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Cable Companies Need Reliability Lesson

Cable operator Comcast Corp. has suffered three outages across its network since April 7, preventing users from accessing the Internet or e-mail for three to five hours at a time on some evenings. A spokeswoman from the cable giant said the outages were "intermittent and varied," and were related to the company's DNS function, but she declined to give details on how the company is fixing the problem.

When it comes to broadband access, cable stacks up well against DSL or other options in every area except one: reliability. Cable service providers -- and their service desks -- are still operating in a TV mode, where the worst that can happen is that customers miss their favorite show. But today's broadband access is used for e-mail and other critical business applications that simply cannot tolerate such excessive downtime.

In the 1980s, the public switched telephone network underwent extensive testing to ensure the reliability of the dial tone across the U.S. at nearly 100 percent. The PSTN is virtually always available, and has been tested even in disaster scenarios. Cable, on the other hand, can't even survive a DNS error or a local cable cut.

If cable service providers want to be taken seriously as business service providers, they need to start getting serious about reliability and customer service. A joint effort by the cable companies to build a joint reliability council, much as telecommunications companies did in the 1980s, would be a good first step.