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Dialup: All Dressed Up And No Place To Go

Dialup: All Dressed Up And No Place To Go

It used to be that Americans could boast about their superior telephone service to the rest of the world. — Not anymore.

While half of the world’s population does not have access to even a single telephone, basic telephone service in the United States has deteriorated to a point that it needs some serious government oversight and stricter regulations.

It may all be well that the U.S. government created the breakup of Ma Bell’s (AT&T) monopoly in 1984, but the regional Bells (some of which are now merged) are still pursuing their own monopolies and poor service to both residential and business customers.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act has been the biggest joke of the 20th century and the telcos have pretty well run roughshod around it. – Only the 1934 Telecommunications Act appears to be more or less intact and the ruling law.

Although the AT&T breakup and deregulation was widely hailed as opening the door to new telecommunications technologies – it has been the political scene rather than the technical scene covering the telcos that has dominated FCC (Federal Communications Commission) actions ever since.

An early warning sign was the Subscriber Line Charge (SLC) – often referred to as a “Federal Access Charge” which is actually a subsidy to the telcos which pleaded poverty at the beginning of their creation. This charge was approved and endorsed by the FCC. — The SLC has continued to rise nearly every year with no end in sight while the telcos earn excessively well over the average business return on investment (ROI), and even without any subsidies, despite the fact that most of them are still offering poor POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) over deteriorating lines.

However currently profitable, the regional Bell’s present profit bubble may not last as long as many think while they pursue broadband, data, and other priorities while letting their obsolete networks, designed for voice, deteriorate and continue to install obsolete equipment to prop it up from falling over. — What the regional Bells don’t want to do is give up any of their control over what is known as the “local loop” – the link between the CO (Central Office) and the subscriber’s premises – and that is where the majority of problems arise. — Qwest could be the first regional Bell to go under.

The FCC and Congress are largely responsible for creating this mess which could result in a telco scenario which would make the savings and loan debacle of a over a decade ago look like a picnic by comparison. — Obviously, the government would have to take control, and taxpayers would end up bailing out both the telco networks and the government.

A San-Francisco non-profit organization, Netaction, has posted a very interesting article on its Website entitled “The Future of the Regional Bells” by Judi Clark. (http://www.netaction.org/futures/BellsFuture.htm) This is a “must” reading and reinforces many of the topics we cover here.

Additional information and updated news from the American ISP Association (AISPA) is also very valuable from another viewpoint since most of the independent Internet service providers have struggled over the years with similar issues on telco lines and services. (http://www.americanisps.org/1031/index.jsp)

Congress is responsible for overseeing the FCC. But too many in Congress have other priorities when the telcos keep pouring money into their campaign fund coffers, and their often sweet relationships with telco lobbyists.

All this said – dialup online users (you remember – those of us who used to dialup at 300 bps?) have been left behind while the telcos have invested in broadband capabilities – at higher inflated charges, of course. — This too has had its already known casualties such as the relationship between Qwest, Global Crossing, and WorldCom. — How deep the iceberg is can be anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, PC makers have been (since 1998) producing millions of units with virtually all models installed with a 56K V.90/V.92 dialup modem. — Ha! – Fat chance you’ll ever get to even 53K (Kbps), which is the FCC imposed speed limit.

Modem manufacturers already have newer high-speed dialup modems waiting in the wings that -could- work on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), but the telcos have managed to discourage that scenario with old or poor lines, or by installing load coils, bridges, analog/digital switches (too many of which can cancel V.90 standards) and other stumbling blocks to their COs (Central Offices) and local loop lines which make 56K impossible.

Our own experience with Qwest dialup difficulties began in August 2001, when the local Qwest CO was “upgraded” with load coils. — It was more to our surprise a year and a half later, following our complaint, that the average speed has dropped from about 38K to 16K (currently about 26.4K, and several times as low as 7.2K). – Meaning the local loop still supports V.34, but not V.90/V.92. (Most ISPs have not adopted V.92, since even the V.90 standards are not yet available for many using the telcos.)

Last year in the Phoenix metropolitan area we were lucky enough to have an alternate telco choice: Cox Communications. -That- telephone line connects at a consistent 49K, which is acceptable. Also because the Cox lines are new and fiber optic local loops with their own CO to the PSTN. But the availability of alternate telcos, such as Cox, are often limited to large metro areas and are still being built nationwide – not yet a major threat to the existing heavily-subsidized telcos.

The telcos will tell most online users who complain that they are only required by the FCC to guarantee good “voice” service – not data. Most users will probably submit to a telco “line test” which doesn’t prove anything for data ability – nor are the telcos willing to fix the problems. – The Internet abounds with Web pages from ISPs and others as to what this V.90 problem is all about – and it’s not the modems. (It’s a political situation causing technical problems, stupid!)

The V.90 56K modem standard was approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in February 1998. In parts of the U.S., the V.90 works well with the telco, but in many parts of the U.S. it does not.

While the answer to this would appear to encourage online users to go to high-speed services such as DSL or cable modem, the Yankee Group found only about 27% were using high-speed services as of June 9, 2000. Gartner Group estimates that 55% of online users will still be using dialup services in 2004.

All telephone users, business and residential, now pay a tax that subsidizes Internet access for schools and libraries. In most cases, those recipients are getting high-speed services. – Students get high-speed Internet service at school, but not at home. — Pity the poor mom and dad that just forked out over $1,000 for a new PC with a 56K modem for their son or daughter who is a student, only to find out it will cost them an additional $35 a month to just get a reasonable connection to the Internet. — On top of that some modems purchased only a year ago are now considered “obsolete” and are no longer being supported by the manufacturer. Ditto on PCs with no backward-compatibility. — There’s something wrong with this picture of the Information Superhighway (hardware/software/telecommunications).

To sum it all up, the world could already be easily connected (even high-speed) to the Internet via voice-grade telephone lines, and the technology is there, but if only the telcos both in the U.S. and elsewhere would stop dragging their feet – and bureaucrats and politicians keep their priorities and ethics straight.

We have seen very few articles on this well-known telco complaint in much over a year. … The problem has not gone away – many having just given up in frustration. The majority of Web pages on the subject are also well over a year old reflecting the same online user conclusion that dialup via most telcos is dead.

This problem will only be solved -politically-. – Call or write your Congressman as well as the committees that oversee the FCC. [RSH]

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