“Come over here. I want to show you our Internet fridge,” says Joe Kraus, co-founder of the Excite half of Excite@Home, as he leads us into the kitchen of its “Home of the Future” demonstration. This apartment off Union Square has been tricked out with high-tech gizmos from wall to wall. Sure enough, in the kitchen there’s a fridge with a computer screen embedded in the door.
As Kraus explains, you can use it to surf for food bargains, check your e-mail, or perhaps peek in on the kids’ room using a Webcam. “The whole point is to show people the type of stuff that is possible with broadband connections,” Kraus explains. He pats the fridge. “This is just a really cool example of it.”
Cool, but also something of an illusion. “The first problem is that the hype precedes the reality,” Kraus admits. Service companies are plastering the city with high-speed-access ads and TV spots, displaying the typically unsubtle iconography of speed: turtles equipped with rockets (Flashcom); cars traveling at 326 miles an hour (a service whose slogan is “Red means go”).
These ads stoke the excitement surrounding high-speed Net connections, but the service remains strangely difficult to buy. It’s a classic Internet irony. The “Home of the Future” is in great shape; it’s the home of the present that needs help.
High-speed access to the Net in your home – equal or superior to the T1 access many people have at work – is (theoretically) available in two forms: cable modems that hook up to your regular cable line and digital modems that connect to superfast phone lines, called digital subscriber lines (DSL). Offering a fat data signal, they provide Net connections from 12 to 100 times the speed of your current modem. But since the service has to be installed, it isn’t quite as simple as buying a modem for your computer. And from there, things can get very messy indeed.
Consider my friend in Brooklyn. All summer long, he trawled the slew of subway and newspaper ads for cable modems and DSL. He works at home; he figured a superfast connection might actually pay for itself in efficiency, since he was doing research on the Net with a Precambrian 28.8 modem. Time Warner Cable, which has for two years been issuing giddy press releases about its national high-speed cable-modem service, Road Runner, could not help him. “They weren’t servicing Park Slope until 2001,” he marvels. In Manhattan, it’s currently available only in an odd chunk of the Murray Hill-Gramercy Park neighborhood, from 59th to 67th, and on Roosevelt Island. (Roosevelt Island?)
So he shopped around for a DSL line. DSL travels over normal phone lines, but they need to be upgraded with special switches at the phone-company end to increase the wires’ bandwidth. He finally found one company – Flashcom – that was able to hook up his apartment, for $59 a month. The only hitch was that the installation requires the cooperation of Bell Atlantic, which actually owns the phone lines. Bell’s technicians failed to show up for a stunning total of eight appointments. When they finally installed the line, it didn’t work, and needed further adjustments. It took two entire months to get the service up and running. “At one point, I spent an entire day sitting on my stoop, with my cordless phone and laptop, waiting for them to come,” says my friend. “It was a nightmare. It’s like a high-speed wasteland.”
Actually, it’s weirder than that. Thanks to technology quirks and internecine turf wars among service providers, New York’s map is dotted with seemingly random pockets of service. Your neighbor across the street might be eligible for DSL right now; you, the loser, 40 feet away, will wait till the next millennium, perhaps longer.
“By law, Bell must comply with these companies. But since Bell is also rolling out its own DSL service, the relationship is a roiling stew of passive-aggressive behavior.”
Bandwidth may be the latest in a long list of New York status items, after high-end stereos, cool cars, computers that could run a Third World country, and cell-phone service. High-bandwidth folks form an Internet elite. They can download pirate versions of the Blair Witch Project – or Star Wars – weeks before the public release. “It actually changes the entire way I surf. There’s this whole other world of stuff you can get,” brags Jack Mason, editorial director of the Manhattan new-media firm Frankfurt Blakind, who got a DSL connection at home in Weehawken, New Jersey.
High-speed connections are thus one of the few tech toys for which the manufacturers do not have to manufacture desire. “The pent-up demand is huge,” says Amy McIntosh, president of consumer-data services for Bell Atlantic.
