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DSL lawsuits multiply in California

Pacific Bell charged with selling mass-market service before it was ready to provision.

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Dominant California local carrier Pacific Bell is battling at least three class-action lawsuits over its mass-market DSL offerings, part of a coast-to-coast wave of disgust over Bell DSL promotional practices.

This month a law firm in San Francisco filed suit against Pacific Bell Internet Services (PBIS) over what it claims was a fraudulent consumer offer of several free months of DSL service tied to the purchase of a Compaq Presario PC.

Pacific Bell's offer last September guaranteed free DSL service through the end of 2000, and the firm's client, a resident of Richmond, Calif., says she didn't get DSL until 2001, eliminating the free benefit. The lawyer, S. Chandler Visher, this week told Network World that he has since received about 100 similar complaints, some alleging additional billing problems.

Visher's suit joins two earlier complaints against Pacific Bell. One is a Los Angeles lawsuit principally charging Pacific Bell with advertising DSL before it knew it had the network and technicians to widely install it.

Another is a San Diego class-action suit joined by the California consumer group Utility Consumer Action Network (UCAN) charging that Pacific Bell botched or lost orders, billed for service before installation, and interfered with competitors' DSL orders.

Pacific Bell spokesman John Britton said he couldn't comment on the San Francisco lawsuit because it hasn't been served on Pacific Bell's lawyers. But he said Pacific Bell's parent, SBC Communications, "leads the world in deploying DSL" with 767,000 working lines as of Jan. 1. Those include installations in SBC subsidiaries Southwestern Bell, Ameritech and Southern New England Telephone.

Britton admitted that Pacific Bell "hit some speed bumps" as it ramped up DSL. But he said Pacific Bell has fixed any early problems, largely due to a self-install program with Compaq that now handles 70% or more of orders made via the Compaq promotion.

Visher says potential class-action plaintiffs calling his office after he filed suit beg to differ.

"They're worse than the [Internal Revenue Service] in terms of how long it takes to get to somebody," he says. One potential new plaintiff who ordered the Compaq PC and DSL service in September has encountered reps from Pacific Bell and Compaq blaming each other for the fact that "today he still doesn't have a working system," Visher says.

Other customers have endured chronic billing problems in which a charge for DSL service starts appearing once the service is ordered but before it's installed. The customers have to call Pacific Bell every month to have the charge removed until the DSL service comes up.

Visher's original plaintiff signed a two-year contract for DSL service with the Compaq PC and expected delivery in 30 days in accordance with contract language. Visher claims the offer of free service through the end of 2000 constitutes "fraud in inducement" because the year came and went without the DSL being installed.

Although the benefit lost was "free," Visher says the plaintiff still suffered damages because the effect of the contract was to offer more than 24 months' service for the stated price, and because signing the contract prevented the plaintiff from seeking alternate providers.

Much the same charge appears in the Los Angeles suit filed by the firm of Stull, Stull & Brody. The complaint says Pacific Bell "failed to construct and maintain an adequate telecommunications infrastructure" to support its DSL ad campaign and did so "in its rush to quash the efforts of its competitors in the high-speed Internet access service industry."

In similar fashion, SBC unit Southwestern Bell faces charges of failing to develop enough backhaul capacity for its DSL customers in a class-action lawsuit filed last August. Verizon is under the gun in recent court cases focusing on DSL network performance and technical service.

The California lawsuits generally note complications arising from the fact that Pacific Bell DSL installations involve three subsidiaries: Pacific Bell for the local loop; PBIS for Internet access; and Advanced Solutions, Inc. (ASI), an SBC-wide data subsidiary responsible for DSL gear. ASI technicians have had to stop and call Pacific Bell to open trouble tickets when they can't achieve "sync" on the line, conceded Pacific Bell's Britton. "That's definitely slowed down the process," he says.

The UCAN-backed San Diego lawsuit is online at: www.ucan.org/law_policy/teledocs/
DSLpacbell.html

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