This document is also available as a regular HTML document, and in ASCII text.
The number of digital subscriber line (DSL) customers has been growing rapidly, and industry analysts say the trend will continue. But is DSL meeting consumers' needs and expectations? Numerous published reports have highlighted a host of problems experienced by consumers who sign up for DSL service. The problems that have been described in media reports and online bulletin boards include long waits for service to be initiated, missed appointments, lost orders and a lack of coordination among service providers. In some instances installation blunders have left customers without any Internet or phone service for days or weeks at a time. NetAction wanted to know whether these anecdotal reports presented an accurate picture of the status of DSL service. So we surveyed broadband subscribers nationwide to gauge the level of satisfaction with DSL service.
Our survey found that a higher percentage of negative experiences were reported by DSL users served by the incumbent regional Bell phone companies than by DSL users served by competitive Internet service providers. In general, the Bells' DSL customers waited longer to have service installed, were more likely to have been billed before service commenced, and were less satisfied with technical support and customer service than consumers served by competitive DSL providers. When we compared responses from all DSL users to responses from all cable users who participated in the survey, we found that a higher percentage of DSL users reported negative experiences, and a higher percentage of DSL users were billed before their service was initiated.
Our sample (Figure I-1) consisted of 672 users of broadband or dial-up Internet service. Of the total, 472 (70.2%) were DSL subscribers, 63 (9.4%) were cable broadband subscribers, 18 (2.2%) had dial-up connections, and 119 (17.7%) had some other kind of Internet access such as Ethernet, wireless or ISDN. (The "Other" group includes respondents who did not specify the type of connection they were using.)
About half of the DSL users, (51.6%), and a majority of cable broadband users, (60%), reported paying between $30-$49 per month for service. The percentage of DSL and cable broadband customers who reported paying $29 or less per month was nearly identical (17.9% of DSL users and 18.3% of cable broadband users). At the other end of the price range, a higher percentage of DSL users reported paying $50 or more per month for service (19.2% of DSL users compared to 10% of cable broadband customers).
We also asked our survey participants why they subscribed to broadband, and what they used it for. Most of our respondents (87.6%) indicated that the service was for personal use. Nearly half (49.9%) used broadband service for business, and 24.5% used it for school. The top reasons for subscribing were faster connection speed (75.7%), not tying up the phone line (54.5%), and the fact that the service was always on (51.3%). Other reasons cited by respondents mostly had to do with problems with dial-up service, such as busy signals and dropped connections. A number of respondents specifically mentioned dissatisfaction with America Online (AOL) as the reason for switching to broadband Internet service.
|Previous Internet Service|
% of Users
|High Speed Connection at Work|
|Cable or ISDN|
We also asked respondents what type of Internet service they were using before broadband. Most users (Table I-1) reported having some type of proprietary dial-up service (64.7%). The second largest segment reported using a free dial-up service (16.8%). A number of users reported having previously used more than one kind of service. The most common combination was a proprietary dial-up service and a free dial-up service.
A majority of the respondents who subscribed to DSL service (57.4%) had residential ADSL, while 9% had business ADSL. However, a large percentage of the respondents (28%) were not sure what type of broadband service they were using. This uncertainty may reflect the users lack of familiarity with the specific types of DSL service, or it could be because the respondents were using the service at work or school.
When NorthPoint Communications ran out of cash and shut down its DSL network earlier this year, industry observers speculated about the fate of the remaining competitive DSL wholesalers.
Increased deployment of broadband is one of the key goals of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but most of the Internet service providers that offer DSL are simply resellers. They buy wholesale bandwidth from companies that own the networks, and resell it as a retail service to consumers and businesses. Most of the networks are owned by the incumbent Bell monopolies that have historically resisted opening their networks to competitors. NorthPoints demise has raised concerns about the viability of other competitive broadband providers, such as Covad, and those concerns have fueled speculation that the only viable DSL providers in the future will be the Bell monopolies. What would it mean for DSL users if the Bells do wind up in control of the broadband market?
To answer that question, we broke our sample of DSL users into two groups: consumers who were served directly by one of the Bell companies (50.4%) and consumers who were served by competitive DSL providers (49.6%). When we compared responses from the two groups, we found that in general a higher percentage of DSL subscribers served by Bell companies reported negative experiences in getting service established, such as longer waiting times for service installation, or being billed before service was initiated. After service was initiated, however, DSL users served by Bell companies and competitive companies reported similar experiences with other aspects of the service such as the frequency of service disruptions, or the speed. In the section below we highlight some of the differences between DSL users served by competitive companies and DSL users served by the incumbent Bell monopolies.
While a majority of all DSL users who responded waited less than a month for service initiation (Figure II-1), our survey found that a higher percentage of Bell customers waited longer for service to start than customers of competitive companies (43.9% of respondents served by Bell companies had to wait more than one month for service to start, compared to only 27.9% of respondents served by competitors).
