How one community got DSL

It's not news that the telephone company databases feeding broadband customer service front ends can be wrong. Like me, you've probably been in the position of trying to convince a customer service representative that you really should be able to get broadband in your area, despite what the computer says. Usually your perspective is driven by common sense ("My house is right next door to the central office") or things too obvious to ignore ("Nineteen of my neighbors have DSL"). But what do you do when your telco tells you your entire community does not qualify for DSL?

This is the story of Larry, Erik, Jim and a small island community 2 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. Portland was one of the first cities to get digital cable. It has DSL and competitive broadband providers. But despite being taxpayers of Portland, the small island where I vacation has been bypassed by the telecom revolution: Portland's cable franchise is excused from having to offer DSL to the smaller islands off Maine's coast because of low population.

So you can imagine the excitement when Verizon finally offered DSL in the central office on Peaks Island, which serves all the islands in the area. That excitement, however, dimmed quickly when neighbor after neighbor tried to qualify for service through Verizon's online DSL ordering interface. Almost all were rejected for unknown reasons; a few people were randomly approved, ordered the service, received the modems and tried to establish service, only to be told by support personnel that the loop lengths disqualified them for service. They still had the modems when I became involved in this story.

I called Verizon and was told I was disqualified for having a loop length of 18,100 feet - a scant 100 feet beyond the limit. So I called Larry, my contact in Verizon's PR department, who's always delivered when I needed him to (though for editorial, not technical, reasons). Larry promptly introduced me to Erik in Verizon's Presidential Appeals group. Erik got Jim, the local island technician, to visit. "Every single line on this island is within 18,000 feet of the central office," Jim said, adding that the copper plant is less than 20 years old and should well be able to handle anyone who wants DSL.

So why couldn't we sign up? Jim explained that the databases for the community were basically empty, and lacking any solid data, the system just rejected us.

But our story ends happily because Larry, Erik and Jim did what a computer could not do - they just made it happen. Armed with the knowledge that people could get DSL on the island, I e-mailed everyone, gave a list to Verizon, and Verizon now has almost two dozen more customers (and growing) as people sign up - monitored by Erik to make sure it goes smoothly. And guess what? We all love Verizon now - we're part of the broadband in-crowd.

Telcos need a process for communities like this one. We need the ability to jointly petition for service. Orders speak volumes and allow you to bypass channels, I understand that. But give users that path. British Telecom used this strategy when extending its broadband service to remote communities. Sign up X number of people in your community and we'll make the investment. It's the polite version of "Show me the money." This was a win-win for all involved.

What are the lessons from this experience? That tapping the insight of people like Jim, who have personal knowledge of their area, can truly expand growth in places where such growth might have been lacking. That people like Erik are sorely needed to get by the hurdles that really can stem growth - an executive support group is sometimes hard to cost-justify, but in this instance, it opened a whole new community of revenue for the telco. And that it always pays to know someone like Larry in the telco.

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