How Slow Can You Go? Moping Modems

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One good thing about early adopters: They'll tolerate
a lot of pain, as long as they're not disgruntled.

But here's a lament from a pioneering would-be @Home
customer (who happens to be a reformed cable-TV executive, now plowing the Internet
fields): "I feel like an evangelist with a crisis of faith."

The haphazard way in which high-speed access providers are
launching their services is bound to haunt them once they get past the eager first
few-hundred-thousand homes, which might put up with the high prices and clumsy
installation process.

Even the early adopters are becoming annoyed at the
unfulfilled promises of access speeds that are supposed to be 100 times faster than
dial-up connections.

The next layer of prospective users won't buy in at
all if the neighborhood buzz indicates that cable modems don't deliver the speed.
Worse yet, word is getting out that installation and customer service are ugly hassles.

Many of the complaints stem from problems in the last 100
feet -- in other words, the skills of the installation technicians. This time, it's
not about trampling on the rose bushes, but rather about inability or sheer incompetence
in setting up computers.

As if that hasn't happened to anyone else.

Certainly, the process is complicated by the nature of home
computers. Some cable-modem services simply don't run well -- if at all -- on some
PCs.

A reasonable customer may recognize that the cable company
isn't to blame -- the computer itself poses the problem. But the gobbledygook of
undertrained installers often complicate, rather than resolve, the problems.

And that's where the "crisis of faith" comes
in: Customers who see the cable company bobbling high-speed-access service can justifiably
translate that dismay into downright rejection when the cable operator offers future
digital services, such as telephony.

@Home, Road Runner and their brethren seem to know that
there's a problem, but somehow, their preaching is not getting down to the front
lines, which are often filled with the MSO's contract installers.

Let's dip into the e-mail bag, where an unsolicited
series of messages complained about @Home operations: Coincidentally this batch all came
from customers on the same Cablevision system in Fairfield County, Conn.

"I've been going through water torture trying to
get @Home installed in my house," writes one man. "Two guys were here Saturday
for over five hours and couldn't get it working."

Another e-pen pal complains, "Mutt and Jeff came, then
Abbott and Costello, then four other reams over a three-week/five- to six-installation
[process] ... The first two teams forgot to install the e-mail package."

The first customer with the "crisis of faith"
wondered forgivingly, "Do you think that @Home has any idea what's going on with
its installations?"

@Home's spinmeister insists that the company knows
about the problems, and that it is providing solutions to cable operators.

He claims that many of @Home's affiliates are
upgrading to the new version 1.6 software, which is USB-compatible (universal serial bus).
This means that installers won't even have to crack open the PC -- they'll just
pop an external Ethernet adapter (about the size of a deck of cards) with preloaded
software into the USB port.

It's "another step toward plug-and-play," he
gloats, adding that the percentage of first-time successful installations is "very
high." He also proudly notes that the USB outboard connection limits the liability of
installers, who are sometimes accused of messing up (or harsher words) existing files in
customers' PCs.

Too bad an @Home higher-up privately admits that the
quality of the installation and service depends on the overall quality of the cable
system.

In other words, the worse the system, the worse the
cable-modem service. It's not exactly a surprise, but a candidly true assessment of
the problem faced by underdelivering on the high-speed promise.

Said a Cablevision spokesman, "We are not happy until
every customer is happy. As the technology and user interface improve, we expect that the
occasional issues will diminish substantially."

We all know what disgruntled customers can do, especially
when they are also the early-adopting geeks who know how computers really work.

Cable operators and modem-service suppliers better make
sure that these early adopters become "gruntled" very fast.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen remains impatiently
dyspeptic when downloading.

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