By Carol Wilson  |  Posted 2001-04-09

There are many lessons to be learned from the NorthPoint Communications debacle, but most of these have been recited ad infinitum since the company announced its intention to enter bankruptcy after its plan to be acquired by Verizon Communications collapsed.

To me, the most resonant lesson is also the least surprising: Customers who get broadband access love it, depend on it, grow addicted to it. Take it away, and you incur the wrath of the unreasonable.

Reading the rantings of DSL users in the days after NorthPoint began pulling the plug was like putting on a cloak of mourning. There were the stages of grief, played out in an e-mail string: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

One e-mailer was convinced that since the network hadnt gone out on March 28, when NorthPoint announced plans to shut down, that his precious circuit was safe. On a NorthPoint "deathwatch" board, customers posted messages that were positively upbeat: "Its 3:35 and Im still alive!"

Anger was the more predominant emotion, however, and it was directed at anyone and everyone, starting with NorthPoint, of course, but including AT&T, Verizon, the Federal Communications Commission and NorthPoints Internet service provider customers, which had hung in there until the end. Hopefully, NorthPoint CEO Liz Fetter has a thick skin.

By midafternoon on March 29, word had trickled out that regulators might get involved. "Maybe they can save us! They should force NorthPoint and the Bell companies to work this out now!" offered another customer.

As the deathwatch messages began to register major outages, however, the mood turned much more bleak. At one point, a message went out that NorthPoint was turning off its backbone network equipment, the switches and routers. The response was swift and full of agony.

"I was told they plan to pull the switches inside NP [NorthPoint] tomorrow morning . . . rather than letting the network continue fading due to their providers turning off bits of it," said one poetic soul. "Its rather sad, in a nerdy way, to think of these complicated routers and switches switching into emergency mode and trying the backup route. Then the backup to the backup route, perhaps getting through for a while before that route fails as well, sending alarm packets that nobody hears, logging things in log files nobody will look at . . ." I had to stop reading . When you begin to be concerned about the loneliness of the long-distance switch, its time to step back.

There is no going back for anyone who has used broadband. This speaks volumes about customer loyalty to the companies that get that access in place. Its a message that, amid all the finger-pointing, needs to be heard.

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