MSN DSL: Bad Service, Bad Deal
At the end of the 20th century telecommunications companies laid millions of miles of fiber-optic cable around the country. Today, 95 percent of that capacity remains unutilized and is referred to as “dark” fiber. There are a number of reasons why that is so but the most significant one is the fact that the data pipeline from your home or office to the Internet is often too small to allow for the transfer of large data files such as video or multi-page documents and graphics. The small pipe difficulty is known as the “last mile” problem. The last mile problem is viewed by many as the principle obstacle to a truly revolutionary telecommunications future. It is as if the entire fan population for the World Series was required to enter Bank One Ballpark through a single turnstile.
Until recently those of us fortunate enough to live in Arizona had a variety of choices open to us. We were one of the first areas in the country to have DSL capabilities through US West. The television cable companies provided access to the Internet over their cable systems. Sprint provided wireless access via our rooftop antenna and several companies began to offer access via satellite. Only a year ago I was able to proclaim that Arizona lawyers who needed to overcome last mile problem could utilize one of several available solutions. One year ago I was decidedly optimistic about the coming of ubiquitous broadband capacity in Arizona and the end of the last mile problem. Today I am decidedly pessimistic about those possibilities for several reasons. First, Sprint has apparently abandoned the expansion of its wireless network pending the development of new technologies. When, if ever, that new technology will come back online is unknown. Secondly, we hoped that we could access the Internet via satellite with the same success we have with television. But access via the DirecPC network has turned out to be problematic. I have tried satellite access and at the moment I cannot recommend it as a solution in the office context. It is too slow and too unstable to be relied upon as an office communication tool. Third, many of the cable providers do not yet provide access for businesses thus limiting that option to home offices.
All of those things were bothersome but not critical because a very large proportion of the law offices in the state had access to the DSL service provided by Qwest communications. I wrote less than a year ago about how wonderful the Qwest service had become. Their “ride the light” advertising campaign was both a joy and a promise of a high-speed digital future. Then Qwest entered into a relationship with Microsoft that has effectively destroyed the utility of the DSL service it provides. The big Qwest megabit pipes are still there, but the primary way of accessing those pipes has now become the Microsoft network. MSN is a very small pipe that severely limits the size of files you can send on to the Quest DSL lines. MSN is the single turnstile at BOB. You cannot ride the light on MSN.
Over the last month I have had some pretty unbelievable interactions with MSN. Any of you who have Qwest DSL service will soon be forced to switch over to MSN or find another Internet Service Provider (ISP). Qwest is abandoning its role as an ISP and is turning all of its customers over to MSN. Some of you may have alternative sources of access to the Internet and if you do now is the time to start to explore them and put something in place before you get switched over. You will not like MSN unless you have exceedingly modest expectations for your use of the Internet.
My experience with MSN started about a month ago when I received e-mail from Qwest telling me that by the first of next year I would have to access their DSL lines through MSN. I thought that I had some obligation to you, my readers, to explore the transition earlier rather than later and so I went to the Qwest transition service to get my new MSN service. It didn't take long and I liked the fact that I could get dial-up service all over the country through MSN. I was excited about the possibilities but totally unprepared for what happened next.
I had anticipated that the joining of the Qwest DSL capability with the Microsoft Network was a marriage made in heaven. After all, Bill Gates has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money over the last year touting Microsoft's .net strategy. Since MSN is a key element in that strategy I expected it would be a first-class service. I also knew that MSN was in a fight to the death with AOL for the consumer space and has been making major gains in the last few months. That competition, I thought, would cause Microsoft to provide a better service than AOL. I was wrong on all counts. The MSN service is shoddy, its people are rude, and the fundamental design of the system is incompatible with the effective use of broadband in the office. MSN is a low-level consumer exploitation tool designed for simple email and chat, not a professional tool for document transfer and other Internet needs.
My first MSN experience came when my DSL service went down two days after the switch. I waited a while thinking there might be some start-up problems but after a few days working on a 56K modem I decided to call MSN support and get back on my broadband connection. I was, however, totally unprepared for technical support people who were basically untrained in the technology they were supporting. All they could tell me was that there were some “issues” with the Tucson servers. Over the course of the next few days my DSL self-service was up and down, and much more down than up. Moreover, I found that I could not send ordinary documents and files using the new service. I was finally told during one of my many conversations with MSN Support that MSN did not allow files larger than one megabyte. That's OK, I thought, because I can use my office server at the University to send larger files. It was then that I found that the MSN service would not allow me to access my server at the University for the purpose of sending files. When I called MSN technical support to find out why that was so I was given a bunch of techno mumbo jumbo that was either the product of ignorance or of design. I have subsequently discovered that the inability to access my university server for the purpose of sending large files is not a glitch but is apparently an intentional decision on the part of MSN to preserve their own bandwidth at the expense of their customers thus creating more profit for MSN. When I suggested to my support person in MSN that the failure to disclose such a restriction had some legal implications I was told that the fact that I had mentioned legal action required her to terminate the call. She then hung up on me.
The next morning I called my local cable company and arranged for the installation of the @Home service. A week later, a very nice young man arrived at my house with the cable modem. In less than an hour my cable system was up and running. It is ten times as fast as my old DSL service and costs a little bit less. On the cable network I can access my university server with ease. The only problem is that Excite@Home, which is in bankruptcy and may fail, basically provides the @home service. I am told that Cox Cable is committed to maintaining its Internet access no matter what happens. I hope that is so. If you cannot get cable service there are some other DSL providers such as the old Starnet system now known as FastTucson.net. FastTucson (www.fasttucson.net) is dedicated to providing high speed DSL without the file size restrictions now imposed by MSN. Call FastTucson at (520) 618-7873. In Phoenix and other areas of the state contact digizip.com at (602) 264-1410, or on the web at: www.digizip.com. Both of these organizations pride themselves on client service and are a welcome relief from MSN’s shuck and jive. They can provide several alternative ways of reaching the big Qwest pipes you have come to love. Meanwhile, I am riding the light with my @Home cable access. I love it!