For cable and telecommunications companies eager to move business customers into the fast downloading world of the broadband Internet, it is the best of times.
Once businesses have tasted broadband's delights -- setting up virtual wide-area networks, conducting videoconferences, or heedlessly using other bandwidth-sucking applications -- a return to dial-up days is inconceivable. And for businesses, and even Fortune 500 satellite offices, that cannot afford pricy T-1 or T-3 connections, digital subscriber lines and cable modems offer an inexpensive route into the fat pipe universe.
Unfortunately, as anyone who has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous broadband installation woes can attest (and that's almost anyone who's tried), it is also the worst of times.
Installation delays, spotty service, and general industry turmoil have wreaked havoc with the best laid plans of bandwidth carriers, either of DSL copper lines or cable. That's made the transition of most customers into the broadband world an infuriating rite of passage.
Ads touting download speeds up to 50 times faster than a 56 kilobyte-per-second modem, along with free installation, have lured 6 million businesses and consumers to sign up for broadband. And the growth will only continue -- technology analyst firm IDC predicts that the number of DSL lines in the country, at least half of which are used for business, will increase from 2 to 26 million over the next three years.
"Clearly, pent-up demand for faster Internet connections -- particularly among work-at-home households such as telecommuters, day-extenders, and home-based businesses -- is forcing service providers to quickly respond and aggressively push DSL," said IDC senior analyst Amy Harris.
Those numbers would be even higher if service providers were able to keep up with demand.
To begin with, there is the wait for service. While cable modem installation usually takes a few days, DSL connections typically take considerably longer, even months. And new customers of both technologies often suffer at the hands of balky equipment and untrained technicians.
Eric Peterson, an IT manager at network management vendor Somix Technologies of Sanford, Maine, ordered high-speed cable from Time Warner for a Portland, Maine, satellite office last November 1. The installer came on November 17, and everything seemed in order. "A week after installation, I lost service," Peterson said. "Time Warner could not resolve things via telephone."
A week later another technician remedied the situation. Five minutes after he left, service died again. A new modem got things working, but only for a few days. Finally, the day after Christmas, an engineer isolated the real bug -- a faulty splitter.
Many U.S. businesses might be more than happy to suffer two months of installation hassles if they could receive service at all. Cable and DSL are unavailable in many cities, and DSL customers must live within three miles of a telecom carrier's central office. According to a study by Daedalus Venture Group last fall, a quarter of DSL requests end up unfilled because the requester is located too far from the carrier.
Existing cable infrastructure, meanwhile, is generally centered in residential rather than business districts, leaving cable carriers at a disadvantage when seeking corporate customers.
Popularity Breeds Contempt
Part of the problem stems from broadband's popularity. Last year, the number of cable modem and DSL installations more than doubled, and analysts predict a similar increase this year. Most of this demand -- including increased home usage -- is driven by business.
IDC analyst Tom Gilmore reports that almost two-thirds of online households "expressed interest in high-speed access because of work-related demands, which included addressing the needs of telecommuters, day extenders, and home offices."
That means that broadband providers like Covad Communications, of Santa Clara, Calif., which says half of its 320,000 subscribers are businesses, and Rhythms Netconnections, of Englewood, Colo., which reports 60 percent business customers, could be understating the percentages.
Some of the problem also stems from customer ignorance, according to Gartner Group analyst John Girard: "Business users want connections at speeds approaching T-1, at a cost approaching ISDN [128 kilobyte-per-second integrated services digital network], with quality of service approaching frame relay."
Both cable and DSL carriers share an overarching problem: personnel. It can take up to nine months to train a cable technician, and even longer to train someone to ferret out problems in a network setting. Partly as a result, analysts estimate a U.S. shortage of as many as 65,000 broadband installers -- and that's not counting thousands in the field who remain poorly trained or untrained on broadband.
This makes routine customer experiences like those of Somix's Peterson: "The installers appeared to have no knowledge of the technology. They could plug in the three wires, and that was it. They were cable guys, not computer guys."
Making the Relationship Work
To remedy the chronic installer shortage, some firms are sending out self-installation packages and using call centers to address the inevitable customer problems. Qwest reports that 90 percent of customers request self-installation, and 80 percent successfully accomplish the job. SBC and Earthlink say they've enjoyed similar results with self-installations.
But the sheer volume of complaints (for a sampling, see the independent Web site DSL Reports) indicates that self-install is no panacea. There is no getting around the lack of competent installers.
The shortage has spurred ambitious project by FatPipeU, an Irvine, Calif., startup that is recruiting underemployed people to train and apprentice as broadband installers. Targeting workers seeking an IT industry toehold, FatPipeU has in its first few months of operation placed more than 600 installers with AT&T, Time Warner, and other broadband providers.
The powerful incentive of eager customers has carriers working to bring more subscribers into the broadband universe. AT&T, for example, is spending $100 billion to bring fiber-optic cables closer to more customers. By next year it plans to offer enterprise-class cable service to office buildings, as well as DSL.
Meanwhile, wireless broadband is expanding its reach into areas lacking either cable modem or DSL services. Dallas-based Wireless WebConnect, for instance, offers 128K wireless mobile access for $75 a month in parts of California, the Northeast, and Texas.
But comprehensive wireless broadband, along with smoothly working cable or DSL installations covering the whole country, remains years away. In the meantime, eager customers will continue to endure the cruel initiation rituals that remain intrinsic to the broadband experience.
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in technology issues.