The airwaves are filled with advertisements promoting the next generation of the Internet, a wired world buzzing with creative energy, the images slick and orderly. Complications of time and terrain have been neatly tamed by technology.
There is all that, and then there's Jeff Stallings peering into a dank phone closet in Laurel. A technician from Covad Communications Co., a leading provider of a type of high-speed Internet access known as DSL, he is stuck with the messy details of this digital revolution.
Thousands of wires snake up the walls. One set is supposed to be routing a connection to an insurance business inside this office park, enabling the agents to more quickly search listings and download pictures of houses. But which wires? And why, despite weeks of tedium--phone calls, paperwork, visits from technicians in offices here and there--won't the wires carry the data? Why does a computer screen that should be ablaze with graphics and video remain maddeningly blank?
Tools and instruments in hand, Stallings squints to make out the lettering on the tags identifying a few wires. He wonders why Bell Atlantic Corp., two hours after its scheduled meeting time, still isn't here to help resolve the mystery. "It's one thing or another almost all the time," he said.
Broadband, as high-speed Internet is known, is widely viewed as the digital future, the thing that will enable speedy loading of video and music, with new applications to come as the capacity to move dense chunks of data develops. DSL, or digital subscriber line--a technology that turns traditional phone lines into swift, always-on pipes to the Internet--has become a key means of delivering that promise, competing with cable television wires.
Broadband remains in its infancy. About 300,000 U.S. customers reach the Internet via DSL, and about 1 million get there over upgraded cable television wires, according to the Yankee Group. Meanwhile, about 32 million households navigate the global computer network via relatively slow dial-up connections.
As the impatient and techno-savvy press to make broadband a reality, they are confronting some basic problems. Upgrading cable TV lines is costly, time-consuming and not without its own technical challenges. And to deploy DSL, dozens of people, from skilled technicians to clerical workers, must coordinate their work. Any mishap along the way--a blown appointment, a misplaced order, a loose connection--stymies service.
The DSL companies must link their equipment to local phone lines inside telephone "central offices"--the boiler rooms of the industry. Most crucially, the phone company must run a new phone line to the customer, allowing the DSL company to connect a special modem that transmits the data.
Each step is fraught with uncertainty. Order cable television or a new phone line and the chances are good that a technician will arrive, plug this into that, and there you are. Covad tells its new customers to expect to wait four to six weeks before they are up and running. On a recent day in the Washington-Baltimore region, Covad succeeded in completing only 188 of its 415 scheduled DSL installations, according to company data.
Covad says its troubles are predictable for a new business. The pitfalls are built into its plans. The company explains the numbers by pointing to the unusual relationship that prevails in its industry: Local telephone companies such as Bell Atlantic sell DSL themselves. Thus, while the telephone line is the one thing a DSL provider cannot exist without, its lone supplier is also its biggest competitor.
It is an arrangement that has generated no end of controversy. Under rulings from the Federal Communications Commission, local telephone companies are required to lease lines to rival DSL companies. But companies such as Covad argue that local companies have failed to make the lines available in a timely fashion. Some have accused the local powers of employing a kind of "strategic incompetence," detailing inexperienced and lesser-trained people to the task.
Covad, a national company based in Santa Clara, Calif., blames three-fourths of its failed installations in this region on Bell Atlantic, claiming the company often doesn't deliver a working phone line or fails to tag the wires inside the phone closet, making it impossible for Covad's technicians to locate them. Covad claims Bell Atlantic routinely arrives hours late for meetings scheduled to fix troubles, and often doesn't show up at all.
Bell Atlantic dismisses such numbers as exaggerated and says Covad shifts blame away from itself. "Their techs, who are sometimes very new, don't look in the right place" for the lines, said Claire Beth Nogay, a Bell Atlantic official. "The wholesaling of this is new for everybody and both sides are experiencing a learning curve . . . We are devoting our best people to this."
As for claims of technicians skipping meetings, she adds: "These are the kinds of issues you run into with any large dispatchable force. You run into traffic problems."
The argument may soon quiet. Under new FCC rules, companies such as Covad will be able to add DSL to existing phone lines: They won't need a whole new line. That should lessen delays by reducing Covad's dependence on local companies.