We also asked who installed the service, since some DSL providers have been encouraging customers to do their own installation. As Figure II-2 illustrates, a higher percentage of Bell customers did their own installation (48.5% of Bell customers compared to 30.5% of respondents served by competitors). This suggests that the longer waiting periods experienced by Bell customers cannot be attributed entirely to extra time needed to schedule an appointment with a service technician.
Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of the Bells' DSL customers (Table II-1) felt they had to wait too long to get DSL service (50.9% of respondents served by Bell companies compared to 36% of respondents served by competitors). Conversely, a higher percentage of respondents served by competitors felt that the time it took to get service started was pleasantly short (35.5% of respondents served by competitors compared to 22.4% of respondents served by Bell companies). One respondent who included comments reported having waited 11 months for service; another gave up and cancelled the service order after waiting for 12 months. There were also complaints about incompetent technicians and misplaced service orders. One respondent who reported that the problem was with the local phone company commented that, "It took three tries to get the line installed correctly." Another commented, "In your face unprofessional was how I described it."
Since there have been numerous anecdotal media reports about consumers being billed for DSL before the service is started, we also asked our survey participants if they were billed early (Figure II-3). Our findings indicate that a higher percentage of Bell customers were billed early (18.6% of Bell customers compared to 10.5% of respondents served by competitors). It is worth noting, however, that majorities of both Bell and non-Bell customers reported that they were not billed early (73.5% of Bell customers compared to 80% of DSL users served by competitors).
Good technical and customer support are important elements of broadband service, especially for residential Internet users with limited technical experience. A majority of the DSL users who responded to our survey reported that they had called technical support and/or customer service on at least one occasion. (Our survey found that 31.8% of Bell customers and 28.7% of customers served by competitors had never called their provider for technical support.) We asked the respondents who had called how satisfied they were with the service they received. A majority of all DSL customers reported being satisfied with their providers support services. But higher percentages of Bell customers reported being dissatisfied when we compared levels of satisfaction with technical support (Figure II-4) and customer support (Figure II-5).
Of the respondents who did call technical support (Figure II-4), the percentage of Bell customers who described themselves as dissatisfied was almost twice that of competitors customers who described themselves as dissatisfied (29.8% of Bell customers compared to 16.1% of DSL users served by competitors). Conversely, a higher percentage of DSL users served by competitive providers were satisfied with technical support (67.8% compared to 57.8% of respondents served by Bell companies). The most common complaints mentioned by respondents who included comments were long waits on hold when calling for help, and inadequately trained technicians who either didnt know what to do or gave callers incorrect information. Some survey respondents specifically mentioned their problems with Bell companies:
Our survey found that 42.6% of Bell customers and 48.1% of customers served by competitors had never called customer service. As with technical support, a majority of the DSL users who did call customer service (Figure II-5) reported that they were satisfied with the service they received. But the percentage of Bell DSL subscribers who reported being dissatisfied with customer service was almost double that of customers served by competitors (28.7% of Bell subscribers compared to 16.5% of respondents served by competitive companies). Respondents who included comments typically complained about long waits on hold and billing errors. One respondent commented that, "Qwests support makes war seem like fun. They are terrible!" Another respondent, who waited eight months for a billing error to be corrected, blamed the problem on poor communication between the phone companys telephone, Internet and DSL departments.
As noted earlier, DSL users served by Bell companies and competitive companies reported similar experiences with some aspects of service once it was initiated. For example, when we asked respondents if they were receiving the speed their provider had promised (Figure II-6), there was little difference in their responses. The vast majority of all DSL users in the survey reported receiving the promised speed all or most of the time (80.8% of Bell DSL users compared to 83.3% of DSL users served by competitors).
In most respects, our survey also found similarities in the respondents' experiences with service disruptions (Figure II-7). Similar percentages of DSL users served by Bell companies and their competitors reported the frequency of service disruptions as being weekly or less often, and there was only a small difference in the percentage of customers who had never experienced a service disruption (41.8% of Bell subscribers reported never experiencing a service disruption, compared to 45% of DSL users served by competitors). Only a small percentage of respondents reported daily service disruptions, (7.6% compared to 4.3% of DSL users served by competitors).
When we looked at the length of service disruptions reported by DSL users who had experienced disruptions (Figure II-8), 31.5% of Bell customers compared to 26.8% of customers served by competitors reported that the disruptions lasted for less than one hour. A lower percentage of Bell customers reported that service disruptions lasted more than one hour (68.5% of Bell DSL subscribers compared to 73.2% of subscribers served by competitors).
Although our survey was broadly aimed at DSL users, we were also interested in how DSL customer satisfaction compared to cable customer satisfaction. Our respondents included 63 cable broadband users (9.4%). We compared their responses to those of the DSL users and found that in most cases the DSL users reported more negative experiences than the cable broadband users.
