Antipathy toward the phone company is as old as the telephone itself. Mark Twain was said to be so convinced operators were eavesdropping on his calls that he would periodically interrupt his conversations to bellow, “Helloooo, Central!”
Scorn for Bell’s spawn today centers on new digital technologies that promise the moon and deliver … sometimes. (Much of the rabid anti-telco sentiment is on the Web, at such sites as www.bellatlanticsucks.com, formerly nynexsucks.com.) While a good deal of the anger resulted from nynex’s initially sluggish response to the massive bandwidth needs of the Silicon Alley start-ups, it’s now generally acknowledged that the phone company has risen to that particular occasion. Bell Atlantic spokesman Joe Bonomo says that 436,000 high-speed ISDN lines have been installed, 35 percent of them in the last year – no mean feat.
But if it was sometimes hard to get a lot of additional wiring into shiny new office buildings, it’s just about impossible to do it in many of the city’s older residential neighborhoods, where people are increasingly requesting second and third lines for their modems and faxes. “Back in 1930, if they built a twenty-apartment building, they simply put in twenty phone lines,” Bonomo says. “Now, with everyone getting on the Internet, you’ve got this explosive growth, and it’s stretching capacity.”
The solution, at least according to Bell, is to go directly to the individual buildings or apartments and install digital transformers, variously known as SLCs (subscriber-line concentrators) and DAML (digital-analog mechanized line) boxes. These devices split old-school analog lines into multiple digital lines – postponing, for now, the astronomical cost and hassle of rewiring thousands of residential buildings and entire blocks.
Have zeros and ones once again saved the day? Not according to Bryan McCormick. A freelance writer who works from his home in the Village, he calls digital transformers “a nightmare. On my old analog line, with a 56-Kbps modem, I was getting 49, 50, even 53K sometimes. With this new digital stuff, I’m getting 16.8 to 24K, tops.”
Both 3Com, the manufacturer of Megahertz Modems, and Bell Atlantic admit that the new 56K modems – standard with new computers – aren’t going to get 56-Kbps reception. Every switch from analog to digital in the patchwork of lines results in lost bandwidth. And until the entire system is built on a purely digital standard, in the words of 3Com’s online support staff, “You can give up the dream of achieving fast connections” on anything less than ISDN or T1 lines.
John Caralyus, who does tech support for Raychem, manufacturers of the DAML boxes, insists the new digital transformers are sound: “We test everything before we put it out there. We have FCC and PSC standards we have to meet.”
Manufacturers of customer-provided equipment also have standards to meet. Yet some of Casio’s older digital answering machines, for example, have problems detecting incoming rings on the new lines. “It’s not a flaw in Casio’s equipment,” insists a Casio spokesman. “The phone companies have created a digital can of worms. They’re forgetting there’s still a whole big world of analog out there.”
Pining for pre-deregulation days? Helloooo Central, indeed. The new alternative phone companies, such as RCN and WorldCom/MFS, don’t yet own much, if any, of their own hardware. Says one alternative-telco technician, “Most of us are just reselling Bell Atlantic service under a different name.” The result is that if you need repair service, you have an additional layer of bureaucracy to plow through. “Really,” says this source, “the only good thing about Bell Atlantic is that everyone else is worse.”