Digital Subscriber Lost

Imagine coming home after a hard day’s work, and your power is out. You call the electric company and are told it went out of business and can’t give you power anymore.

You call another electric company and are told it can turn your lights on in, maybe, four to six weeks. Ridiculous, right?

That’s what almost happened to Rod Flauhaus, president of MediaFlow Inc., a Beachwood-based Web development and consulting firm. Only it wasn’t the lights that went out, but perhaps something more valuable. Flauhaus, along with more than 100,000 others across the country, were subscribers to NorthPoint Communications’ Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service. In late March, NorthPoint without warning shut down its high-speed Internet connection.

”We’re an Internet development company, so obviously we rely on the Internet quite a bit,” Flauhaus says. ”It kind of put us in a bad position because high-speed connection to the Internet allows us to do things a lot quicker, communicate better with our clients and upload files faster to their sites. That aspect was gone.”

DSL service offers small- to mid-sized businesses more affordable high-speed Internet access than a T-1 line. But companies that provide the service have toppled like a lot of other dot-coms in the past 12 months. DSL providers FastPoint, @Link Networks Inc., Zyan Communications and FlashCom have either shut down or filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Covad Communications of Santa Clara, Calif., has cut its work force and closed offices to trim operating costs by 20 percent. NorthPoint, based in San Francisco, had hundreds of subscribers in Northeast Ohio.

Flauhaus’ ISP offered him a 56K dial-up modem connection after the high-speed service collapsed. Not only was that too slow, but the line was usually busy.

”You can’t really put a server on a dial-up modem,” Flauhaus says. ”That was a major problem.”

Although he managed the crisis without closing shop, Flauhaus’ business suffered. A prospective client looked elsewhere. Customers lost faith, even though the problems had nothing to with his company.

”We have to figure out a way to try and make up ground that really isn’t our fault,” Flauhaus says. ”I can’t tell you how many people have been hurt by this.”

Flauhaus, however, learned from the crisis. He offers this advice to others before they put their companies and livelihoods on the line with another DSL provider.

Check the numbers

Flauhaus, like most of the other business owners, bought NorthPoint’s DSL service from a local reseller that provided no advance warning before the shutdown. Before signing up with a new ISP, Flauhaus recommends demanding financial information about the DSL provider.

Is it profitable? Is it publicly or privately funded? How long has it been in the business? Has it downsized in recent months?

If the ISP reselling the DSL service doesn’t know that key information or won’t reveal it, look elsewhere.

”A friend of mine owns a business in Cleveland and has an office in Canton,” Flauhaus says. ”They had gone through hoops to get DSL and everything was scheduled and the final calls were made. Two days later, it was shut off. But NorthPoint and the ISP had never let on that there could be a problem.”

Demand guarantees

Make sure your ISP can get you up and running with a high-speed connection within 24 hours if the DSL company suffers a meltdown. A 56K dial-up modem won’t cut it.

Also, in most ISP contracts, there is a penalty to the customer if there is early termination of the contract. What if the ISP fails to honor its end of the contract? See if it offers a money-back guarantee if the DSL service shuts down.

”Examine the contract to see if it’s between you and the ISP or you and the company with the DSL,” Flauhaus says. ”Ask them, ‘Worst-case scenario, if this thing goes down, what’s your plan to get me back up, and how long will it take?”’

Cover yourself

If Internet connectivity is paramount to your survival, talk to your insurance agent to see if there is business loss or disaster coverage available for your company in case of a DSL crisis.

”There is coverage if your company gets hit by a tornado or flood,” Flauhaus says. ”For us, not having the DSL was definitely turning away revenue, but our insurance company said, ‘No, that’s not covered.’ That’s something they might want to talk to their agent about.”

Back it up

Following the NorthPoint shutdown, Flauhaus installed DSL service at his home with a complete backup system to his office server. In case his new office DSL collapses, he’ll be ready to work from home.

Also, if DSL is out of your price range, consider a satellite Internet connection, which can be purchased at most major electronics stores. A satellite Internet service company such as DirecPC is not as fast as DSL or a T-1 connection, but it’s up to seven times faster than a 56K dial-up modem and only about $20 a month.

”The (ISPs) need to help the smaller businesses because the smaller businesses will grow and probably need more from the ISPs,” Flauhaus says. ”At some point, we may need a T-1 or something, and we’ll need a company that will give us a little bit of support.”

How to reach: MediaFlow Inc., (216) 464-5296

MediaFlow website