As we noted in Section II, a majority of DSL users waited no more than a month for service to be started. This was also the case with cable broadband users (Figure III-1). But when we compared the percentage of DSL and cable subscribers who reported waiting more than one month, we found that a higher percentage of DSL users experienced longer waits than compared to cable broadband users (13.8% of cable customers reported waiting more than a month, compared to 36.4% of DSL users).
|DSL vs. Cable: Perception of Waiting Period|
Not surprisingly, a larger percentage (Table III-1) of DSL users thought the waiting period was too long (43.9% compared to 25.93% of cable users). In fact, a majority (nearly 75%) of cable broadband customers felt the wait was either just right (40.74%) or pleasantly short (33.3%). In contrast, only about 56% of DSL users felt the wait was just right (27.59%) or pleasantly short (28.51%).
When we looked at who installed service (Figure III-2), we found that the percentage of DSL users who did their own installation was more than double that of cable broadband users (40.1% of DSL users compared to 14.8% of cable broadband customers). It is interesting to note that in spite of having a much larger percentage of self-installs, DSL users waited longer for service to get started. Comments from survey respondents referred to the need for more than one visit from a technician to complete the installation process, and an unprofessional attitude on the part of DSL companies.
One of the differences we found between cable broadband and DSL users (Table III-2) was that the percentage of DSL users who reported being billed before service was initiated was nearly three times that of cable broadband users (14.8% of the DSL users compared to 5.2% of cable users. (Some respondents chose the "Do not know" option.)
A majority of both DSL users (82%) and cable users (75.9%) reported that they were receiving the connection speed they had been promised all or most of the time (Figure III-3). Only 20.7% of the cable users and 14.5% of the DSL users indicated that they were receiving the promised speed part of the time or not at all (and 3.5% of the respondents chose the "Do not know" option).
Nearly half of the cable broadband users (48.3%) and DSL users (43.3%) reported never experiencing a service disruption (Figure III-4). Of the respondents who did experience service disruptions, a higher percentage of DSL users reported that service was disrupted weekly or less frequently (50.7% of DSL users compared to 41.4% of cable broadband customers). Conversely, a higher percentage of cable broadband customers reported daily service disruptions (10.3% compared to 6%).
|DSL vs. Cable: Length of Disruptions|
|Less than 1 Hour||29.3%||9.1%|
|More than 24 Hours||26.7%||42.4%|
When we looked at the length of service disruptions (Table III-3), a higher percentage of DSL users reported service disruptions of less than one hour (29.3% of DSL users compared to 9.1% of cable broadband users). Conversely, the percentage of cable broadband users reporting service disruptions of more than 24 hours was higher than that of DSL users (42.4% of cable broadband users reported disruptions of more than 24 hours compared to 26.7% of DSL users). The largest percentage of both DSL and cable broadband users reported disruptions of between one and 24 hours (44% of DSL users compared to 48.5% of cable broadband users).
A majority of both DSL and cable users (69.7% and 72.2% respectively) reported having called technical support, and a majority of those who did were satisfied with the service they received (Figure III-5). However, 37.4% of the DSL users were either dissatisfied (23.2%) or neutral (14.2%). In comparison, 28.2% of cable broadband users were either dissatisfied with the technical support they received (15.4%), or neutral (12.8%). As noted in the previous section, the most common complaints were long waits on hold when calling for help, and inadequately trained technicians
When we compared DSL and cable broadband users' experience with customer service (Figure III-6), our survey found that a majority of both (54.8% of DSL users and 54.39% of cable users) reported having called customer service at least once. Of those who called, a majority of both DSL and cable users expressed satisfaction with the experience (58% of DSL users and 64% of cable broadband users). But 42.1% of the DSL users were either dissatisfied with customer service (23.3%), or neutral (18.8%). In contrast, 35.5% of cable users were either dissatisfied (29%) or neutral (6.5%). It is worth noting that DSL and cable customers look very similar in terms of satisfaction with both technical support and customer service.
This report is based on a survey conducted online for a period of 13 days between April 9 and April 22, 2001. The sample of broadband users was obtained from Zoomerang, an online survey clearinghouse that also hosted the survey. Below, we report the margin of errors at the 95% confidence level. For the sample of Internet users surveyed, we can say with 95% confidence that the margin of error is plus or minus 4%. For the sample of DSL users only, the margin of error is plus or minus 5% while the margin of error for the cable broadband users only is plus or minus 13%. For the sample of Bell DSL users only, the margin of error is plus or minus 7% and for the competitive DSL users only the margin of error is plus or minus 7%.
Rashmi Sinha is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Sinha has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Brown University. Her research interests include human cognitive processes and the usability of computer interfaces. She is interested in quantitative research methods and is teaching a course on the topic at SIMS. She has published in the field of Cognitive Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction. She recently co-authored a survey on: How Californiašs Internet Service Providers View Reciprocal Compensation.
Audrie Krause is the founder and executive director of NetAction, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and educating the public and policy makers about technology policy. A former journalist and longtime consumer advocate, she has previously served as executive director of Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN), a California utility watchdog group, and of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a national organization that promotes responsible use of technology.
Theresa Chen, a NetAction intern, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in May 2001, and will be starting an information technology fellowship at Common Ground in New York City in September. Ms. Chen assisted with research.