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BellSouth DSL leaves Linux in the lurch

The Baby Bell is facing a protest campaign from a group of online Linux users who say the company won't let them sign up for its new high-speed DSL service.

BellSouth is facing a protest campaign from a group of online Linux users who say the company won't let them sign up for its new high-speed Internet access service.

Following a posting on an online site today complaining about BellSouth's policy, Linux users have launched an email and phone campaign aimed at winning high-speed digital subscriber line (DSL) access for users of the open source operating system.

DSL is a technology that allows existing copper telephone wires to carry traditional voice and high-speed data traffic simultaneously. The service is the chief competitor to cable networks for consumer broadband Internet access. To push the services, the big local phone companies have touted DSL service heavily and have cut sign-up fees to near $50 a month.

Yet Linux users in BellSouth territory say the company isn't giving them the opportunity to sign up for the high-speed offerings.

Robert Jones, a system administrator at Columbia, South Carolina-based Xeran, said he tried to sign up for DSL service with BellSouth early last month, after being told that Linux users could use the system as long as they configured their own computers.

But when the company's engineer arrived, he told Jones he couldn't set up DSL for a Linux system. Jones called a company supervisor, who confirmed that the company would not install the service for Linux users.

"They said that's corporate policy--that they can't even install the hardware if its going on a Linux desktop," Jones said. After several weeks of exchanging phone calls with technical support supervisors, he decided to take his story online, Jones said.

A BellSouth spokeswoman confirmed that the company does not currently support the Linux operating system, but said the "configuration" was under development. "We'll probably have something within the next few months," said Sue Holub, a company spokeswoman.

A BellSouth tech support representative said customers have been calling to complain about the issue today.

Linux, an open source operating system that is increasingly gaining ground as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows, is used by several million people--largely technically sophisticated computer users--in the United States. Although the small base of Linux home users will limit the impact of BellSouth's policy, critics still note that the most sophisticated users are more likely to require a high-speed Net access option like DSL.

Many of the large phone companies do offer support for Linux. US West explicitly notes the system as a configuration option on their sign-up form, and users in SBC Communications territory--which includes Pacific Bell and Southwestern Bell--said those companies have been fairly Linux-friendly.

"We haven't heard any complaints," said Bob Larribou, chairman of the California Broadband Users' Group (CalBUG), a San Francisco-based consumer watchdog group.

But this isn't the first time that the big phone companies have faced opposition from consumers angry at seeing Windows users get preferential treatment in the broadband world.

Earlier in the year, Macintosh users took aim at Bell Atlantic, which had balked at installing DSL for any but the most recent Macintosh machines. After a few weeks of online protests, the phone company agreed to support most Macintosh users.

Several other online Linux users said they were able to run the alternative operating system even with BellSouth's DSL by initially using a Windows system, and then switching over to Linux after the service had been installed.