Why ISPs still take forever to install business Internet service

Dealing with telcos and carriers for enterprise circuit installation is still a royal pain. Haven't we been doing this long enough to do it well?

Twenty years ago, getting a high-speed connection to the Internet involved having the local telco install a TDM circuit, such as a T1 or T3, then terminating that circuit or a portion of it at the ISP or within a private WAN network, such as a frame-relay net.

Subnets were assigned, routers configured, and there was access at one fixed speed or another. Usually, this process was fraught with challenges of every stripe: technical, logistical, procedural and political. It usually took several months to get a functional circuit installed in a business. In some cases up to six or seven months.

That was how it was done because there wasn’t anything better. Telcos hadn’t even begun to figure out this whole Internet thing.

Now, 20 years later, it’s still a challenge to get high-speed business circuits installed. The bandwidth is greatly enhanced, the hand-off much simpler, and the reliability greater, but the Four Horsemen of circuit installation ride on to this very day.

It should be simple: A local carrier has data services to an office building and needs to deliver an Ethernet hand-off to a business in a particular suite on a particular floor. This is simply wiring.

Then, the ISP turns up its side at the colo, assigns a subnet, and away we go. In some cases hardware must be installed on site, particularly if voice services are also required, but in many cases, it’s a fiber or copper Ethernet hand-off. That’s it -- easy-peasy.

The last big circuit turn-up I did went right down to the wire. After five months' notice and many confirmations on dates and times, it was installed two days late and took some jockeying to function properly. It also took a constant stream of increasingly frustrated emails to various people throughout the week in which it was supposed to be installed.

If I think back on the hundreds of data circuit turn-ups I’ve done in the past, I can recall only a handful that truly went smoothly. Most had at least minor issues that caused problems during a data center build or relocation, office move, or service expansion. The worst literally took months to remedy, again accompanied by a constant stream of angry emails until the problems were resolved.

At least some of this is due to aging facilities. Older buildings with packed conduits can make hand-off delivery challenging. On occasion I’ve had to deal with the installation of new conduit going up five floors or across roads in order to enable fiber delivery. That's not anyone’s fault, per se, but it’s painful to deal with months of delays and increased costs because an ancient 900-pair copper telephone line with maybe a dozen actual pairs in use is clogging a conduit.

In other cases, the on-site facilities are simply too old, and the desired circuit delivery will require forklift upgrades from the telco. This means the telco may have to rework services to other tenants in the facility, as well as build and install a rack of new equipment. This can take forever. I had one memorable experience years ago where the telco buildout delays were so extensive that a new ISP was started, built up, and was able to deliver DSL to a company within the waiting period for a T1 from the local telco.

These problems are rough mirrors of the general dissatisfaction with consumer ISPs. All of these beasts behave more or less the same: They moving sluggishly, they're hard to contact and communicate with, and they're so entrenched in their monopoly that they simply can't function any other way.

We certainly wouldn’t hire an electrical contractor who said it would take four months to install an outlet. But we generally don’t have a choice with Internet service -- we have to deal with what we’re given and like it. We have to play this game of finger-pointing, buck-passing, and hair-pulling nearly every time.

All of these problems have existed up until now, both on the consumer and the business side of Internet access, within carriers and telcos, and all without much in the way of regulation.

When I hear demagogues cry about how more regulation will result in worse service and support, I can only laugh. In many cases, worse service would literally mean no service at all. As it’s been said time and time again, the only thing that will improve this situation is competition or utility regulation across the spectrum.