Pioneer tackles obstacles to access; ADSL: A new Internet service crawls, with a customer's guidance, as it learns to run as promised in Baltimore.


The path of an early adopter is not an easy one.

Last month, I became one of the first Baltimore City residents to have Bell Atlantic install high-speed Internet access in my home.

Getting there was definitely not half the fun.

I'm hooked up to an Asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), a new technology that's supposed to carry large quantities of data over existing copper telephone wires. In theory, ADSL should allow me to surf the Web at least 10 times faster than with my 56K modem while I chat on the phone at the same time.

For now, it's the only choice I have. Cable Internet service, the other high-speed option for homeowners, isn't offered by the city's provider, TCI, although it's available from Comcast in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties.

Bell Atlantic calls its new service Infospeed DSL, and I signed up for the least expensive package, Personal Infospeed. It's supposed to let me download information at up to 640 kbps for $49.95 a month. But as I discovered, your mileage may vary.

To sign up, be prepared to spend about 20 minutes on the phone making arrangements -- and brush up on your geekspeak beforehand.

Bell Atlantic wants to know a lot about your PC -- whether it has an open expansion slot, a USB port, free IRQs and at least 30 megabytes of available free hard disk space. You also need to know if your current Internet service provider supports DSL. Mine didn't, so I switched to BellAtlantic.Net, Ma Bell's Internet service.

For $212, the company offered to install an external USB modem and modify my house wiring, a process that ideally would require two visits over two days. But my experience was hardly ideal.

On the first visit, a technician adjusted the phone lines in the box outside my house to access DSL. That took 15 minutes.

The next day, a Bell Atlantic tech arrived at 8:30 a.m. First, he drilled holes in the floor to accommodate a thicker DSL phone cable, then he hooked up the USB modem to my computer. But after four hours, the best speed we could maintain was 240K -- far less than the promised 640K.

In my job as systems editor at The Sun, I handle software installation, trouble-shooting and computer support. It's a good thing, because during the installation of Bell Atlantic's modem's drivers and support programs, I had to sit at the tech's elbow and direct him through the process. We had to find the files on the CD-ROM, select the right devices and sit through restarts of Windows 98 for more than an hour.

And after all that, he forgot to install the BellAtlantic.Net software, which I did myself two days later.

When the download speed wouldn't top 240K, the tech called the Bell Atlantic office for help but spent 20 minutes trying to get a person rather than a recording.

When he did get through, the inside technicians ran tests on my phone line and decided they needed to send someone else out the next day to search for whatever gremlin was creating the bottleneck.

At 10 a.m. on the third day, a Bell Atlantic cable installer arrived, and again I went into Tech Girl mode, because he had no clue how DSL ran on the computer. I had to show him how to use Microsoft's high-bandwidth speed test Web site, which the first tech had told me to use as a speedometer.

This poor fellow also spent more than an hour on hold with his support office, but nothing seemed to help, and he left after 2 hours.

Chris Williams, manager of high-speed data services at Bell Atlantic, defended the phone company's tech training. He said that DSL is new to Baltimore and predicted that there will be "hiccups" in installation and customer service for a while. "This is a fairly daunting task, but we're up to it," he declared.

Anyway, I spent more than three hours over the next two days on the phone (mostly on hold) trying to get Bell Atlantic to commit to improving my access speed. Two customer service reps told me that yet another tech would visit my home with a laptop to do more intensive diagnostics. Two other customer service reps ran more diagnostics (again with my technical assistance -- Bell Atlantic should pay me a consulting fee) and said there was no reason I shouldn't be getting the speed I was paying for -- but they offered no solution.

That was enough. I pulled off my Tech Girl hat, put on my reporter's hat and called Bell Atlantic to describe my experience and ask for comment on this story. Suddenly, I went from being customer non grata to the top of the fix-it list.

In 24 hours, I received nearly a dozen calls from Bell Atlantic service reps. Two techs ran several hours of "ping" tests. I was instructed to change my static IP address. Unfortunately, my download speed actually declined.

On Friday, two of Bell Atlantic's top techs paid me a visit. I knew I was out-geeked when one started talking about "ATM clouds." After more ping and Traceroute tests and calls to the home office and yet another change in my IP address, I was surfing at 400K.

These techs also said the Microsoft Web site was not always a good measure of bandwith speed. (Why are other Bell Atlantic techs using it?)

So, DSL is finally running in my home. Even if it's not as fast as it should be, it's a vast improvement over my old modem. Graphically intensive Web pages are loading quickly. Twice, I downloaded a 6MB file in less than five minutes. The always-on feature is great -- I don't have to dial up to reach the Internet. The software and hardware are stable. And being able to talk on the phone while I surf the Net will allow me to eliminate the second phone line I reserve for my computer.

But here's the bottom line: I'm a professional, kids. Don't try this at home. Bell Atlantic's DSL is not ready for the average consumer. The phone company must improve its customer service and train its people before its high-speed service is easy and reliable enough for most of us.

For DSL information, point your Web browser to

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[See ADSL, 3c]

Pub Date: 09/06/99

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