SBC starving for DSL network space

CHICAGO -- More than a year into a three-year, $6 billion project to extend DSL availability to most of its territory, mega-Bell SBC is beseeching its customers to provide the remote-terminal space it needs to fulfill its high-speed network promise.

The move comes as SBC's Midwestern subsidiary, Ameritech, is only beginning to install long-promised neighborhood terminals to extend DSL loop lengths, blunting SBC's claim to be moving faster than other Bells to solve persistent nationwide DSL availability and provisioning problems.

Over the past few weeks, Ameritech has been sending postcards to thousands of residential users in Ohio and Illinois asking them to consider selling rights-of-way on their property to Ameritech. In addition, the carrier has made the same request throughout its five-state region to users inquiring online about DSL availability.

Ameritech needs the space to extend asymmetric DSL-capable loop lengths to customer locations situated more than 12,000 feet from central offices. SBC announced in October 1999 that its operating units would install a total of 25,000 remote terminals in what it dubbed Project Pronto, aiming to be the first carrier to make DSL a nearly universal remote-access option for small-office, telecommuter and extranet sites.

But Ameritech's move a year later to solicit remote-terminal space from customers has fallen in the middle of an Ameritech customer-service crisis that recently led SBC CEO Ed Whitacre to apologize.

Some users and consultants in the Midwest point to the solicitations, which direct property owners to e-mail addresses and an 800 line operated by the Project Pronto Right-of-Way Support Team, as proof that SBC has allowed Ameritech to fall behind on network improvements.

Others maintain that officials from Texas-based SBC were unpleasantly surprised by the state of Ameritech's network, and underestimated the amount of work needed to extend DSL availability to 80% of Ameritech's territory, as SBC has promised for all its regions. Under Project Pronto, SBC operating units run fiber directly from central offices to neighborhood terminals mostly outfitted with Alcatel ADSL line cards, which then connect to customer locations over short copper loops.

"Ameritech was a house of cards," says James Carlini, president of Carlini & Associates, a telecom consulting firm in Hinsdale, Ill. Under former Ameritech CEO Richard Notebaert, he says, "Ameritech was always falling behind everybody else" and consistently failed to run the fiber that SBC now needs for Project Pronto.

Some Ameritech employees claim they've personally seen Whitacre lash out at what he found after SBC took over Ameritech in October 1999.

'Held together by duct tape'

"When Whitacre visited and saw the condition of my building, with duct tape holding carpet together, he asked, no less than six times, 'What did you all do with the money?' " says one recently retired Ameritech employee in Southfield, Mich. "Our only honest answer was: 'Dick [Notebaert] didn't spend a dime because he wanted you to buy us.'"

Ameritech spokespeople insist that the company's main DSL goal this year has been to install DSL gear in additional central offices. They say the company will move aggressively to remote-terminal buildouts next year. Indeed, a regulatory document filed on SBC's public-policy Web site lists a detailed spreadsheet of remote-terminal installations in all five Ameritech states in the next year.

But another Chicago-area consultant says he was told in an April conference call for telecom consultants that DSL was proceeding on a faster track. "I have wanted it at home ever since, [but] it's not available until they extend the fiber remotes into my area," says John Thompson of consultancy Thompson, Ross & Associates.

Thompson got the postcard soliciting remote-terminal space at his home a few weeks ago. He replied by e-mail and was told his request was forwarded to another department. He still doesn't know the status of his application to sell property to the carrier. He relates the resulting uncertainty to his clients' recent experience ordering Ameritech services.

"It often seems that no one at Ameritech knows what is going on anymore," Thompson says in a posting on Network World Fusion. "We have clients with lost orders, late orders and a consistent pattern of delays in the installation of the local loops for CLEC and carrier connections."

Some observers say Ameritech doesn't have a handle on which central offices provide DSL services even within ordinary ADSL distance restrictions.

Jonathan Goldman, policy director for the Illinois Citizens Board, cites one customer who waited five months for DSL service sold to him by an Ameritech telemarketer, only to have the order canceled by Ameritech when it finally realized it couldn't reach the user.

"How do you sell someone a service that you can't provide and then take five months to figure out that you can't provide it?" Goldman asks. Citing chronic delays with DSL and regular phone line installations, he adds: "Ameritech just doesn't have the loops out there."

Volunteer some space

For those users who've been asked to help the phone company get back on track, the front of the postcard contains the teaser, "Are you ready to move into the fast lane?" along with an 800 number. On the reverse it says: "Help bring the future to your neighborhood."

Those who call hear a recorded female voice that says "at Ameritech we put our customers first." The voice then asks for contact information and says volunteers will be contacted by an engineering department "if Ameritech can use your location." Only then will the engineering department discuss the amount of money and easement size, the statement continues.

SBC's Southwestern Bell unit does not solicit customer easements for Project Pronto, says a company spokeswoman, while its Pacific Bell unit sends out a "limited number" of letters seeking rights of way.

"We actually have a majority of the rights of way that we need," she says. "Different regions are taking different approaches to going about getting the remaining rights of way that we need."

This story, "SBC starving for DSL network space" was originally published by Network World.

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