As you may have read in the February 1998 issue of Upside Magazine, I used to live in the Toscana apartment complex in the middle of Silicon Valley, shown above with its unusual Stonehenge-like pedestrian entrance (which is always locked). Toscana is run by AvalonBay Communities, though originally it was just Bay Apartment Communities, and most of the files here still talk about Bay. Apart from being a nice (though pricey) place to live, Toscana has a unique advantage over most other apartment complexes around here-- Internet access is literally built in. All you need for a high-speed connection to the Net is an Ethernet-capable computer and an extra $100 per month for the service fee.
For a while, at least, Pacific Bell and Bay Apartments were using the motto "Total Connectivity at Toscana" in some of their marketing literature (shown at right). Unfortunately, a more accurate slogan for what we actually have at Toscana would be "Partial Connectivity." The most significant problem is that it's impossible to use Toscana's Internet connection to provide services to the Internet community. You can put a server on the local network, but nobody outside the complex can see it. Basically, you can't get here from there.
No, they don't really have No Serving Any Time signs outside, that's from Photoshop... but they might as well. Web servers just don't work here. I didn't learn this until after I'd moved in, unfortunately, and as a result my own Web server has been offline ever since (this site is being served from a Web hosting service).
Still, they almost got it right. If you're running an apartment complex, I strongly recommend you consider doing what Toscana's done. Just please do it correctly! It's a great idea, but Toscana shows that it can be done incorrectly. Learn from what they've done wrong-- and from what they've done right:
August 4, 1999 update:
Nothing new to report in the last year, except for two things: First, I've moved to a house in nearby Cupertino. Second, a month before I left, the Internet service in my building (but not the rest of the complex) failed entirely! A power glitch zapped the Cisco Ethernet switch that connected our building to Toscana's central Internet connection. Toscana had no on-site spare, Cisco was backordered on that model, and somehow the apartment managers had no fallback plan. This could have been as simple as installing a $79 hub, though that would have sacrificed the security offered by Ethernet switching. A more effective solution would have been to drive the half-mile to the nearest Fry's Electronics to pick up a $300 low-end switch, which would have acted as an on-site backup once the proper equipment arrived. Instead, Toscana chose to impose a very serious inconvenience on all its Internet customers in that building. Now there's customer disservice for you.
This is likely to be my final update on Toscana's Internet service. If I hear anything else, I'll pass it along.
June 27, 1998 update:
As mentioned above, Bay Apartments Communities has merged with Avalon Properties to create Avalon Bay, a company that manages over 42,000 apartment homes in 146 complexes as of June 19. Bay's units are mostly on the West Coast, while Avalon's are mostly in the eastern US. It's a pretty big deal.
I received some interesting email messages describing "The Little Garden," an apartment complex in Palo Alto said to have built-in Internet access since 1989! Click here to view these messages. Special bonus: a new table-based Web-page format I hope to bring to this whole site. Let me know if you have problems reading it. Thanks!
May 11, 1998 update:
The San Jose Mercury News ran an article today (read it online here if you're a Mercury News online subscriber, or try here even if you aren't) on Toscana, featuring me and other tenants who are dissatisfied with the Internet service here. I wish they'd mentioned this site, or my Upside article, but they didn't, making it more difficult for readers to get in touch with me. KCBS Radio called to interview me about the story.
April 7, 1998 update:
This evening, we received a packet of information from Toscana and Pacific Bell (click here to see the cover of the folder, which depicts a customer who falls well outside PacBell's target demographics) containing the new, improved Internet access solution here. I say "new" because they're going to change the whole system over from one kind of Internet service (the "Toscana Internet connection") to another kind of Internet service (the "Pacific Bell Internet connection"). The changeover will take a full day, during which our Internet connection may be disrupted.
I say "improved" because the new service will cost $89.95 per month, billed to a credit card or the tenant's PacBell phone bill. That's $10.05 less than the nominal $100/month our Internet access was originally to have cost. It's also $89.95 more than we've been paying, but that's okay with me. I'll sign up for the new service, but only for basic Internet access.
