Excite@Home asks Pac Bell to can DSL ads

The Internet service provider threatens to sue Pacific Bell over TV advertisements that depict people who use high-speed cable modems to access the Internet as "Web hogs."

Excite@Home is threatening to sue Pacific Bell over TV advertisements that depict people who use high-speed cable modems to access the Internet as "Web hogs."

Bristling at recent TV advertisements that suggest cable-modem service is sluggish because it is "shared" among users, Excite@Home executives plan to send a letter to Pacific Bell this week urging the local phone company to end the ads or face legal action, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.

At the heart of the matter is a series of TV spots by Pacific Bell that highlight the differences between digital subscriber lines (DSL) and cable modems, the two leading technologies for high-speed consumer Net access. Both technologies are expected to be high-growth businesses for years to come, despite a current slew of availability headaches and installation woes for consumers.

Cable networks are, by their nature, shared. That is, many subscribers of cable Net access in a particular region connect to a designated amount of network capacity that passes by a residence.

Service speeds can slow as more subscribers sign up or at peak hours when many users are surfing the Web--say in the evening after dinner. Excite@Home says it manages its networks to avoid such problems and implemented upload speed caps to thwart potential bandwidth abusers.

As a result, Excite@Home has addressed a letter to Pacific Bell president Bill Blase intimating the commercials are misleading and demanding a response by a deadline, sources said.

The ads highlight an esoteric technology debate that has been mulled by the industry for some time but may have less relevance for the average consumer. The speeds of both DSL and cable technologies are generally comparable, but the debate concerns the point at which a user gets a dedicated connection and how far from a residence that dedicated connection extends.

Once thought to be a cable-only Net access operation, even Excite@Home has adopted both cable and DSL technologies to deliver its service to consumers and businesses.

Pacific Bell's ads illustrate a fictional cable modem-based neighborhood that has been reduced to retaliatory vandalism over use of the Internet. Actors sic dogs on one another or maliciously mow down the front-yard flowers of suspected "Web hog" neighbors with weed trimmers in the ads.

The commercials tout Pac Bell DSL as "Always fast. Never shared."

Residential DSL service, a relatively new business for local phone giants such as Pacific Bell and its parent company, SBC Communications, offers dedicated connections between a user's home and the phone company's switching facilities, known as the "central office."

Depending on the physical distance from the central office, phone companies often will guarantee consumers a certain minimum Internet download speed because no other subscribers have access to that bandwidth.

The cable industry and Excite@Home point out that the Internet in general is a "shared" network with highly inconsistent data transfer rates. Although the short connection between a consumer's home and the phone company facilities may provide dedicated speeds, the Internet at large does not, and any characterization to the contrary is misleading, they say.

Excite@Home representatives declined to comment on whether the company is planning a false advertising lawsuit or other legal action.

Clearly the commercials have gotten under the company's skin. "We feel that the ads that PacBell has put out are misleading consumers because of the shared network aspects of DSL, cable and all other networking technologies," said an Excite@Home spokeswoman.

A Pacific Bell spokesman said the phone company has not yet received any letters from Excite@Home but that the company's concern over the Pacific Bell ads is no secret. High speed pipe dreams?

"The cable guys are being so silly about this and so defensive about the architecture of their network," spokesman John Britton said. "They have a shared resource. They know it, and they apparently don't like the fact that we have a commercial bringing attention to it."

Pacific Bell has aired the ads in the Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego TV markets, while SBC Communications has begun running similar spots in Texas and Missouri markets, he said.

"Our commercials are very clear," Britton said. "The point of our commercials is that you can experience a loss of speed (on cable networks) as more and more people jump on the Net."

Excite@Home is the nation's largest high-speed, or "broadband," Internet service provider, with more than 1.5 million customers. SBC has 201,000 DSL customers and is installing more than 3,000 new DSL connections per day.