U.S. telecom sued over DSL speeds

A large U.S. telecom, SBC Communications Inc., has been hit with a class-action lawsuit claiming that it’s “defrauding” DSL subscribers by limiting promised downstream speeds of at least 384K bit/sec to an actual rate of 128K bit/sec.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a computer technical-support company in Houston along with several of its customers, also claims that SBC’s DSL service is not “always on” as advertised, but rather times out like an ordinary dial-up connection.

The suit is filed in the District Court in Nueces County, Tex., but the plaintiffs claim that these problems are rampant throughout SBC’s sprawling 13-state territory. Among the legal claims against SBC are fraud, theft, breach of contract, “unjust enrichment,” and monopolistic trade practices.

Late Thursday SBC released a statement saying it has to review the suit before responding in detail, but noted that: “there are many factors that can have an impact on the actual rate at which data is transferred on-line.” Those could include server or router speeds, protocol overhead factors, or garden-variety public Internet congestion, according to SBC.

The lawsuit comes as SBC plans a massive ramp-up of DSL service via Project Pronto, a US$6-billion initiative to install neighborhood remote terminals with ADSL serving capability near 80 per cent of SBC’s potential users.

In fact, the suit blames SBC’s effort to promote Pronto for part of the problem in its initial broadband service provided from DSL access multiplexers in ordinary central offices. It claims SBC’s Pronto publicity has caused hundreds of thousands of customers to sign up for DSL service that SBC is not ready to provision, forcing it to throttle back its network.

For example, the plaintiffs claim the network time-out – which allegedly occurs when users stop downloading Internet pages or using e-mail – is a deliberate capacity-saving maneuver by SBC rather than a random fault in the carrier network. “Disconnection of users saves [the] defendants valuable bandwidth, which can then be reused in the provision of DSL service to the next consumer,” the lawsuit says.

SBC in its statement countered that “SBC is meeting our obligations to our customers” and is in fact the nation’s leading DSL provider.

A major issue raised in the lawsuit is that of e-mail and newsgroup postings, where the defendants say they’ve noticed the alleged 128K bit/sec cap. In its statement, SBC acknowledged that speeds for accessing newsgroup data are maximized at 128K bit/sec “in order to provide a more reliable service for all our customers using the newsgroups,” though the plaintiffs claim that hasn’t been disclosed before. SBC said access to e-mail “and other Internet applications” are not affected by the 128K bit/sec cap, in effect denying that particular allegation.

The complete text of the lawsuit is available on the Web site of the plaintiffs’ Houston law firm, Berg & Androphy, and is available at: http://www.bafirm.com/petition.htm.