need information on a product, don't go to the site of the company that makes it. You never get the info you need, and you're better off going to a third-party review site.

Okay, so I found out that it costs $44.95/month for cable modem access in Austin. That's considerably more expensive than other areas in the country. On top of that, Time Warner supposedly requires that you order television cable, which is obviously some fucking scam disguised as incompetence. So that's $54.95/month now.

On top of THAT is an added installation fee. You are given two choices, neither of which are particularly appealing. You can either pay $49.95 to take a self-install class, or you can pay $80 to have Time Warner come out and install the mother fucker for you. So obviously I would choose the self-install class, since it's 1) cheaper and 2) easy to plug an RJ45 cable into a network card. But what kind of option is that? I have to pay $50 (ooh, a one-time fee) to drive up to Time Warner's office and sit through a one-hour class, only to learn how to browse the Information Superhighway and learn how to jam my network card into a slot and then plug in the cable. What benefits am I getting exactly for going to this class? Now I'm sure there are people out there who don't know anything about this sort of stuff, for which there is the installation where Time Warner does it all for you. But then, as the cheaper option, there's only an overpriced self-install class that few other areas in North America have that many local cable modem users don't even need.

All I need from Time Warner is a damn sheet of the cheapest paper you can find with the IP addresses and domains I need to enter into my TCP/IP information. Then I need a cable modem. That's it. I already have a network card, and twisted pair cables are easy enough to find.

My dad got a cable modem just before I left for this school semester. In Dallas, it is done through @Home (which seems like a finer deal). He got his installed with a Christmas special, so I think the installation was halved (gasp) and the first month was free. I forget how much he pays, but I think it's $40/month. And get this: Fred (my dad, as a reminder) and I helped the damn technician install the damn thing! The technician wasn't very familiar with Macs, so we had to help him get the cable modem to work. At least we didn't have to pay him to help him install the damn thing.

Nevertheless, I was still thinking about cable modems. Even after reading the local newsgroups about how people were receiving e-mail from other people who had the same login name, how the Usenet server kept crashing, and how the whole service was disrupted frequently.

But it didn't take much to sway me away from the damn things, as nice as it would be to download files at 50-100Kbps, overcome that built-in 100ms lag on modems so I could play multiplayer games at nice clips, and overall be more productive (my Internet connection is my only bottleneck now). The final straw was the fact that the suite I live in has two cable jacks, but both are in each of the two bedrooms, and there is no fucking cable jack in the living room. How fucked up is that? We need to keep the television in the living room. Wouldn't you think that the most likely place for a television in a two-person suite would be the living room? So I called up Time Warner yet again and asked about either getting a really long insulated cable, or getting an extra jack installed. The lady who answered, nice as she was, said that I would have to either get my maintenance man to install it, or I'd have to hire an outside contractor. And THEN I'd have to go to the store (I know not where) to buy a 25 foot cable to link my room's jack to the cable box in the living room.

"Hi, I'm some college shithead, and I'd like to pay you, Mr. Private Contractor, $250 to drill holes in my apartment wall."

Well gee, I've just been presented with SO many realistic options here! Golly, why wouldn't I order a cable modem?

I love it when businesses (admittedly it's not all Time Warner's fault) pull the ol' "oh yes, we have that option too, but you have to saw off your arm and make a soup out of it first" trick. Claim to offer flexibility, but make things as hard as possible for the consumer to actually utilize it.

So, like an optimistic AD&D loser a week before the Prom, my thoughts turned to another Prom date, Southwestern Bell, after being turned down by my first choice, Time Warner. Oh, do I love doing business with Southwestern Bell, let me tell you. They're the local phone company for a lot of the midwest, and they provide ISDN, phone service, and now DSL to customers. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I like to think of how the money that I've forked into having my line reactivated/reinstalled every year and paying all the long distance bills to Sweden has been used by some porky, greedy telecom executive's little debutante daughter setting her Beanie Baby full collections on fire with $100 bills just to keep warm on those chilly autumn nights off the coast of Spain on the top deck of a yacht while lounging around in Gucci gear.

Southwestern Bell offers a very tempting, competitive offer to upgrade to DSL which includes an economically realistic $200 equipment fee. Also, as part of the bargain, you get to pay only $60/month for "low-speed" access, if you choose to pay month to month. Not only that, for Southwestern Bell has to make money somehow, there is a $100 installation fee. Now, this isn't their fault, but DSL customers must live within a certain radius of the hubs in order to get the service. Southwestern Bell guarantees 384Kbps upload and download...very generous of them.

