A group of Houston-area Internet users has filed a lawsuit against SBC Communications Inc. and its subsidiaries, including Southwestern Bell, alleging the telecommunications giant intentionally is slowing the speeds at which customers can connect to the Internet.
At issue are high-speed digital subscriber lines, or DSLs, which allow Internet users to connect much faster than standard modem lines. DSLs also enable ordinary telephone lines to handle regular phone calls and high-speed data at the same time.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Corpus Christi, Texas, alleges SBC intentionally lowered the access rate to e-mail and newsgroups by two-thirds of the promised rate through its DSL service without notifying customers or giving any discount for the inferior service.
Slower Than Advertised
The lawsuit was filed by Thomas McLaughlin, president of Houston-based Net Help Solutions — a computer technical support company — after he discovered the rate discrepancy when he ran tests on his equipment, said McLaughlin’s attorney, Geoffrey Berg.
McLaughlin determined his connection rate to e-mail and newsgroups was at 128 kilobits per second while SBC guaranteed a minimum access rate of 384 kilobits per second.
“If your business is on the Internet, you really feel this,” Berg said. “It’s more than just an annoyance. In order to allow growth to continue, SBC and its affiliated companies must be able to provide enough room, or bandwidth, for new customers.
“What they’re doing today is limiting connection speeds in areas where people are less likely to notice. This allows the defendants to effectively resell the same bandwidth that they are supposed to be providing to existing customers.”
SBC released a statement Thursday saying it could not comment on the lawsuit because it had not yet reviewed it in detail but defended the speed of its DSL service.
“It is important to understand that SBC’s DSL service delivers the speeds as guaranteed, which covers the connection rate between a customer’s computer and the SBC central office,” the company said.
“Beyond that point,” the company added, “there are many factors that can have an impact on the actual rate at which data is transferred online.”
SBC guarantees a minimum access rate of 384 kilobits per second for its DSL service but not for newsgroups, which are provided by SBC’s Internet subsidiaries, which include Southwestern Bell, said SBC spokesman Michael Coe. Newsgroups are Internet sites where individuals can exchange and download material such as large graphic files.
However, e-mail access is guaranteed at a minimum of 384 kilobits per second, he said.
“We don’t put any limits on our DSL service,” Coe said.
Going for Class Action
Berg said he will ask the lawsuit be granted class action status. He does not know when the case will go to trial.
“If you look at [sites] that track consumer opinion about this type of service, you will see tremendous complaints. People are outraged by this,” Berg said.
The effort to preserve bandwidth is tied to SBC’s $6 billion initiative to make it the largest single provider of DSL services in the country over the next three years, Berg said.
SBC might be trying to avoid a situation like America Online faced a few years ago when its supply of bandwidth didn’t meet the demand for service from customers who repeatedly got busy signals when trying to dial up the Internet provider, he said.
In addition to McLaughlin and his company, the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Jennifer Fisher, who works at Net Help, and Mark Jacobs and James Jackoviak, who know McLaughlin and are also Southwestern Bell DSL subscribers.
This is not the first time SBC’s DSL service has been in the spotlight.
In June, a group of Internet service providers reached a settlement with SBC after accusing it of charging them with unreasonably high prices for DSL service, transferring people signed up for service with an ISP to Southwestern Bell and not processing service orders in a timely manner.
In late May, SBC accused Time Warner’s cable division of anticompetitive tactics in the battle for high-speed Internet business by offering employees in Houston cash or free Internet service for ordering and then canceling DSL service. The complaint was settled earlier this month.