Sympatico toughens ad campaign
But high-speed system riddled with quality glitches and questionable claims

Amidst cutthroat competition for high-speed Internet clients, Bell's Sympatico high-speed division is getting tough with its advertising. The company is playing up its "Always fast, never shared," slogan, to contrast its service with cable companies whose connections are shared over a hub.

One television ad satirizes cable's weakness, by depicting a customer buying all the houses in his neighborhood, so he can have a direct connection to himself. The ads are simple, effective and they get the message out. But are they true?

"They're lying," said Peter Webster, a Toronto subscriber, who has installed the Sympatico HSE service in the computers of about 20 friends and clients. According to Webster, not only is the system not "always fast," it's not even always working. "I've had many outages. My parents were without E-mail for seven weeks this summer, and the speeds I get are frequently lower than using a dial-up modem."

Webster is not alone. Laval subscriber Tommy Lapierre has experienced numerous service interruptions and downtimes. "I need the high-speed service for work," said Lapierre. "But I have never gotten the speed that many colleagues get."

Lapierre has also experienced frequent service interruptions and downtime. Two weeks ago there was a period of 36 hours during which he was unable to log on. "One day I had to do maintenance on our corporate server and was told that the entire 450 area code was down," said Lapierre. " So I had to phone one of my colleagues and ask him to take care of it."

Canada's high-speed Internet community is experiencing growing pains. Bell's Sympatico division is growing, and its customers are feeling the pain. The group is beset by quality problems, product delays and shoddy customer service.

So if the "always fast" portion of the Bell's claim is open to interpretation, what about the "never shared" part? According to Richard Virtue, who moderates, an online community of Sympatico clients, the claim is misleading. "While the customer's connection is technically never shared, you'll notice in the fine print its says that this applies only to the connection to the central office," said Virtue.

Once individual connections reach central office, they are then banded together and connected to the Internet backbone. In effect that means the connections are in fact shared. It's just that the sharing is done at different stage of the connection process, than the cable companies.

"(Bell's) claim is meaningless," said Virtue. "(A Bell "never shared" connection) is about as useful as having your driveway shoveled, when your street has not been plowed."

Part of the problem that the Sympatico division is having, is that it appears to have over estimated the distance over which its network can operate effectively. Company policy states that high-speed service only operates effectively for clients that are located within four and a half kilometers from a Bell central office.

But according to one Bell employee, many customers that are close to, but not over, the distance limit are experiencing slow downloads speeds and difficulty logging on at peak periods. So why is Sympatico selling the service, when it can't deliver? "That's beyond my scope," said the employee.

Although many customers are dissatisfied, Bell is clearly not feeling the effect. According to Pat Tremaine vice-president (Sympatico Group), about 7,000 to 8,000 users a month are signing up for the high-speed service, which more than compensates for those who quit. In fact the group now claims more than 200,000 subscribers, making it the largest digital subscriber line network in North America.

"There will always be dissatisfied customers," said Tremaine. "But we have one of the lowest (number of subscriber cancellation rates) in the industry."

So what should Bell do, to clear up the mess? According to Virtue, better communication with its customers is the answer. "I get the impression that many of our members know more about the Sympatico service than (some of their managers) do," said Virtue. "People understand that there will be problems installing any high-speed network the size of Bell's."

"If they would be open with users about downtimes and glitches, it would make it far easier to plan around them," said Virtue. But that openness is unlikely to happen any time soon. "(Bell) tends to be militaristic in their secrecy."



Photo Caption: While Sympatico high-speed ads say the connection is never shared, the fine print says that this only applies to the link to Bell's switching facility.


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