Up until a few weeks ago, Judith Sammel thought that she
might have to change her Internet address from @Home to @Jail.
She shared her plight with Multichannel News via an
e-mail entitled, "Get a Cable Modem - Go to Jail," and through telephone
calls to verify her kafkaesque encounter with her cable company.
Sammel, a resident of a Baltimore suburb, began subscribing
to Comcast Corp.'s Comcast@Home in March. For a while, she was quite pleased with the
blazing speeds that the cable-modem service provided.
But that short-lived pleasure turned to outright fear Nov.
24, when a uniformed officer of the Baltimore Police Department showed up at her door and
served her with a summons to appear in Baltimore County Court.
The charge: four counts of cable fraud. The penalty: up to
two years in prison.
Sammel was obviously surprised, even more so because she
didn't subscribe to Comcast's cable-television service -- just its high-speed
And she was a little embarrassed, too, because an
out-of-town friend who had come to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with her witnessed the
What transpired over the next two months gave Sammel a
firsthand look at the inner workings of the Maryland court system and a keen understanding
about what can happen when a company fails to communicate with its different divisions.
Sammel looks back on the ordeal with a sense of humor. But
at the time -- especially when she was staring at official-looking documents threatening
her with prison -- it was far from funny.
Sammel said her problems began shortly after signing up for
@Home Network service and declining cable-television service. An @Home representative said
a filter would need to be installed at a pedestal box outside of her townhouse complex to
block video signals, but until then, she could enjoy the video service free-of-charge as
an incentive to subscribe.
But the technician from Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore --
the only company that had the authority to install the filter -- never came. Sammel said
she never thought about it again until her @Home service went out and she called the cable
Sammel stressed that her interaction with customer-service
representatives for both Comcast and @Home was pleasurable, and that the CSRs were
courteous, kind and helpful when they could be.
The real problem, she said, is a system that allows
something like this to happen in the first place.
After being switched to several different representatives
of Comcast and @Home -- and continuing to ask that a technician be sent out to install the
filter -- Sammel thought that the problem was solved. That is, until she got the summons.
"I was pretty sure that I could explain my way out of
it," Sammel said. "But then you hear of cases where everything goes wrong."
And in this case, everything apparently did.
When Sammel finally convinced Comcast that she was not
stealing cable-television service, she got an unsolicited crash course in the Maryland
court system. After reaching a Comcast representative who tried to get the charges
dropped, they found that it was too late.
According to Maryland law, Comcast could only request that
the charges be dropped, even though it was the entity that made the complaint. And after
Comcast made that request, it was denied because a court date had already been set.
That seemed a little peculiar to Sammel because, she later
learned, the court date had been set even before she knew that she was being charged.
What's more, she learned after calling the Maryland
State Attorney's office that only one person could help her in her case -- assistant
state attorney Jason League -- and he was on vacation.
The State Attorney's office also told Sammel that if
Comcast had promised to get the charges dismissed -- and its records showed no action by
Comcast since Nov. 24 -- she should be "on them" to rectify the situation.
League was said to be in court, and he could not be reached
After several letters between Comcast's lawyers and
the Maryland State Attorney were exchanged, the state finally agreed Jan. 12 to accept
Comcast's request not to prosecute the case.
Although the situation worked out in the end, it also seems
to illustrate a problem that has been prevalent recently in the cable-modem industry:
Providers are all too willing to pass the buck.
@Home has been plagued with customer complaints about
sluggish service in Connecticut and Fremont, Calif., recently. Although those problems
appear to have been solved, neither At Home Corp. (@Home's parent) nor the local
cable operators that provide the service has been willing to accept the blame.
And the tune isn't any different in the Sammel case.
Matt Wolfrom, a spokesman for @Home, said that although he
sympathized with Sammel's ordeal, it is not an @Home problem.
"The local system is dealing with that," he said.
"Our company has nothing to do with video."
Richard Rasmus, vice president of online communications for
Comcast, also sympathized with Sammel's plight, but he downplayed its significance.
"This is really not a global issue," Rasmus said.
"It is merely an unfortunate outcome because of the fact that for the moment, we have
two distinct billing systems that don't talk to each other."
Rasmus said the problem was created because the cable
operations use a billing system from CableData Inc., while the online division has an
@Home system that uses credit-card billing. Each system, he said, has different
provisioning needs and ways of manipulating data.
He also stressed that this is the only case that has been
brought to his attention in a network that serves more than 50,000 customers.
"Sometimes it takes one instance to identify a chink
in the armor," he said.
The problem has been fixed, Rasmus added, and doing so was
fairly simple. Comcast Online has changed one process: In cases where a customer
subscribes to @Home but not to cable, clerks are instructed to place their names in both
the online and cable databases so that they have a legitimate cable drop.
The company has also made sure that everyone involved in
the audit process looks at both databases -- the auditors themselves, outside
investigators and legal counsel -- to make sure that a mistake hasn't been made.
With these checks and balances in place, Rasmus said, it is
highly unlikely that a case similar to Sammel's will ever occur again.
Sammel said she had considered filing a suit for malicious
prosecution against Comcast, but she decided against it.
Sammel added that Comcast has offered to pay for the filing
fee to have her record expunged -- about $30 -- but that has been about it. She also
received a letter from Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore stating that it has changed its
policy and it will allow account records to be exchanged between @Home and Comcast
And although she said she is happy with the @Home service,
Sammel's sense of customer loyalty may not be what it could have been concerning
"When ADSL [asymmetrical digital subscriber line]
service comes into the area, I'll look into it," she added.