J. Bradford DeLong
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

December 2001


A couple of years ago I was one of many co-authors of an article, "Access and Innovation Policy for the Third-Generation Internet," that begged and pleaded with the FCC to mandate competition in the business of providing cable-modem customers with internet connectivity. The FCC appeared on the point of allowing cable companies to deliver their cable-modem internet customers, hogtied, to a single monopoly Internet Service Provider (ISP) chosen by the cable company. This was in striking contradiction to the regulatory thrust of the past two generations, which had required natural monopolies to open up their services and provide a level playing field to all who wished to connect and compete for the business of their customers.

The FCC did indeed decide to let cable-modem companies--in my case, ATT--require that I purchase ISP services from its choice of one and only one provider: @Home. This did indeed have the effects of diminishing the pace of innovation and the quality of service: since I couldn't go elsewhere and still use my broadband cable-modem connection, what incentive did @Home have to care? But the absence of competition had still worse effects. @Home crashed into bankruptcy. Because it had been the monopoly supplier of ISP services, there was no alternative provider to whom I could switch as it became clearer and clearer that @Home's days were numbered. My house lost its internet connectivity for the better part of a week after @Home's collapse as ATT struggled to set up its own ISP network.

And now it turns out that ATT is acting exactly like @Home with respect to the pace of innovation and the quality of service. I'm still a captive customer, after all: what incentive does ATT Broadband Interactive have to care?

This was brought home to me when, three days after the new ATT network was up and running, my ability to connect to U.C. Berkeley's email servers suddenly vanished. I poked around Berkeley, and found that ATT's Domain Name Servers (DNS) were not properly reporting my internet address--12-233-31-156.client.attbi.com--when queried by Berkeley's servers. Berkeley reported that I should

...send the following information to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) so that they can resolve the problem:
------------------------------------------------------------------------
There may be a problem with the Domain Name Resolution associated with the IP/hostname that your user is using to connect to our system, uclink.berkeley.edu.

When the user first contacts us, we see from his/her environment:

IP Address = 12.233.31.156
Hostname = 12-233-31-156.client.attbi.com

We then use DNS routines to verify this information.

gethostbyaddr shows: 12.233.31.156
gethostbyname shows:

This conflict means that we cannot do reverse name lookup for your user and they are unable to access our system.

I did so. I asked ATT Broadband Internet to fix its DNS configuration.

ATT Broadband Intenet responded with a completely uninformative message that ended: "you may still reply to this e-mail with unanswered questions." I resent my request that ATT Broadband Internet fix its DNS configuration. ATT Broadband Interactive replied:

Dear AT&T Broadband customer,

Thank you for writing to AT&T Broadband Internet.

The AT&T Message Center is a Web-based interface for using e-mail. This means that you can read messages, send messages, reply to messages, forward messages, and send attachments within your Web browser. There is no need to start up a separate e-mail program. Simply visit the AT&T Message Center at www.attbi.com, click on the E-mail tab, and follow the instructions on the screen.

Note: The AT&T Message Center makes use of cookies. Your browser must be enabled to receive cookies (it probably already is), and if prompted, you must agree to accept cookies in order to use the AT&T Message Center. You can leave the AT&T Message Center simply by entering another URL in the location field of your browser or by choosing the Logout button on the navigation bar. This second method will effectively delete the cookie from your computer for the AT&T Message Center, but will not affect cookies that may be stored on your computer for any other Web sites.

Benefits:
--E-mail can be accessed directly from the Web instead of an e-mail program.

Features:
--Spell Check: Prior to sending a message, check the spelling in the message by choosing the Spell Check button. After choosing the button, a window opens with a copy of the message. Any word not in the main dictionary will be underlined. Choose the underlined word and the alternative spellings(if there are any) will be shown below. After selecting or typing in an alternate spelling, the options to Replace the word, Replace All, Ignore, or Close Spell Check, become available

--Address Book: The Address Book allows quick and easy management of names, e-mail addresses, phone numbers and notes. The addresses are automatically organized alphabetically by last name

--SentMail Folder: The SentMail folder shows a list of all e-mail that has been sent using the AT&T Message Center

--Trash Folder: The Trash folder will keep all deleted messages. This helps to avoid the accidental deletion of e-mail. The Trash folder can be emptied to permanently remove the messages

--Signature: A signature is a block of text, which may be included at the end of outgoing messages. The signature can include a name, e-mail address, or any other text. Normally signatures are short, i.e., no more than a few lines.

AT&T Message Center users can create, store, and edit up to three signatures. To create a signature, choose the OPTIONS button on the navigation bar.

A default signature can be selected, and can be changed by selecting a different signature from the drop-down menu on the Compose page. Note: If a drop-down menu is not available after creating and saving the signature, it may mean that the Web browser does not have JavaScript enabled or does not support full JavaScript functionality.

Example of a signature:

First and Last Name, my_email@attbi.com
My Web site URL: http://www.myhomepage.com/~my_email

--Internet Access to E-mail: This feature allows access to AT&T Broadband Internet Service e-mail directly from the Web without being connected to AT&T Broadband Internet Service.

Note: To begin using this feature, connect to the AT&T Broadband Internet Service, and register for it in Member Services. After registering, e-mail may now be accessed from the AT&T Message Center using any Internet connection and a Web browser

Here is a solution in order for you to get your email from our server at your workplace. This is the only way that we will support your issue.

Thank you again for contacting AT&T Broadband Internet.

Brent So
AT&T Broadband Internet Online Customer Support Center

In other words, ATT Broadband Internet says: "No, we will not properly configure our DNS so that other email servers--even non-profit email servers--can confirm the identity of client requests. Use our system, and only our system. This is the only way that we will support your issue." Never mind that ATT Broadband Internet's web-based email system--AT&T Message Center--is technologically inferior to, vastly slower than, and has much inferior sorting and filtering capabilities than state-of-the-art email programs. ATT believes that, since they control the broadband cable-modem connection to my house, they have the right to break--to "not support"--whatever non-ATT internet services they choose.

I can, of course, work around this. I can use the ATT Broadband Internet cable-modem connection to telnet to my office computer, use my office computer to access the Berkeley servers, download my email messages to a file, ftp the file back to my home computer, and then open the ftp'd file with my email program--five steps instead of one, and thus an annoying reduction in the responsiveness of my system, eight extra mouse clicks, and about 80 extra characters typed into the keyboard.

But every time I do so, I think: it is really a pain in the a** that the FCC decided that cable companies did not have to open their switches to competition between ISPs, and that cable-modem internet customers like me are the chattels of our cable companies, to be disposed of as they wish.