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High-speed slowdowns draw user complaints

Recent caps on high-speed Net access highlight the growing pains in the broadband business, as telephone and cable companies struggle to keep up with consumers' insatiable demand.

Give computer users a taste of the high-speed Internet, and they'll take up arms if they are forced to surf at slower speeds.

Customers who access the Internet over cable connections for some time have suffered slowdowns as the services become widespread. But now high-speed connections over telephone lines may be suffering through their own speed problems. Just recently, local carrier Pacific Bell quietly began instituting speed limits on some of its networks, citing potential problems with phone lines.

The new policy has angered some customers, who say the company is just cutting back on their service to save a few dollars.

But the quiet controversy highlights the growing pains in the broadband business, as telephone and cable companies struggle to keep up with consumers' insatiable demand for faster Internet connections. As more customers sign up for high-speed services, firms like Excite@Home have been faced with network problems and outages. Now telephone companies that are pushing broadband services are learning a hard lesson about the difficulties in serving a mass market.

These unexpected technical problems could complicate plans by SBC Communications--Pacific Bell's parent company--to bring high-speed services to more than 80 percent of its customers by 2002. But analysts say these and other difficulties are unavoidable for any broadband service.

"It's part of the growing pains of understanding how things work in the field," said Jeanette Noyes, an industry analyst with International Data Corp.

Pacific Bell's problems stem from the company's digital subscriber line (DSL) service, which allows homes and businesses to get high-speed Internet and voice service over an ordinary phone line.

Most large telephone companies offer a tiered pricing structure for high-speed services, charging more for faster connection speeds. Yet Pacific Bell guarantees download speeds of 384 kilobits per second (kbps)--nearly seven times the speed of a fast dial-up modem. The company, however, has allowed customers to surf at speeds more than four times that if their equipment could handle it, at no added charge.

Dublin, Calif.-based technical consultant John Navas said PacBell told him his telephone line could handle data transfer speeds of up to 1.5 megabytes per second. Yet over time, his connection speeds began to drop in the evenings.

Although Pacific Bell sent technicians out to Navas' house six times to pinpoint the cause of the slowdown, they never found an answer, he said. Finally, the company capped his download speed at 768 kbps per second, and he hasn't had problems since, he said.

"They're learning by doing," Navas said. "They didn't have any idea that things would degrade over time."

Pacific Bell says they're simply targeting customers who have had continual service problems that stem from the quality or length of their phone lines. The company also plans to step in if lines lines appear likely to have these kinds of troubles. Pacific Bell isn't saying how many customers have had their service speeds capped, however.

"We're only doing it in cases where we don't have any alternative," said spokesman John Britton. "We've worked hard to [remove obstructions] in the phone lines."

Unlike cable, DSL technology is sharply limited by the distance Internet signals must travel over wires. Download speeds slow if the user is more than a mile from a telephone office, and most phone companies won't offer the service to customers more than three miles from a network office.

But Berkeley, Calif., resident Mark Haas, who said he's never had any service problems, noted that the company cut his connection speed without telling him. Pacific Bell recently upgraded the phone lines between his house and their offices, allowing his service to handle the higher bandwidth. He's since asked the company to restore his service to the maximum download speeds.

The need to cap download speeds hasn't cropped up in other regions, as most telephone companies haven't been as liberal in allowing customers access to increased bandwidth.

US West, for example, does allow some of its low-end customers to run faster than the guaranteed rate on their service. A Bell Atlantic spokesperson said the company was conservative in approving lines for DSL service, and so has not had to resort to similar caps to ensure even service.

In light of these recent DSL concerns, however, it is the cable companies that so far have had the most trouble maintaining download speeds as they sign more subscribers to their high-speed services. Cable Net access firms presently claim more subscribers than companies that offer DSL services.

Firms like Excite@Home and Road Runner don't guarantee minimum download speeds--but estimate that a user will generally experience download speeds between 1 megabit per second (mbps) and 3 mbps, or more than 50 times faster than a dial-up modem.

Yet those average speeds slow even more as more people sign up for the service in a certain area. In cities such as Fremont, Calif., users have logged average speeds of just 300 kbps to 500 kbps per second, and some say they've even fallen below dial-up speeds at times.

All cable Internet traffic in a given neighborhood shares a single cable line. As more people simultaneously log onto the service, download speeds on average slow.

Excite@Home in particular has worked to correct this problem, without physically laying more fiber-optic cable or new cable wires, which is the purview of the cable operators. But they concede that there is more work to be done.

"What happens sometimes is that the design limits are exceeded without an upgrade going in, due to parts issues or just delays in implementation, and usage gets ahead of capacity," said Milo Medin, Excite@Home's chief technical officer, in an email interview. "But it's not due to some fundamental scaling issue in the…network."

Speed problems should be expected as telephone and cable companies work out the kinks in what are still new technologies, analysts said.

"It's things like this that make them aware of what's going on in the field," Noyes said. "It's going to make them sensitive to making everything as bulletproof as possible before they roll things out."