However, it's not really new. As far as I can tell, the service is run on exactly the same equipment by exactly the same people as before; only the billing has changed. Note that Toscana will not be receiving our payments. Is Toscana going to receive a payment from Pacific Bell to cover the costs of installing and maintaining the Internet wiring? Who owns all that Cisco equipment now? I have no idea. If Toscana isn't getting part of this (approximately) $90/month, then presumably PacBell owns the equipment and Toscana accounts for the Ethernet wiring just as it accounts for phone and power wiring, as part of our rent. It's probably a low-cost item, anyway.
It's also not much improved. The "new" service also has the same policies as the old service. In particular, they're preserving the rule against inbound connections, which means no servers, and the same old problems with videoconferencing and other peer-to-peer Internet services, etc. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that Pacific Bell is no more clueful about the level of service needed for Toscana than Bay Apartment Communities. On the other hand, the new arrangement gives us 24-hour access to Pacific Bell's customer service (but we get only partial service unless we install PacBell-customized versions of Netscape Navigator or Communicator. Why? Who cares? I doubt I'll ever ask them for help with MY end of the connection. :-). On the third hand, anyone who went through all the grief of setting up email service through Toscana will need to change over to a new pacbell.net server and a new email address. I didn't trust Toscana with my email and under the circumstances I'm not going to use PacBell's email service, either; keep sending your mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
April 3, 1998 update:
The printed edition of the April Upside hit the stands a couple of days ago. It's got a fairly stupid opening-page graphic (no, folks, that's not me; my picture's on the contributors page, page 16) but in most other respects the article looks pretty good. I'm especially pleased that they ran three of my photographs of Toscana, all taken with my Pentax 67. The construction site outside my window is now a four-story building, and it looks like the walls will be closed in pretty soon. It's been fun watching this place come together.
I also received my first serious criticism of the article. It was sent to Upside, and they passed it along to me for comment. Fortunately it was the sort of critical letter that suggests the author didn't actually read the article. For example, he says I shouldn't have expected to be able to put a server online in my apartment, but as I said, Toscana had promised I could. The letter writer works in Washington, D.C. for the apartment industry, and seems to have a lot of respect for Bay Apartment Communities. Frankly, so do I. Building Toscana has been a really big project, and most of it has worked out just fine.
There continue to be minor annoyances, though. The Internet service goes offline from time to time and there's nobody to notify so we just have to hope it comes back eventually. We've also been notified that the power to our building will be off for several hours in the middle of the day on the 13th to replace a power transformer. They point out that the elevators will be affected; I guess they expect us to use the stairwells, which are marked for emergency use only. I'll also have to remember to fill up the fridge and freezer with some kind of thermal ballast the day before so the important stuff doesn't go bad, and turn off all the electronics before leaving for work. It'll all be worth it for a new transformer, though!
March 20, 1998 update:
The online release of my Upside article a few weeks ago led to several hundred visits to this site and about a dozen email messages from readers. I even heard from a few people with personal knowledge of the situation here at Toscana, and they were all supportive. Two of my correspondents were former tenants who moved out when their leases expired, tired of waiting for Toscana to honor its promises.
I've had no formal response from Toscana or Bay Apartment Communities, but it's possible they haven't seen the article yet. I certainly haven't brought it to their attention. :-) Nothing's changed on our Internet service. It's just as fast as ever, but there's still no server support, and UDP still doesn't work.
I'm told that Upside subscribers have received their copies in the mail, though I still haven't seen one, and they should arrive on the stands within a couple of weeks. I'll be sure to update this page if I ever hear from Toscana or BAC, so you might want to come back around the end of April.
In other news here, I received a letter from Toscana today (though dated March 22) reporting several burglaries of cars and storage closets in our underground parking garages last Tuesday and Wednesday nights. These garages have gates that are normally closed, opening only to residents with remote controls, and at night the entrances to Toscana are protected by more gates that work the same way. The letter says the security patrol spotted the burglars and called the cops, who arrested them. We're getting more frequent visits by the security guards as well as some highly conspicuous "unmarked" police cars; hopefully these steps will solve the problem.
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All content copyright 1996-1999 by Peter N. Glaskowsky. All rights reserved.