SLAs hard to get for teleworkers

When it first popped up on IT radar screens in the late 1990s, DSL was touted as the technology that would spur companies to launch telework programs and free smaller companies from ISDN and T-1 lines. But the hype hasn't lived up to the reality.

Customers are plagued by outages and shoddy service, making the need for service-level agreements (SLA) a critical part of the equation. While providers acknowledge the need for guarantees, they've been slow to deliver.

No major incumbent local exchange carriers (ILEC) or DSL wholesalers offer much in the way of SLAs. "We don't offer any guarantee of uninterrupted service," Verizon spokesperson Larry Plumb says. "There's a recognition of the need for SLAs, and we'll move there over time. But we don't have carrier-class equipment yet for DSL, and SLAs are driven in part by the equipment."

To its ISP resellers, DSL wholesaler Covad Communications provides SLAs covering uptime, latency and packet loss over its national ATM backbone, but not to customers of its symmetric DSL (SDSL) service. "SLAs would be hard for customers to monitor," Covad Vice President Avhi Ingle says. "If they're not happy with the service, we'll allow customers to cancel it, which is a simpler solution."

More encouraging, a handful of DSL providers -- typically value-added resellers -- have begun offering SLAs to business customers and high-end telecommuters as part of a larger corporate package. But guaranteed service packages cost about $100 or more per month, which adds up fast when you support high numbers of home-based workers.

Intermedia, of Tampa, Fla., offers SDSL service with SLAs to remote offices of large corporations and small to midsize businesses starting at $139 per month for a 128K bit/sec line. The guarantee includes 99.9% network availability, service restoration within four hours of an outage and a maximum network delay of 160 milliseconds. Notably, customers can monitor DSL performance on Intermedia's network through Web-based tools.

But Intermedia has no plans to extend SLAs to asymmetric DSL (ADSL) customers, leaving most teleworkers and casual remote workers out in the cold. "To do the monitoring and management necessary for an SLA is difficult," says Frank Pulaski, an Intermedia product manager. "It costs a lot of money and likely wouldn't be worth doing on an ADSL line."

DSL.net, a New Haven, Conn., DSL provider and ISP, also offers business-class SDSL services with SLAs, starting at around $145 per month. DSL. net proactively monitors its network, but doesn't provide user-monitoring tools like Intermedia's. "With our SLA, a customer would have to notice and notify us if there's anything wrong," says Ray Allieri, a DSL.net vice president.

The terms of DSL SLAs vary. DSL.net promises an average monthly round-trip delay of 80 milliseconds on its network. If that's not met, customers get a two-day service credit.

If DSL.net fails to meet the 80-millisecond average two months in a row, customers get a seven-day service credit. Other guarantees include 99.99% availability and a 15-minute mean time to respond to a problem. Service credits apply if these thresholds are not met.

Noting the importance of getting DSL SLAs to teleworkers, the U.S. government recently awarded a $300 million contract to 10 providers to connect government branch offices and remote workers via DSL -- and the contract includes a basic SLA. Drawn up by the General Services Administration (GSA), the contract lets federal agencies turn to one of the 10 providers for DSL services.

Bill Horst, assistant regional administrator with the Boston region GSA, says the government knew getting SLAs for DSL would be a challenge. "But we wanted to ensure there was some sort of guarantee," he says.

"We didn't expect to get anything close to what a frame relay SLA currently offers. We wanted the vendors to know they would be held to the SLAs we'd written into the contract," he adds.

The government contract covers ADSL and SDSL installations. Some of the requirements include 24-7 help desk service; installation within 45 days of an order being placed; 24-hour repair; and a minimum speed of 128K bit/sec.

In addition, the contracted vendor is solely responsible for any problems with the DSL connections and is the government employee's single source of contact.

This is a key component because DSL installations typically involve up to three providers -- an ILEC for the local loop, a wholesaler for the backbone network and an ISP for the implementation -- making problem resolution frustrating as the various providers take turns passing the problem customer from one to the other, resolving nothing.

"They'll be the ones who bleed for us," Horst says.

This story, "SLAs hard to get for teleworkers" was originally published by Network World.

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