Backtalk: Is Cable Really Modem-Ready?

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Cable operators have been rolling out cable modems withgreat success, as consumer demand rises due to word-of-mouth spreading about what a greatproduct it really is.

But is cable's work force properly trained to handlethis pent-up-demand from customers who are likely to be more computer-savvy than thecustomer-service reps, who have perhaps unwittingly been conditioned to treat people likeidiots who barely know how to turn on their computers?

Here's a story from a real cable-modem user -- myhusband's cousin, Clifford Donath -- who told me about his bumpy experiences withMediaOne's cable modem.

Donath lives in Waltham, Mass., a bedroom community in thehigh-tech world surrounding Boston. There, he runs his own research consultancy out of hishome on a pretty elaborate computer configuration: two NT 4.0 work stations and threeWindows 95 machines in a network.

He's been salivating for a cable modem since the daythat he heard about them, always bugging me and asking me when MediaOne might get aroundto hooking him up.

Donath finally got hooked up in late December, thenunceremoniously unhooked in January, and he is again up and running in February, we hope.

'MediaOne really doesn't seem to know much aboutthe business,' he sighs.

It was a rocky road from day one. To begin with, the CSRreally didn't know what he needed when he initially called to sign up. The CSR toldhim that the Ethernet card that he already had would work with their own connection.

Wrong. He had to get MediaOne's card, as well. Then,the fun and games began in earnest. Donath said it wasn't long before MediaOne senthim a confusing message, warning him about not running proxy servers like Wingate.

Because he wasn't running Wingate or anything like it,he ignored the message and blithely went on with his business.

Then, wham. The following week, MediaOne shut him downwithout any warning -- a move that affected his business, not to mention his disposition.

He quickly called MediaOne, and a CSR told him that he had'open ports,' and that he was 'a threat to the Net.'

Trying to be cooperative, he told them that he'd lookinto it to see what was wrong, but that they needed to give him more information.

Then, MediaOne sent another message that said it hadattempted a TELNET connection to his machine and gotten through: Therefore, his machinewas hackable, and it was a threat to MediaOne's network.

The message rather snidely ended, 'What you don'tknow can hurt you.'

But Donath, who is a very sophisticated computer user, saidthat if MediaOne did in fact get through on a TELNET connection, why didn't it leavea message saying that it had and, therefore, proving that it did at the time?

Donath said he was using an NT 4.0 work station that hasway more security than Windows 95. He was disappointed that MediaOne had provided nosupport in identifying what was wrong, or even proving that there was something wrong, butthat it just yanked him down instead.

Mysteriously, his cable-modem service had been restored,but he has no idea why because he's had no other dialogue with his cable companysince then.

Donath, a user -- in addition to those naysayers who thinkthat the cable industry is going to have problems delivering on its promises -- remainswary about the future success of cable-modem rollouts.

'Cable jumped so fast to start the Net business, butthey are just not prepared for the customer-support issues. They blame the customer. Theygive service and then tell you that they will take it away if you don't use it right,but they don't help you use it right,' Donath complained.

Donath defined a problem that has plagued cable since itsinfancy: lack of customer support. It was one thing to take a cavalier attitude about anoutage in the 1980's, telling subscribers that the problem was at their end, whichhappened a lot.

But customers are not going to tolerate that kind oftreatment when it comes to customer service on cable modems -- a tool that zooms themacross the world not only for entertainment, but for business purposes, as well.

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