For now, the debate still has currency. Bell Atlantic's treatment of DSL rivals became a key issue in its efforts to expand into the long-distance business. Bell Atlantic offered to establish a separate subsidiary to sell lines for DSL and, on Wednesday, the FCC gave the okay. But it also gave warning: It will bring enforcement action against Bell Atlantic if evidence of discrimination emerges.
On Hold in Manassas
For Athena Norman, a 24-year-old senior technician at Covad's national trouble-shooting center in Manassas, the telephone is a messenger of grief. This call comes from Boston. Shorenet, an Internet service provider that buys its high-speed connections wholesale from Covad, has spent nearly a month trying to get service working for an unhappy customer.
Norman calmly sifts through a computer log of failed efforts and scheduled retries--an acronym soup of confusion. With a few keystrokes, she tests the line, revealing an "open," a break in the wire. "That's a big problem," she tells Shorenet. "Let's call Bell Atlantic."
When Covad first reported the trouble, Bell Atlantic said it could not find the order, nor could it locate the line. Two weeks later, Bell Atlantic identified the wire and assigned it a "trouble ticket." Now, as Norman seeks to get an update, she reaches a Bell Atlantic technician who puts her on hold for five minutes, then returns with news: Someone has been dispatched to check out the line.
Norman isn't satisfied. In her view, most of Bell Atlantic's people don't know much about DSL. She asks to speak to a "Net tech"--a technician conversant in the digital world. Back on hold. Carole King sings "So Far Away." For 15 minutes, Norman gazes out the window, to a parking lot and trees beyond.
When Janis, a Net tech, finally comes on the line, Norman runs another test. "We're seeing an open at about 370 feet," she says. That means the break is somewhere inside the central office--Bell Atlantic's domain.
Janis agrees to page a technician to get a status report. Meanwhile, Norman takes another call. Somewhere in Denver, a US West technician is standing outside another home. Two weeks of effort have not established a connection.
"The only thing I can tell you is the copper's good," the US West technician says.
Norman does a test and receives error messages from a device US West is using to coax the signal over the line. This news does not please the technician.
"There's nothing wrong," he says again. "As far as US West is concerned, the circuit is good from the central office to here. That's the only thing we can give you."
In the background, the technician commiserates with the customer. This is Covad's customer and Covad is dependent on US West to deliver the line. With matters at odds, the two sides are blaming each other. US West is in the man's living room. Covad is Norman's quiet voice, 1,600 miles away in Northern Virginia.
The call ends with no fix, just the promise of a meeting to be scheduled. Covad and US West technicians will go out to the house together and see what can be done.
'Don't Give Up Hope'
For Jeff Stallings, still waiting for Bell Atlantic in Laurel, another day's work is falling through the cracks--the disconnect between his company and the one that controls the phone system.
He has logged one success this day, wiring up a young couple's Alexandria town house. The husband ordered DSL so he could more easily play Asheron's Call, a multiplayer game involving magicians, treasure hunters and warriors who explore the mythical kingdom of Dereth. But nothing's going right in Laurel. Covad and Bell Atlantic can't even agree on the outcome of previous visits. Stallings sits in his van and eats a sandwich as another hour passes.
Finally he steps outside and walks to the phone closet, affixing an electronic instrument to the problem circuit. He hears a crackling sound: The wires are connected to something. But not Covad's equipment in the central office.
As darkness closes out a raw day, Stalling's cell phone chirps with word that Bell Atlantic will not arrive today. He grimaces. Inside the insurance office, agent Jon Klass fumes. "Bell Atlantic caused us a lot of grief."
Klass likes the Covad tech. He shares his frustration. But not enough to feel assured. "I can see it in your face," he tells Stallings. "You're trying to service us, but you can't service us. Why? Because of Bell. There's got to be a point of contact between you and Bell."
"I apologize," Stallings says. "Don't give up hope."
But even if this problem can be solved, what if the service goes down? Who will take responsibility? "It has me wondering about the future," Klass says.
Then he thinks of the hours spent watching the hourglass on his computer screen, the pictures slowly materializing. He thinks of broadband. He craves speed.
"I want it," he says. "Even with all the frustration, I still want it."