A Lesson in Scale

If you have 500 customers and one percent report a problem, you can handle that personally.

You can answer the phone, figure out the trouble, and call on the party responsible. If a fix will take some time, you can even call those customers back to explain the situation personally, gaining their trust and retaining their loyalty.

But what happens when you have five million customers and one percent report a similar problem? Now you’ve got big trouble. And right away you understand the problem EarthLink is facing as it rolls out DSL service and tries to catch up with America Online.

AOL, remember, isn’t an Internet service provider (ISP), but a reseller that operates a computer center for 27 million customers. The vast majority of its customers use fairly reliable modem connections. Those customers with broadband hassles are referred to local cable operators.

To compete with this, EarthLink is pushing AOL for access to cable services and providing connections to DSL services that are largely managed by local phone companies. Even after it gets cable access, EarthLink will still be dependent on the cable guys to provide service.

Last week I found out how all this can break down in problems of scale.

I switched my DSL service from BellSouth to EarthLink a year ago, but the wire running into my home is still owned by BellSouth. It still goes to a BellSouth switching center, and the traffic is handled on BellSouth’s lines until it reaches an EarthLink point of presence (POP). EarthLink is supposed to have a room in the local BellSouth switch where my line runs into a DSL modem, but all that is still within the BellSouth network.

Now a year ago, when I started using EarthLink, this was not much of a problem. EarthLink had only a few DSL customers, mainly in Atlanta, and the customer service reps here could usually figure out whether my problems were caused by EarthLink, the Bellheads, or something inside my own PC.

Today, however, EarthLink has thousands and thousands of customers, and my customer service calls are routed through a center in Phoenix. The center is filled with operators who lack knowledge of network operations. They pass the tough calls on to “second-tier” people who know a lot about PCs but still lack direct knowledge of where network breaks are occurring.

Thus, when I had problems a few weeks ago, I spent hours with both first- and second-tier help desks, changing my home setup to the point where my home network crashed. Eventually, I did get some service, which crawled along for about a week at below-modem speeds before suddenly coming back to normal. The problem, it turned out, was probably at BellSouth. But it took my sysop, Tommy Bass, a full day to undo the damage to my home network, and I promised to be more patient next time.

Well, it’s next time. My DSL went out last night. Today’s column comes to you via the 56 Kbps modem in my laptop. My service is down. Both EarthLink and I are powerless. I switched my service because not only were the BellSouth people Clueless, but their help-desk people were rude.

There is a lesson here about our broadband future. Until the bugs get worked out, it belongs to the small. Despite the promises, it will take more time, and more frustration, to get reliable broadband service than we imagine. Especially when you consider these problems of scale.

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