By DAN EGBERT
RALEIGH NEWS AND OBSERVER
When Michael Czeiszberger signed up for DSL service about a year ago, he was hoping to get a lightning-fast Internet connection for his Raleigh, N.C., home. What he got instead was months of hassle and headache.
Unable to jump-start his digital subscriber line, or DSL, modem, Czeiszberger called technical support for the small company that was offering the service, Triangle DSL.
They in turn called BellSouth, because BellSouth controlled the phone lines that the DSL service was riding on. It went nowhere.
No record: He switched to another provider, Speakeasy.net, and began a maddening series of calls to tech support, each time rehashing the problems he was having to multiple technicians, because no one, apparently, kept track of his calls. Then came unannounced visits by BellSouth technicians, which had to be rescheduled because he wasn't home.
After three months, several repair visits and still no DSL service, Czeiszberger decided to switch to RoadRunner, a residential high-speed Internet, or broadband, connection delivered by Time Warner Cable. Czeiszberger, who has kept DSL at his Web consulting business, is satisfied with RoadRunner at home.
"I did have a couple of outages, but it's been pretty reliable," Czeiszberger said. "The customer service was definitely better -- there weren't a dozen different trips [by technicians] to install it."
In the ongoing saga of broadband connectivity, his tale is a common one. For the past two years, the hype over DSL -- a high-speed Internet connection delivered over phone lines -- has led to a surging demand among consumers and businesses alike.
In the beginning: At first, it looked like the technology was poised to dominate the other emerging broadband options -- mostly cable modems and satellite. Phone lines already reached almost every home in the United States. Many new Internet service providers were offering DSL. Large regional phone companies such as BellSouth had the resources to make sure networks could maintain the service.
But technical problems, market shifts and a poor track record of customer service have plagued efforts to roll out DSL. Many consumers have turned instead to cable modems for broadband connectivity.
Since consumer broadband became widely available in 1999, the cable option has dominated the market. This year, cable will claim about 7 million of the estimated 10.7 million broadband subscribers in the United States, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm, compared with 3.3 million DSL customers.
Satellite and fixed-wireless broadband have a marginal foothold in the market. DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite-television provider, said it plans to offer high-speed Internet service called Direcway by the fall of 2001. The service will cost between $59.99 and $69.99 a month; customers will also need to buy a new satellite dish.
Industry observers say that cable is likely to remain the most popular option in the future.
"The availability and quicker provisioning of cable modem [broadband service] are the key differentiator," said Imran Khan, an analyst with Yankee Group. "Even in four years we don't see DSL taking over cable."
Randolph L. Roswell, vice president and general manager of Time Warner's central North Carolina region, says he does not keep track of how many of his customers are DSL refugees, but said cable's simple installation is a "clear advantage" over DSL.
Improvements: BellSouth spokesman Clifton Metcalf argues that the company has made major strides in beefing up its DSL offering and improving customer service in the past year.
The Atlanta-based regional phone company now has about 381,000 DSL subscribers in the Southeast -- reflecting one of the strongest growth rates among DSL providers -- and by the end of the year will be able to make it available to 70 percent of the households it serves, Metcalf said.
But he acknowledges that "the demand for [DSL] has been phenomenal, and that, frankly, has been a challenge to meet."
The problems with delivering DSL have spelled doom for many of the new data-service companies that rely on local phone networks to reach customers. National and regional DSL companies such as BlueStar and Northpoint have folded in recent months.
Many of these upstart companies have cried foul at BellSouth and other regional phone companies, saying they have systematically hindered efforts to correct technical problems and facilitate accurate billing.
Competition isn't the only problem -- technology hurdles with DSL exist even for regional phone service providers.
DSL is delivered to the home by a DSLAM device, a computer that routes data traffic over the phone line. DSLAMs sit in a central office facility where phone calls are routed to local customers.
The DSLAM can't effectively establish speedy Internet connections to computers located more than 3.4 miles away from the central office, even though the reach of phone service stretches far beyond that point. Cable networks can deliver broadband connections to each of their customers, but those networks are usually in densely populated areas. For outlying or rural areas, the only way to get fast Internet service is with a satellite dish.
Phone problems: But even in urban locales, the phone network can cause problems. In some instances, the glitch can lie in the miles of twisted copper wiring that run along city streets to residential users. Devices called bridge taps and splitters, installed along phone lines to accommodate growth in urban areas, can require "significant treatment" to get DSL working over them, said Tom Matthews, a spokesman for Sprint.
On many DSL providers' Web sites, prospective customers can get a "pre-certification," which will verify whether the service is available on their phone line. But most have to wait at least two weeks after ordering to find out whether it will really work, because the service provider has to test the line.
More frustrating for some customers is the lack of customer support for DSL service.
Chris G. Georgoulias, a 25-year-old engineering student at N.C. State University, had DSL from BellSouth for about six months last year but dropped it because he could not get the technical help he needed from the company. Avid computer game players, Georgoulias and his roommate used a router device to deliver the service to two different computers in their apartment.
When he asked BellSouth customer support technicians how to troubleshoot problems with the router, which often had to be reset, he was told that DSL would not work with that setup.
When he signed up for Time Warner's RoadRunner, he simply plugged the cable modem into his router, and the two computers were up and running -- no customer support call required.