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Best Buy Buys Speakeasy: Doom, Despair?

My Internet service provider (ISP) Speakeasy Networks was just purchased by Best Buy. I was hoping the press release carried an April 1st dateline, but no such luck.

I’ve been a customer of Speakeasy for home and business for several years. While they charge 10 to 30 percent more than Qwest, the incumbent phone company in Washington State, Speakeasy has earned the difference by being generally responsive: they have great technical support, they go the extra mile, and they live up to their promises.

In one case, when moving our connection from one office to another – the office I share with TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson and others – Speakeasy was willing to help me get both DSL connections live at the same time and flip a switch to move our Internet protocol (IP) network from the one connection to the other on command. That’s above and beyond what almost any ISP will do.

A year or so ago, I added their Internet telephony service that combines voice over IP (VoIP) with unlimited long-distance calling in North America, later extended to landlines and some cell systems in a total of 22 countries worldwide. Because Speakeasy provisions the VoIP connection on my end (through a device common to all VoIP providers) and their end (at the DSL termination point, something unique to DSL and cable providers), the VoIP lines’ quality was just as good as my landlines.

Speakeasy is also the only ISP of any scale in the United States that permits its subscribers to share their broadband connections for free or for a fee with guests, neighbors, or customers. Most ISPs either outright disallow any form of sharing, or require an expensive business offering. Speakeasy also doesn’t limit bandwidth use or charge for “excess” use. (They do reserve the right to cut off customers engaged in activities that violate their use policies, but those tend to involve illegal software trading or massive file exchanging.)

A Speakeasy spokesperson confirmed via email that the sharing policy would remain unchanged with the acquisition, and said that Speakeasy would remain Speakeasy.

But I’m worried nonetheless. Best Buy is a massive corporation; Speakeasy, while national, was local to me in Seattle. Best Buy is publicly held; Speakeasy was private. Best Buy is an aggressive, profit-driven firm that squeezes pennies and has a scenario-based store strategy that lets them size up customers and upsell to them; Speakeasy, while trying to be profitable, always seemed to be aiming for high-end customer support and service to stand out in the broadband industry, an industry that’s not just dominated but biased in favor of the incumbent phone and cable firms.

Interestingly, the deal isn’t so much about broadband – Speakeasy works closely with Covad to handle its DSL lines – but about VoIP. The press release goes on and on about VoIP, especially for small businesses, which often fall into the cracks between small customers and big businesses. Broadband is a marginal business relative to VoIP, in which there are much bigger dollars to be made. By combining broadband and VoIP into a single offering sold over naked DSL – no dial tone from the local telco required – Speakeasy can bypass the incumbent providers over whose wires Speakeasy’s service runs.

I’m still having palpitations, but we’ll see where the business goes. I liked my mom-and-pop ISP, the only national firm I know of that still retained that feeling. I’m nervous about their new corporate overlords.

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