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DSL problems slow high-speed Net surfers

High-speed Internet technologies are suffering from intermittent service outages and equipment failures across the country, frustrating users and service providers.

The high-speed, always-on Internet is suffering growing pains.

For the last several weeks, CNET News.com has received a stream of reports from readers across the country detailing intermittent outages with their telephone companies' high-speed Internet services. These readers claim they have frequently lost service with their "always-on" systems, stranding them offline for hours at a time.

While just a sampling of the entire high-speed landscape, these emails do paint a picture of a technology that seems to be suffering from the same kinds of crashes and service failures that have infuriated computer users since the release of the first PC.

The complaints have targeted digital subscriber line (DSL) service, a technology that allows existing phone lines to be used for high-speed data transmissions and voice traffic simultaneously.

The problems highlight a new challenge for the large local phone companies. Baby Bells, like SBC Communications and US West, have consistently staked their reputation on relatively low-tech but reliable phone service. With DSL, they now face the challenge of recasting themselves around less reliable high-tech offerings.

The recent flood of complaints about DSL isn't a first in the high-speed world. Cable modems, which are still the most popular consumer broadband Internet technology, have also been the subject of considerable service problems and speed slowdowns in recent months.

In California, equipment failures in several San Francisco Bay Area towns stalled Excite@Home service so badly recently that AT&T agreed to give customers rebates on their subscription fees.

These kinds of mishaps are unlikely go away altogether, and can still be seen with experienced dial-up ISPs, analysts note.

"Things can go wrong with the pieces of equipment," said Matt Davis, a high-speed Internet analyst with the Yankee Group research firm. "That can happen with anything."

Readers have reported intermittent outages in Bell Atlantic, Pacific Bell, GTE, BellSouth and US West territories, though some of these problems have been more persistent than others.

It appears, however, that the DSL technology itself is not at fault, or is rarely at fault in these outages.

Instead, these outages are largely being prompted largely by failures in specific pieces of system hardware, or occasionally by software crashes or failures in the DSL modems themselves, the companies affected say.

"DSL itself is a very stable technology," Yankee Group's Davis said.

In Bell Atlantic's case, a recent outage that affected customers across its service area stemmed from a bad software upgrade. The company isolated the problem after several hours and brought its customers back on line.

Yesterday, another Bell Atlantic outage knocked DSL customers in the Washington area offline for several hours, but the company was still looking for the source of that problem.

"Obviously this is a new technology with updates happening all the time, literally being done every day," said Joan Rasmussen, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman. "There are all kinds of things that can happen."

In Pacific Bell territory, several users reported having intermittent service outages over the course of at least two weeks, which customer service representatives attributed to a equipment failure at the Pacific Bell ISP service, they said.

Pacific Bell confirmed that it had had a router--the hardware that directs a customer's traffic to and from the Internet--fail at its ISP service. Yesterday, another equipment failure again knocked users offline for several hours, but the company said it was due to different, unrelated hardware.

Despite these complaints, Pacific Bell said most of their customers have been happy with the high-speed service. "Our churn rate is very low, lower than we expected," said Steve Dimmet, Pacific Bell's vice president of marketing. Churn rate is the industry term for the rate at which subscribers leave a service.