So yet again, customers like me feel screwed over. Hey, I realize this shit isn't cheap, but come on...when other areas of the country somehow manage to charge lower prices, I get skeptical. All these little added fees are ridiculous! It's almost as insipid as charging installation fees to set up dialup accounts on top of the per month fee. I hope none of you have ever paid an installation fee for a regular dialup account. I bet it takes three minutes to set up a user account. Or it could take a few keystrokes if someone wrote a script for it.

DSL is just out of the question. Supposedly, it's more consistent than cable modems, since it's a dedicated connection, and cable users share their bandwidth with other people who live near them. But $200 for equipment? You've got to be joking. Is Southwestern Bell just offering DSL access so they can say they do? Because I bet if you do sampling surveys on how many people would pay that much, the results wouldn't look promising. Hell, if a business got ADSL, it might consider getting the high-speed package, which is MUCH, much more.

There we have it. Screwed over by circumstance and high prices, my Prom ruined like that oh-so-colorful scene in "There's Something About Mary", Time Warner and Southwestern Bell would not be going home with me that night.

But I must remain hopeful. My dorm is supposedly installing ethernet in all the buildings over the summer, so I'll have it next semester, which, I might note, is the beginning of my final year. How...fitting. Next thing you know, they'll only hook up the dorms with two T1 connections or something, a T1 only transmitting about 1.544Mbps. Sounds like a lot, but then you divide it by 8 to get megabytes, so that's about 193KBps (a 56Kbps modem transmits at just that), and then divide THAT by all the users in the dorms. Slow as Hell, what with all the warez, pr0n, and MP3-trading that goes on in dorms.

I had lunch with an interesting guy last summer. He worked at a big telecommunications firm as someone who tried to get a feel for where the market was moving and how his business could capitalize on it. So, of course, with the responsibility of providing the future to his company, he asks me to give him some info about how much bandwidth people want. You know; "Sure I hear you about how much more information and marketing and video and push technology we'll be able to pipe through to our users, but what makes it financially worthwhile for us?" I know he was just asking me those sorts of questions in order to extract the most appealing reasons to invest, but I must say that it seemed silly explaining how sending consumers more information would produce more money for the provider.

I told him that people are dying to have faster connections and more bandwidth so they can download anything they want faster, without having to contend so much with the rigors of modem-use. He told me that it didn't seem to most businesses like people were all that interested in high-speed connections. I said that people were willing to pay a premium to get the service, because that's how much they wanted it. Someone must have been listening.

I would pay a bit more for high-speed access (like $50/month), but not if I also have to pimp out my nubile body to bored housewives just to be able to afford that installation charge, or if I also have to rearrange my whole apartment just so Tab A will fit in Slot B.

So what am I left with? I'm left with just getting another telephone line. Back to the basics. Back to the same old shit that's been around most of this century. This is how far we've come. See me? See that cheerful smile, so willing after all the hassle to pay that outrageous $50 setup fee for a second phone line, plus $15/month? You know they planned this. They have it all worked out, see. It's the war of attrition.

The sad part is that Austin has it better than most parts of the world, and here I am complaining. Imagine living in other countries, where you have to pay for local calls, and even for just taking the phone receiver off the hook. Imagine having a fiber/copper infrastructure so outdated that high-speed connections are not likely to come anytime soon. Imagine other countries' businesses' unwillingness to invest in better communications technology, if even American businesses were skeptical.

As a side note, I'm just waiting for the rest of the world to come to the Internet en masse. I think it'll be great. I want to see more diversity and more world view, and I definitely want to see more foreign languages online. I'm kind of tired of this American-dominated Internet -- Americans could really stand to be humbled. The U.S. is very lucky to have cheap local phone and Internet usage. Other countries will slowly accept the movement online, and they will make it more affordable for people to go on the Internet. Let me be one of the few people to welcome you guys, when you finally get here.

Still on a modem, I am, but at least UT Austin is connected to the big ol' Internet2 network, a string of educational facilities linked together on an ultra-fast network. It's awesome when you get the choice to download from another university here... 5.5Kbps, baby!

Sigh...how pathetic. :)

Everyone's clamoring about how accessible high-speed connections are, but it just isn't true yet. Cable and DSL providers have a long way to go before they actually start to cash in on all those potential customers out there -- it's unfortunately going to take some harsh experiences before they lower their prices and make their installation processes easier. While they do that, people like me will continue to bitch, as they ignore us. Works out nicely, don't you think?


 
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