A waking broadband nightmare

Like millions of Americans who are in need of high-speed Internet connections, I have been stuck in narrowband hell. Dial-up connections, despite improved technology, are as slow and unreliable as

ever, making surfing and downloading email a sluggish and nerve-wracking experience. What is more surprising is that this is not a phenomenon of the digital backwaters of India; I am facing this dilemma in the heart of Silicon Alley, the pretentious East Coast counterpart to Silicon Valley. Just a few blocks from the now-infamous DoubleClick billboard, which greets visitors to this roughly 40-block area in Manhattan, the best one can do is crank up the old dial-up modem and pray that the email will squeak through.

My personal trials and tribulations while trying to secure broadband service, especially in light of my location, make me question its future. In this battle, the goliaths — the incumbent monopolies that include local phone companies and cable providers — have entirely too much control over our digital destiny. Given that I live in pursuit of a digital lifestyle, my desire to be connected is stronger than average, and that is perhaps why the events of recent weeks have driven me over the edge.

Here is a rundown of what happened when I tried to get a high-speed Internet connection after relocating to the unfortunate city of Manhattan. Despite its promises — and more promises — the local phone company, Verizon (NYSE: VZ), has failed to deliver digital subscriber line (DSL) service to my apartment. A service representative informed me that my apartment was beyond reach. Disheartened, I placed a request for a broadband connection on a new Web site, BroadBandBuyer.com, and within nanoseconds I received offers (and competing bids) from a score of service providers including EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK), RCN (Nasdaq: RCNC), and others. A week later, all those bids and offers proved to be in vain, since the cable connections are under the unrelenting control of AOL Time Warner (NYSE: AOL), and the DSL hardware is not in place for other Internet service providers to make the connections

Determined not to give up, I approached AOL Time Warner, the incumbent local cable provider, which has been heavily advertising its RoadRunner service on top of taxis, on billboards, and on the cable networks themselves. AOL Time Warner promised to have the service up and running within days. A week has passed, and since then the company has repeatedly missed appointments and offered lame excuses as to why I still do not have a broadband connection.

I am writing this column while waiting for the “cable guy” to show up, and the end of the four-hour time window I was given draws nigh. What does this really mean? Right now, according to recent media reports, AOL is in clandestine talks with AT&T (NYSE: T) to buy AT&T’s cable networks, and such a deal would make AOL Time Warner the undisputed monopoly of the cable infrastructure. While I have no objections to the company offering tasteless television channels, my biggest fear is that it would begin to choke the average person’s access to high-speed Internet connections, spurring infinite repetitions of the DSL debacle I encountered with the phone companies

This is something we should all be worried about. Forget Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT) monopoly for a minute, and worry about the fact that our digital future lies at the mercy of these slow-moving giants. From my vantage point, we are stuck in a narrowband world, circa 1994.