I am the broadband Bermuda Triangle

Internet service providers beware: I have powers to invoke bankruptcy beyond the ken of mortal man.

Published December 6, 2001 10:25PM (EST)

I am the broadband Bermuda Triangle. Offer me a broadband connection, and your company is doomed to fail. If I even ask about your broadband service, start reading up on how to file for bankruptcy protection. Originally, I did not believe it was my fault, but after getting kicked off five different systems in the past 10 months, there is only one obvious factor in common: me.

The U.S. government says it is working on ways to stimulate broadband growth. I have a solution: kick me out of the country. With that one, simple move, broadband will again be free to thrive and grow and help boost the rest of the sagging tech sector.

A year ago, broadband was still considered the "next big thing." I decided it was time to join the 21st century, and thus began Hurricane Mike's path of broadband destruction.

It began, simply enough, last December when I signed up for Northpoint DSL through Megapath, a popular broadband ISP. Northpoint, of course, was one of the "big three" wholesalers of DSL service (along with Rhythms and Covad).

Once my connection was up and running, it only took two weeks for Northpoint to declare bankruptcy.

This brings up my second evil power: I turn employees at broadband ISPs into liars. I spoke with a vice president at Megapath the day after Northpoint declared bankruptcy, asking what it all meant. He explained that there was "zero" chance I would lose my broadband connection since they knew this was coming and they had "contingency" plans in place and ready to go.

It turns out that contingency plans mean many different things to many different people.

For Megapath, contingency plans apparently meant waiting until Northpoint shut down their network completely before preparing for alternatives. The end result was nearly two months without broadband access, while I waited for Megapath to set me up with Bachelor No. 2 in the DSL dating game: RhythmsNet Connections.

A few days before RhythmsNet turned on my new account, I started reading reports of financial difficulties at Rhythms. I called Megapath again, where I was told (repeatedly!) that Rhythms was a "solid" company -- especially now that it had taken on so much of Northpoint's lost business. I told the guy about my experience with Northpoint going out of business, and he said, "Yeah, that was a surprise because they were a really solid company." Like "contingency," apparently "solid" means very different things to different people. It was at this point that I knew Rhythms was doomed and cancelled the service soon afterwards (just slightly before they declared bankruptcy and shut down their network).

I then started relying solely on my Metricom Ricochet wireless broadband connection provided by the ISP Wireless Web Connect. I was assured, again, that WWC was working on "contingency" plans should Metricom shut down -- which it soon did.

For Wireless Web Connect, contingency plans meant begging Ricochet users to e-mail technology reporters urging them to write stories about how we all missed Ricochet.

Once it was clear that the Ricochet network was not coming back to life, I started to look at other options. Covad, having seen the damage I had done to Northpoint and Rhythms, declared preemptive bankruptcy in a successful attempt to play dead and have me pass them by.

PacBell (the local phone company) had apparently heard about my powers as well and told me "we don't cover" my area (despite the fact my former DSL lines were provisioned from PacBell).

As if sensing my need for something different, a postcard arrived telling me about the wonders of Sprint's "Fixed Wireless" broadband option that would place a pizza-box-sized receiver on top of my house and give me all the advantages of a broadband connection. I called up Sprint on a Friday and a representative confirmed that it was available in my area. I hesitated before signing up so I could spend the weekend researching the offering, and determining whether or not my neighborhood homeowner's association would freak out at the pizza box on my roof.

Sprint apparently spent its weekend researching me, as well. When I called back Monday morning to sign up, the woman I spoke to told me it was no longer available where I lived. I pointed out that it had been available three days earlier, and she spun a wonderful story about how they were doing "technical improvements" in my region, and would call me when they were offering it again. A few days later Sprint admitted it had felt my touch of death and announced it was getting out of the fixed wireless business completely.

My magic powers had worked wonders again.

I had now destroyed two (possibly three) DSL companies and two wireless broadband offerings. That was when I heard that Excite@Home (whose headquarters are almost within rock-throwing distance of my house) was filing for bankruptcy. How could this be? I hadn't even thought about signing up for their service. However, in a delusional epiphany I thought if Excite had already declared bankruptcy, perhaps the Bermuda Triangle of broadband would work in reverse and I could save them by signing up.

I called AT&T Broadband (which provides the service here) and asked them what the Excite@Home bankruptcy meant for me as a potential customer. A very nice, yet very clueless woman explained to me that (1) I had nothing to worry about, (2) it wasn't "Excite@Home" that was bankrupt, but merely Excite.com, (3) "The company isn't bankrupt, they're just financially restructuring" and (4) no matter what happened, AT&T had "contingency" plans that would involve no downtime. When pressed for her definition of contingency plans, she refused to go into detail.

I had learned my lesson about these so-called contingency plans. I also knew that most of the other points the woman had told me were complete hogwash, so I did some additional research on my own. I read where Mike Paxton, a cable analyst with Cahners-Instat, said that @Home subscribers are "not going to wake up and find they don't have cable broadband anymore."

Here was an official "cable analyst" telling me I would wake up each morning happily surfing at high speeds. Believing the expert, I signed up for service on Halloween.

This past Saturday morning, a month after I first started using AT&T@Home, I woke up and found I didn't have cable broadband any more.

Mr. Paxton kindly answered my e-mail demanding an explanation, saying, "the situation had changed" since he made his original comments. Of course it had changed! I had signed up for the service -- signaling the end of any hope for Excite@Home. Mr. Paxton, it appears, was unaware of the powers of my broadband blackhole.

I have learned my lesson. I am no longer looking for any new broadband providers, but if the U.S. government wants to stimulate broadband acceptance in this country, they should do the only sensible thing. Get me out of here. I am willing to be the sacrificial lamb for the broadband industry (and by association) the tech sector as a whole. If the government would like, I would even consider ruining broadband connections in other countries around the world. It's too bad the Taliban aren't heavy users of cable modems.

By Mike Masnick

Mike Masnick is a freelancer writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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