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Telcos struggle to meet voice, data demands

A handful of ISPs want to take local phone companies to task over phone network upgrades that are slowing down data transmission rates for dial-up Internet access.

As if dial-up modems weren't already slow enough.

Telephone companies are installing equipment on their networks that can cut the speed of dial-up modems by up to half, and a group of Internet service providers in several Western states are asking state governments to step in and do something about it.

This tussle between ISPs and telcos marks a growing tension between the big local phone companies' voice and Internet businesses. The phone companies desperately want to turn themselves into data powerhouses, with high-speed Internet and other offerings. But they are required by law to offer near-flawless telephone service--and occasionally, something has to give.

In this case, that something is a user's ability to surf the Net quickly.

"We have a huge problem in New Mexico with it," said Marianne Granoff, an independent consultant serving as a liaison between ISPs and government agencies. Granoff is looking into potential legal solutions for the issue. "We have people that can't get 14.4 [kilobits per second] because of the various equipment on the phone lines."

The problem
The fact that modems are being slowed isn't a matter of dispute, although the size of the problem is.

US West, like most other big telephone companies, has long been building technical short-cuts in its network that allow it to serve growing areas where it doesn't have enough physical wires in the ground.

Some of the equipment involved effectively digitizes and compresses an ordinary phone signal, and allows the existing conduit to handle many more voice lines. Trouble is, the equipment could interfere with the data transfer speeds of a dial-up modem.

Technical experts said it is common to see a 56 kbps modem fall to around 26.6 kbps in some situations, although none had heard of speeds dropping as low as 14.4 kbps.

"This way we can provide more customers with service, if the lines aren't available," said Jeff Bolton, GTE's director of data access services. "The down side is that in some cases there is some impact on modems."

Even Bolton's own home dial-up service, in Southwestern Bell territory, suffers from this problem, he said.

Home on the range
In a few Western states, ISPs are not suffering quietly. New Mexico residents have complained to the state attorney general, saying that US West is falsely advertising its ability to provide second lines for dedicated Internet use.

In Wyoming, similar complaints have prompted regulators there to propose setting a minimum standard for phone lines, at which users could get at least 28.8 kbps. In that same proceeding, however, the state had asked for comments on whether it even has the power to regulate data speeds over phone lines.

In Colorado, the public service commission conducted a state-wide investigation on the subject, and concluded that there was a problem--but that a majority of residents didn't want to see an increase in their monthly phone bill to pay for the necessary network upgrades.

In the other states, officials are still looking at the problem. But with local phone service still viewed as a more essential function than Internet access, the ISPs and angry dial-up consumers have a long battle ahead.

"Our fundamental obligation is to provide phone service for people," said Jeremy Story, a US West spokesman. "People may not like it, but their own [Public Utility Commission] has decided it's appropriate."