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).
NEXT: Section III: Comparing DSL Service to Cable Service