Bandwidth envy is perhaps sharpest in New York City, because the city has lagged so far behind other urban centers. There are currently more than 1 million cable-modem subscribers and nearly 300,000 DSL subscribers nationally, but only a wafer-thin portion of these are in New York. Indeed, the high-speed party seems to have started everywhere else. Bell Atlantic wired Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other cities, with DSL. Time Warner long ago rolled out cable modems in smaller cities like Akron, Ohio, and Elmira, New York. Even Cambridge, Massachusetts, has such ready high-speed access that one woman I know had trouble renting her apartment because it didn’t have broadband.
Among digital pundits, New York’s backwater status is “a running joke,” says Zia Daniell Wigder, an analyst for Jupiter Communications. She lives in Boston and may be the only Jupiter consultant who has broadband at home; the rest, in Manhattan, don’t. “And we cover the high-bandwidth industry!” she says with a laugh.
The upshot of all this is the sort of hair-pulling frustration that could only be brought to you by the communications industry. Even those inside the companies seem uneasy with it. Joe Kraus adds, “Most people don’t like their cable companies to begin with. So it tends to be kind of volatile.” Or, as Bell’s McIntosh puts it: “We’re trying to disappoint as few people as possible.”
Why is New York so far behind? The answer depends on whom you believe. The telecommunications and cable behemoths claim they are merely experimenting with smaller burgs to ensure that when they eventually wire Manhattan, they get it right. “We view this like a Broadway show. You take it on the road, you run the show. You add a few songs, you change a few dances. Then you bring it to the Big Apple,” says Joe DiGeso, the general manager for Road Runner in New York. Bell Atlantic, which is currently wiring New York for its own DSL service – called InfoSpeed DSL – agrees. Jeff Waldhuter, director of Network Services Strategies for Bell Atlantic in the city, says, “New York is an important market. You want to get it right.”
Telecom and cable companies also face serious logistic challenges. But there’s an added irony – that New Yorkers may be last specifically because they were first to get phone service. That was great in the late nineteenth century, but today it means our wiring is the oldest around, frequently buried underground. And adding in the new switches to make DSL possible is taking more time than expected. Our cable isn’t so old, but it requires far more upgrading than phone lines – mainly because it wasn’t built to handle a two-way signal. Every switch and signal amplifier has to be replaced. “And cable is scattered all over the place,” says Bob Hafner, vice-president of research for the Gartner Group. “It’s beneath the sidewalk, it’s up on poles. You’re digging it up everywhere.”
Still, it’s hard to weep for these leviathans. Wiring New York may be hard, but critics say the companies are also, in their time-honored tradition, dragging their feet. Having a monopoly means never having to say you’re sorry.
Small, local DSL-service providers, in particular, tend to go nonlinear at the mere mention of Bell Atlantic. When these smaller operations sign up a new customer, they rely on Bell to physically hook up the connection to the house. Bell owns the copper wire leading into your house; the DSL companies merely rent it. By law, Bell must comply with these companies. But since Bell is also rolling out its own DSL service, the relationship is a roiling stew of passive-aggressive behavior.
“Not since Nixon have we seen such incompetence and dirty tricks. It’s a mess,” gripes Joe Plotkin, director of marketing for Bway.net, the popular Manhattan Internet-service provider that started offering DSL connections in April. He’s signed up “several hundred” DSL clients, and Bell Atlantic has messed up too many times for him to count. “All they do is delay, delay, delay,” Plotkin says. Bell is even being sued by California-based Covad Communications Company, which is offering DSL in the New York market and claims its business has been harmed by Bell’s moving too slowly.
Bell officials insist they are innocent, and many analysts agree. Rewiring New York’s system for DSL is just naturally slow-going, they say; you can’t blame Bell for technological realities. “I’m sure our competitors would like to snap their fingers and get stuff within a matter of hours,” says Bell’s Waldhuter. “We believe that we’ve been treating them fairly.” Bell plans to have its own DSL service available for all of Manhattan by the end of 1999, with the boroughs to follow in the first half of 2000.
Whatever the outcome of the DSL wars, Joe Kraus’s vision of broadband is still a long way off. So, if you want an interactive fridge right now, get one of those magnetic poetry kits. It’s going to be a long wait.