Bitter Taste of DSL

Deanne Landress says she serves an awesome cup of coffee.

Deanne Landress says she serves an awesome cup of coffee. As for the piping hot plate of bandwidth she also likes to serve, Landress may be out of luck, since a now-bankrupt DSL provider hooked her business to the Internet.

Landress owns the NetNomads Café, which she dubs a "suburban cybercafé," in Maplewood, N.J. The 15 PCs that line the storefront connect to the Internet through a DSL line serviced by [email protected], but provisioned by NorthPoint Communications, which recently went bankrupt. That line could go dark any time — which is bad business for Landress.

"We all knew that NorthPoint was going into Chapter 11, but we didnt think it was going to be this bad," Landress said. "Before AT&T bought them for $135 million, I dont think it crossed anybodys mind that theyd just throw away the customer base that NorthPoint had built."

But that is what AT&T did when it bought NorthPoints assets, but not its 100,000 predominantly business customers. The situation grew downright chaotic last week, when NorthPoint said that a shutdown of its national network, which reaches 109 cities and towns, was imminent.

The situation doesnt help the reputation of DSL, which provides high-speed access over copper telephone wires. With options for getting broadband via cable, satellite and wireless growing, the dumping of NorthPoint customers is a bad omen for the struggling industry.

"Customers are now going to suffer outages here," said Adam Guglielmo, an analyst at telecom consultancy TeleChoice. "And the really unfortunate thing is that it gives the entire DSL industry a black eye."

Internet service providers that resold NorthPoint DSL tried to work out a deal to keep their customers running, through a coalition spearheaded by Telocity. However, the bankers controlling NorthPoint wanted more money from ISPs, said Telocity spokesman Bill Chandler.

ISPs, including Telocity, will move ahead with DSL in a market thats changed dramatically in the last year. "DSL is here to stay, and this is a small bump in the road," Chandler said.

Back at the NetNomads Café, Landress, whos waiting for her business to be switched to cable access, thinks the government ought to give DSL the same protection as phone service.

"What customer is going to rely on this in the future if the courts show no respect for it?" Landress said. "This is a huge hit, and the courts have to realize bandwidth is a utility, not a toy."