Broadbandits

 Q: I get my local phone service through a small company that beats Verizon's rates by a good $20 per month. Now I want to tack on a DSL connection, but everyone's telling me I can't get one unless I become a Verizon customer. Is that really so? How could that be legal?

Verizon's vise grip on New York's DSL market may seem unfair, but it's perfectly on the up-and-up. The Ma Bell vestige controls the phone lines through which high-speed data flows, and thus can be somewhat selective about who they let hop on board. It's obviously not in Verizon's interest to let its Brand X competitors enter the DSL game, so they're making it as tricky as possible for the discounters to offer broadband. That should change in the coming year, but if you're wedded to the idea of getting DSL right this instant, your options are zilch.

Your Brand X phone company is what telecommunications folks call a "reseller." It buys service in bulk from Verizon, which owns the necessary hardware, then hawks it to bargain hunters like yourself. The deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 required Verizon and its "Baby Bell" kin to lease their equipment to small fry, in the hopes that competition would knock down rates. The Baby Bells tried to charge their competitors exorbitant rental fees, but the Supreme Court nixed that practice this past May. Which is why you no longer have to put up with Verizon's ridiculous 10-cents-per-call pricing plan.

illustration: Suzanne Allen

Broadband is an entirely different matter. The equipment that drives DSL is rather pricey, well beyond the reach of most Brand Xs, so they need to partner with Verizon. Verizon, of course, is none too eager to offer a helping hand. It's allowed Covad and EarthLink to resell its DSL, but that's only because neither is a local-service threat; if you want to buy DSL from them, you must be a Verizon customer.

A Verizon spokeswoman insists "there is nothing preventing" your local provider from becoming a DSL reseller, aside from the massive expense of leasing the equipment. But Justin Beech, founder of the indispensable DSL Reports (DSLreports.com), believes that Verizon's adept at throwing up bureaucratic hurdles. "The paperwork that Covad had to go through to convince Verizon that it was safe to add DSL signals to their phone lines was immense, and took a year-plus of negotiating," he says. "Brand X local phone service has no ability to go through similar hoops . . . [and] Verizon has no incentive to offer [help], as they gain customers from the switch overs." Beech also notes that Verizon was cajoled into entering the Covad agreement by the Federal Communications Commission, which has since "stopped thinking about the problem."

The good news is that the situation should improve shortly. "Covad is actively working to provide DSL service to customers who have something other than Verizon," says Covad marketing pooh-bah Eric Moyer. The company has to "develop the appropriate business relationships" first (read: find Brand Xs who'll fork over some cheddar), but Moyer promises that some Verizon abstainers will be able to get Covad DSL by the end of 2003.

In the meantime, alas, your DSL dream ain't happening. If you're feeling plucky, you might try dropping a complaint to the FCC (fcc.gov), though commission chairman Michael Powell isn't exactly making a name for himself as a consumer advocate. You can also try cracking the whip on your Brand X provider, but Mr. Roboto's willing to bet the response you'll get will go something along the lines of "We're trying our best, but Verizon's playing hardball." Which is easy enough to do when you own everything in sight.


Always eager to squeeze in a few more minutes of writing before hitting the JFK tarmac, Mr. Roboto's often wondered about the consequences of keeping his laptop running after the flight attendants make their "Please turn off all electronic devices" announcement. Never thought "time in the pokey" would be the answer. Last month, a British court sentenced Faiz Chopdat, 23, to four months in jail for ignoring warnings to stop playing cell phone Tetris as his flight neared Manchester. All cell phones, the judge noted in his decision, should be confiscated the instant a passenger boards.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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