Cinema Product Reviews

Speakeasy Networks Business SDSL service
Provider: Speakeasy Networks
Grade B
Reviewed March 2001 by Scott Norwood

With the ever-increasing importance of the Internet to all industries, including film exhibition, few small businesses (or large ones, for that matter) can afford to be without Internet access. Until fairly recently, those who could not afford a T1 or higher-bandwidth connection would have had to make do with various forms of dialup access, usually in the form of a 28.8 dialup PPP account or various other options such as shell accounts, ISDN, 56k DDS leaseds, and so forth. All of these options were usable, but sub-optimal, either for reasons of prohibitively high costs (24/7 dedicated ISDN was running about $450/month in many parts of the US as recently as 1998) or slow, intermittent connectivity. Although some cable TV companies have been providing high speed data service since 1997, IP-over-cable has usually been made available only to residential users, due to reliability problems and concerns about the shared nature of cable connectivity.

Within the last couple of years, however, DSL (digital subscriber) service has begun to appear in the marketplace as a viable low-cost Internet access option. Unfortunately, getting a DSL installed is much like a descent into hell. The glossy ads make it sound so simple, but the reality is that it involves a confusing array of acronyms (POTS, ADSL, IDSL, SDSL, HDSL, DSLAM, etc.), dealing at least three different companies, and slew of telco personnel who don't know or don't care about providing DSL service to customers who are willing to pay them money for doing so. More recently, the industry has seen quite a few bankruptcies (Flashcom, among others, has gone belly-up) and instability.

Before ordering DSL service, one must first understand how the service works, at least on a superficial level. Several variants of DSL are available. SDSL (single DSL) runs on a separate line from a dialup voice and which provides equal speeds for upstream and downstream traffic. Other forms of DSL are available; the most common alternative is ADSL, which is typically provided to residential customers and which, in one variant (G.lite) can share a copper pair with an existing voice circuit; ADSL is significantly less useful than SDSL because the upstream traffic is substantially slower than the downstream traffic, due to technological and bureaucratic limitations. Further, ADSL is commonly provided as a "consumer" service, with no quality of service guarantees; ADSL customers' packets are generally given a lower priority at the ISP router level as a result. There is also IDSL (DSL over ISDN), which may be an option for users who are too far from the telephone central office (see below) to get ADSL or SDSL service.

In any case, SDSL is the most appropriate form of DSL service for business use (and many home users as well), and it is what I will describe here. First, in order to even qualify for the service, a particular location must be located within approximately 15,000 feet from the nearest telephone central office (CO), and DSL service must be available at that CO, measured by length of copper and not "as the crow flies." Also, the lines from the CO to the install location must be entirely copper. This restriction rules out many new subdivisions and other locations which have a single fiber connection to the CO which is then split out into copper pairs. Fiber is generally good, but not with DSL. In any event, the distance to the CO determines which services are available; customers who are very close may be able to purchase 1.5-megabit service as well as lower speeds, while customers who are farther away may only have the option of 192-kilobit service or even 144-kilobit IDSL.

When ordering DSL, one generally deals with three separate entities: the ISP itself, the competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) who installs the service, and the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC aka The Phone Company) who provides colocation facilities for the CLEC at its CO and which leases its pairs to the CLEC for providing DSL service. In some cases, the ILEC will provide DSL service directly, in which case it serves the same function as the ISP and the CLEC, and so the customer only deals with one company. In theory, this is a good thing, but, in practice, the ILECs are among the worst possible DSL providers.

To make things more confusing, the DSL marketplace is crowded with many different companies, most of whom are simply reselling the service provided by other companies and marking up the price in the process. Many dialup ISPs have tried to get into the DSL market this way, and often charge far more (and deliver far less) than ISPs which concentrate primarily or exclusively on DSL service.

One of the best ISPs for DSL is Speakeasy, which apparently began as a coffee shop in Seattle in 1994, and is now a pretty well run ISP. They don't do very much in the way of advertising, and so are not as well known as some other providers, but they also have done a number of very smart things in building their network, particularly by not trying to grow so fast that they oversell their network capacity. Also, unlike many DSL providers who sell their service at impossibly low prices in order to gain market share, Speakeasy actually charges fair prices for their service, and provides credit for any problems with the service.

