Broadband Needs Home Improvement

If high-speed home Internet access were reliable and offered worthy content, people would buy it

Lately, the broadband industry has been spending a lot of time in Washington lobbying for subsidies and warning that U.S. economic growth will suffer unless the nation does something to spur high-speed Internet access in homes. Setting aside that the argument is self-serving and dubious, the industry should be looking for salvation a lot closer to home.

The folks selling residential broadband, mostly cable operators and local phone companies, have a basic marketing problem that the government can't solve: For the service to be economically viable, providers have to charge some $40 to $50 a month. Yet they are having a hard time persuading potential customers that they will get $40 to $50 of value.

For the average home user, broadband is a tough sell. A dial-up line will do just fine to read a half-dozen e-mail messages, buy an occasional book, or reserve a plane ticket. People who use the Web to work from home need more speed and are often willing to splurge on broadband. But they demand a level of service that today's suppliers often fail to deliver.

I am convinced that a mass market for high-speed connections will develop when providers offer compelling content. For most people, that means entertainment. While television-quality Internet video is still a long way off, music works very well on current high-speed connections. But the entertainment industry has become a major impediment to online distribution of music, either for downloading or Net broadcast. Broadband providers might do better lobbying the music industry instead of Congress. (Road Runner can start at home with its AOL Time Warner sister company, Warner Music.)

There's only so much broadband providers can do about the dearth of entertainment content, but they have no one to blame but themselves for their service troubles. Based on complaints I have seen in Internet forums, my experiences are sadly common. I have had cable-Internet access through Comcast for some months. In general, I have been happy with the $40 monthly service. But in early February, after Comcast (CMCSK ) seemed to have successfully taken over management of the system from the now-defunct @Home, my Internet service became extremely unreliable. (I never used @Home e-mail, so I avoided the widespread problems of the mail transition.) My Net connection would simply stop working for periods ranging from a few minutes to two days. Using the Net was like picking up the phone to make a call and never knowing if there would be a dial tone.

As the outages dragged on, I made a series of frustrating calls to Comcast's technical support. Each required at least 20 minutes on hold, and each ended with a technician telling me that there was a network problem, they were working on it, and they had no idea when it would be fixed. Requests to escalate the problem to a higher level of support were refused. The detailed e-mails I sent tech support produced unsatisfactory results: In every case but one, the only response I got was an acknowledgement that my message had been received. The exception took nine days, and the message from "Adaku"--no last name, no return address--suggested that I call tech support. My service has since improved somewhat, but it is still far less than satisfactory. And a promised credit for three weeks of lost service failed to appear on my March bill.

In the midst of my Comcast woes, I received an invitation from Verizon Communications (VZ ), the latest of many, to sign up for their DSL service. The letter was signed by Michael C. Bolduc, general manager for consumer services, and included an e-mail address. I responded by asking whether Verizon had corrected a specific situation that has always prevented me from getting DSL. After two weeks, I'm still waiting for a response.

My wife and I both make extensive professional use of the Internet, often at the same time, so we are prime broadband customers. We are more than willing to pay the $40 a month, but only for service that is there when we need it. Between not offering enough value for casual customers and not providing reliable service for demanding users, the industry has real problems. Addressing them would be a much better use of resources than looking for bailouts in Washington.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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