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DSL Delusions
Jeff Pasternack, MSM
Three weeks ago, my allegedly high-speed Internet access went down. I called my vendor and, after being treated to 20 minutes of beautiful Beatles renditions performed by Zamphir and his Magic Pan Flute, a customer service representative (CSR) deigned to pick up the line.

CSR: "Thank you for calling customer service, can I have your telephone number please?"
Me: "Happy day, my number is 301-610-6666."
CSR: "Ok Mr. Pasternack, how can I help you today?"
Me: "My service is down. Again."
CSR: "Ok, have you gone to our web site and checked network status?"
Me: "Err…what?"
CSR: "Sir, you can go to our web site and check the network status."
Me: "Ma'am…do you think that if I could get to your web site I would be calling about my service being down?"
CSR: "Oh, right…let me look at your account area's central office report….ok Mr. Pasternack, the report shows me that your service is down."
CSR: "Mr. Pasternack? Sir? Are you there?"
Me: "Ma'am...I know my service is down. That's why I'm calling. What's the problem and when can I expect service to be returned?"
CSR: "Well, the report just says that your service is down."
Me: "Yes, I understand that my service is down. When will it be up?"
CSR: "I don't know, sir, it doesn't say when it will be up. But I'm sure it will be in just a little while."
Me: "Little while as in…the amount of time I spent on hold? Or little while as in "I don't know but if I tell him this he'll hang up dejectedly?" little while?
CSR: "What?"
Me: "Never mind…thanks."
CSR: "It was a pleasure to serve you, thank you for calling…"

I know that I can't be the only one suffering like this. In an effort to stop the suffering, I decided to do a little research and here's what I discovered:

A survey of more than 14,000 Internet users by the National Regulatory Research Institute and BIGresearch found that almost half (47 percent) of the respondents have complained to their ISP about the quality of service. Of those complaints, 75% are about frequently interrupted connections. Turns out that I'm not alone in my suffering. Bring those numbers into your practice for a moment and think about the magnitude of these statistics. How long would your practice stay afloat if nearly half of your patients were complaining to you about your entire office staff? Not too long is my guess. Practices have enough trouble keeping patients, what with all the roster-hopping that goes on.

Internet service providers are not in the same boat, however. Sure, a couple of years ago there were choices: Northpoint Communications. Rhythms. E.Spire. Teligent. Winstar. Net2000. @Home. PSInet. Covad. About three years ago, this list probably represented 25% of your stock portfolio and everyone (except me) was striking it rich. If this list still represents the same ratio today, then you should probably fire your broker (goodbye Phil) or quit day trading (goodbye Datek), because you're broke (will consult on technology issues for food). But I'll leave that discussion to the finance guys because, aside from the financial loss, the failure of these firms has also caused quite a ruckus for offices trying to keep their high-speed connection to the Internet. But let's look at another list.

Verizon. AT&T. MCI/Worldcom. Atlantech. Bell South. Cable & Wireless. Sprint. NTT/Verio. Qwest. If these firms are in your portfolio, or provide you with high-speed access to the Internet, you're probably ok. All of these firms, except one, are massive and have many sources of revenue to support their operations. Before I discuss what's special about the one smaller firm, let's make no bones about it: The big firms will probably be around for a long time to come and if they provide service to your area at a price comparable to other large firms, you probably won't have to worry about losing your high-speed access.

What you will likely have to contend with when contracting with the big firms, however, is poor service like I described. The truth of the matter is, however, that sometimes service interruptions happen as a result of uncontrollable events, such as a train crashing in a tunnel in Baltimore, with the resulting fire melting all the wires which provide the connectivity. Another cause for interruption is a backhoe operator who breaks a line while digging a roadside trench. When these kinds of events occur, ISPs frantically scramble to re-route their loads to non-affected routes, but this can take a while. Regardless the cause of the service disruptions, the most important thing to customers is that their call is answered in a timely fashion and that they can get access to this information.

An associate of mine is a director of communications for a medical society. Not too long ago he asked me how I would go about evaluating ISPs and, most importantly, how do you know which ones will stay in business? My friend, if I knew that, my 401K would look very different than it does today. However, never being one to shirk an opportunity to do research, I decided to call Tom Collins from Atlantech, which is the smaller firm I listed above.

The reason I called Atlantech is that their business model appealed to me: they charge a fair price for great service. It's as simple as that. They didn't rush into business on millions of dollars of debt. They never gave their service away for free. They don't rely on advertising revenues to support their service. Atlantech simply focuses on providing service for money. Because of these business model decisions, they are profitable. And that, dear readers, means that their customers won't experience service interruptions due to bankruptcy any time soon. But what about other service interruptions? And what about their response time to customer service calls?

"I think the secrets for staying in business as an Internet Service Provider are much the same as staying in business in other industries… keep your customers happy, work hard and don't try to bite off more than you can chew," said Collins. "Since the very beginning, we have been focused on offering Internet connectivity and data hosting services to business. As new and sexy ideas have come forward, such as personalized portals, streaming video services or push technology, we have stuck to the basics. We haven't tried to be all things to all people. We have found a need for Internet connectivity services for business and data hosting services for business so we have tried to offer the best service possible in those two areas.

Collins continued, "One thing that we have come to realize is that problems will happen. A circuit may go down, a server may burn up a power supply or the flu bug may run through the engineering department and leave the phones understaffed for a day or two. In business, challenges are 10% what happens to the company and 90% how we deal with the challenge."

As Tom and I talked, he reminded me that Internet and computer technologies are hard enough as it is and that companies shouldn't try to complicate it more. By focusing on customer needs, having knowledgeable staff and retaining that staff is a key ingredient to keeping customers happy. This translates into one simple, key ingredient that separates a larger ISP from Atlantech: Atlantech's customers have the ability to talk to a live person, without long hold times, about their needs and know that there is a motivated, talented individual on the Atlantech end who will work hard to best meet those needs. Pretty simple, huh?

So. Let's ask the $64,000 question: What should a prospective customer look for when selecting a high-speed Internet service provider?

1. Customer service rankings. There are many groups that rate customer service quality and a great place to do research is It is worth noting that many smaller, regional firms may not appear on this site, but don't take that to mean that they don't provide good service.

2. Financial Stability. If the company is publicly traded, you can access their SEC filings. I'm not expecting you to be a financial analyst, but you can quickly check their income statement to see how much money they are making compared to how much they are losing. Failing that, look at the press releases or industry press news and see who's doing well and who is not.

3. Unusually low prices. If other ISPs in your area offer comparable service for $149 and one is offering it at $49, ask yourself why. Sure, the firm may be offering a low introductory price for 3 months, but if it's offered at that rate for a year or more, odds are that something fishy is going on.

4. Ask your peers. Who do they use and for how long? Are they satisfied?

There are great service providers like Atlantech out there and doing business with focused, customer centric firms can be a much more pleasurable experience than what the big companies offer. If you've bounced around from firm to firm, are tired of the shuffle and don't want to do any research, you can always settle for what the behemoths have to offer and resign yourself to whatever service they wish to provide.

I think that it is unfortunate that many in the Internet and tech industry have tried to cloud what they do by making it seem mysterious or mystical. In my opinion, accessing the Internet should be like accessing water: pay a fee; turn on the faucet and the water flows, every time, on demand and 99.999% of the time, without fail.

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at