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Can I get DSL without getting a landline phone?
December 3, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I'm a twitchy computer-phobe when it comes to all things DSL-related, so I need a little help. Due to financial issues beyond my control, I need to figure out if I can continue to get DSL without having a landline phone for calling purposes. I live out in the Chicago 'burbs (Lombard, in fact) and I'm unsure who to ask or what to do in order to find this out and make it happen. Any advice (the more detailed the better) would be snazzy.

— ArrMatey! via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Prepare yourself. You're about to enter the world of naked DSL, as the tech geeks call it — or, if you're the shy type, standalone DSL. Can you get it? Let's say it can be gotten, in the sense that salvation can be gotten. As for whether you can personally get it, well, one needs to be in a state of grace. We'll soon see. 

Background first. AT&T began offering naked DSL several years ago as part of a deal with the Federal Communications Commission that allowed it to merge with SBC. Evidently in the beginning it was one of those unpublicized, tell-'em-Louie-sent-you things, inclining some to think AT&T didn't really want you to know.

And maybe it didn't. The big marketing push in recent years has been on bundles of services, as the phone and cable companies compete for every buck you spend on telephone, cable TV, and Internet — and if they figured they could make a profit selling you stamps, I'm sure they'd do that.

Naked DSL takes things in the opposite direction. However, for those who've found a cell phone lets them do all the talking they need and don't need a land line for a burglar alarm or some such, it makes sense. Whatever AT&T may have thought about the concept initially, it seems to have acknowledged market reality and now touts naked DSL, blandly referred to as High Speed Internet Basic, on its Web site at www.att.com.

But perhaps there's more (or, depending on how you look at it, less) to this than meets the eye. Some think the offer of basic DSL service is just a tease, and that AT&T is actually engaged in a nefarious game to sucker you into buying a bundle after all.  Part of the process of signing up for the service online is to check for "availability," which involves entering your address so AT&T can look it up in the Big Database. According to one account, the Big Database can never seem to find your address if you're inquiring about naked DSL service. If you ask about a bundle, however, wonder of wonders, it can.

I decided to find out for myself.

I went to att.com to check on the availability of Basic DSL — price $19.99. Not knowing where in Lombard you lived, Matey, I punched in the address of the Lombard village hall, 255 East Wilson Avenue, thinking the location ought to be reasonably well known. The Big Database couldn't find it, but did offer ranges of addresses it thought might be in the ball park, one of which included the desired street number. I dutifully typed in the requisite information.

The Big Database chugged for a few nanoseconds, then returned the message: "No Matching Address Found."

Hm, I thought. I'll try searching for availability on a bundle, and see if the Big D's ability to find addresses improves. I picked out a Triple Pack with Wireless, providing Internet, cell phone, and unlimited local and long distance landline phone service for $99.99, five times what Basic DSL cost.

More typing, more chugging. Then: "Congratulations! We found an exact match for the address you entered":

255 E WILSON AV
LOMBARD, ILLINOIS 60148

Here was a remarkable improvement in search effectiveness, achieved in just three minutes. However, one didn't want to jump to conclusions. A rigorous program of noodling on the computer was pursued, as follows:

  • I asked if Basic DSL was available at my home in Chicago. It was.

  • I asked if I could get it at a two-flat I knew on the west side. No matching address found.

  • I asked about an address in Oak Park. Not found.

  • I asked about a random but genuine residential address in Lombard, identified through the magic of Google Maps. Not found.

  • Wishing to reassure myself that I could get Basic DSL somewhere, I asked again if I could get it at my house in Chicago. Matching address no longer found.

This was alarming. Perhaps the Big Database knew I was up to something; perhaps it was merely temperamental. Thinking it wise not to make myself too conspicuous, I waited till the next day. Then:

  • Asked about Basic DSL at my house again. Address found. Whew.

  • Asked about a bundle at the address in Oak Park. Address found.

  • Asked about a bundle at the random-but-genuine address in Lombard. Address found.

  • Asked again about Basic DSL at the Lombard address. Address found! However, judging from the proffered menu of available services, I couldn't get Basic DSL there.

You may say: I detect a pattern here. I did too, but recalled the maxim: never attribute to malice what can be explained by simple incompetence. On studying the Web addresses (the URLs) on the pages to which I was shunted, I noticed that if I asked for bundles, I was sent to an SBC page, whereas if I asked for naked DSL, I was sent to an ATT page. This suggested there were two Big Databases — one maintained by SBC, the local phone company, which knew where all the houses were, and another maintained by AT&T headquarters, which didn't know jack.

I decided to call AT&T to inquire further. I couldn't find a press office phone number on the company's Web site and wound up chatting with an online rep. We had the following exchange:

Me: I'm doing a newspaper column about Basic DSL service. I need to talk with someone in your media relations department. Can you give me a phone number?

Dawn: Let me check to see if I can find a number for you.

Me: Thanks.

[An interlude.]

Dawn: I do not have a phone number, just an email address.

Me: Are you serious? This is the phone company, and there's no number I can call?

[Another interlude.]

Dawn: Yes, I am sorry at this time you will have to send them an email and they should be able to either call you back or provide their direct phone number.

Isn't that something? The phone company's press office has an unlisted number. I wrote to the e-mail address Dawn provided but so far have heard nothing back. (UPDATE: Got an e-mail back from an AT&T PR lady. She said to check online.) In the meantime, I went back to the AT&T Web site and asked an online rep whether Basic DSL was available at 255 East Wilson. The rep evidently succeeded in looking up the address, and gave me an answer: no.

Maybe you'll have better luck if you go to att.com and try yourself, Matey. Alternatively, you might want to consider Comcast. I just checked, and economy Internet service (1 Mbps download, 384 Kbps up) is available in Lombard for $24.95 a month.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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