The standard Speakeasy business DSL package includes installation, an SDSL router (probably a Netopia 7200), routed IP service with up to 32 static IP addresses (30 usable), mail service of questionable quality, and Usenet service of variable quality. The terms of service permit users to run servers, for example, so that the customer (a theatre, perhaps) could run its own web and mail servers off the DSL connection. This service is available for speeds ranging from 192k on up. Prices vary depending on location, but generally run upwards of $125/month. Installation is sometimes included and sometimes an extra-cost item. Any type of computer(s) may be used (as long as they have network cards that support twisted-pair ethernet and as long as they are running an OS that speaks TCP/IP), although some technical knowledge on the part of the user is required for the setup process of assigning your machine an IP address and telling it where to look for DNS service. I believe that Win32 and Mac are officially supported platforms, although I was pleasantly surprised that their support staff did not recoil in horror when I told them that I was running Solaris.

Now that the background information is out of the way, here is the review: My own experience with Speakeasy has been quite positive. I've been very happy with their 192k service, and feel that it is well worth the price. Although DSL is not as reliable as T1 or other time-tested technologies, my service has been rock-solid, except for a problem involving a bad cable that I replaced in about thirty seconds. I haven't used their mail server (I run my own), although the general opinion seems to be that the service quality is not what it should be. I have been generally unhappy with the performance of their Usenet service, although the quality of the feed itself is fine for the text-only groups that I read.

In short, if you just need IP service and can get web/mail/etc. service from a local ISP (which they should be willing to provide fairly cheaply if you don't need dialup access) or run them yourself, I can recommend Speakeasy DSL. I am sure that there are other companies who can provide similarly good service, but non-Speakeasy DSL customers generally seem to have more horror stories than success stories, whereas the opposite appears to be the case here. This service seems to be geared more toward experienced users (or at least those who can solve their own configuration problems), since the "hold" times on their customer-support are unacceptably long (10+ minutes) except in the middle of the night, when it is generally possible to get through immediately.

The only other major flaw is in the installation process, which takes about 4-6 weeks, after the customer calls the sales department and orders the service. The first few weeks generally seem to consist of the ILEC's employees not doing their jobs, and missing scheduled appointments to "provision" and test a copper pair from the CO to the install location. Once this happens (usually after about a month), an employee from the CLEC (usually Covad) will come out to the install location and do the interior wiring and set up and test the router. From that point on, everything "should" be set. Unfortunately, the limiting factor in this process seems to be the ILEC's willingness to cooperate with the CLEC, and is equally problematic for all DSL ISPs.

It should probably be mentioned that this service is not the same thing as the $39.95/month DSL service that is commonly offered to residential customers by the ILECs. The Speakeasy service is routed, SDSL service; they offer static IP addresses, will do reverse-DNS edits upon request, and provide a service guarantee (80% of stated bandwidth will be available at any given time). By contrast, the cheap DSL service (which, BTW, is usually provided at a loss) is almost always ADSL service with a very low upstream cap, terms of service which prohibit business use and (often) the running of personal service. Also, it is usually set up as a less-efficient bridged (as opposed to routed) network, and usually requires dynamic IP address assignment (which reduces the overall reliability and stability of the network, among other problems). The worst of the cheap services use something called PPP-over-ethernet (PPPoE) or PPP-over-ATM (PPPoA), which requires that the customers run software like WinPoET on their computers, which does not provide a true "always-on" connection, and which introduces even more reliability and stability problems, as well as reducing the available bandwidth due to protocol overhead.

It is probably also worth mentioning that there are some security issues to watch out for when connecting an entire office (theatre) network to the Internet in any form (dialup, DSL, T1, etc.). Most of these are just common sense: don't run services you don't need, and keep up with the latest patches for your OS. The Netopia routers contain some limited firewall functionality, but the "right" way to keep things secure is to fix problems at their source (individual machine configuration), rather than to try to use firewalling as a "band-aid" and an excuse for allowing misconfigured machines to be connected to a worldwide, untrusted network. There are some "gotchas" in unexpected places, too. For example, HP network printers by default allow anyone in the world to print to them. This is an egregiously stupid default configuration, but it should be changed before someone decides that your theatre needs a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare in 24-point type.

Bottom line: Speakeasy is less-bad than most other DSL providers.

- Scott Norwood
Speakeasy Networks can be reached at
Scott Norwood is a film geek and computer geek. He is currently an system administrator for WinNT and Unix machines. As a hobby, he has worked part-time as a projectionist at various theatres, including the Williamsburg Theatre and the Cape Cinema. Scott is not a technician and has no test equipment, but is a fairly experienced projectionist. These reviews are representative of the performance of the equipment and services from his perspective.

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