Left @Homeless, Subs Seethe

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Customers who temporarily lost their cable-modem service due to the myriad of troubles at Excite@Home Corp. are railing against their cable companies — and threatening to take their business elsewhere.

"I'm giving them a week to sort it all out," said Penny Anthony, a retired government worker in Sparks, Nevada. "If they can't, I'll go to [dial-up service] until I can get high speed from somebody else."

Although a customer of Charter Communications Inc. — which negotiated a deal to keep the service operating until Feb. 28 — Anthony still went dark. The Reno-Sparks system was recently acquired from AT&T Broadband, and had not been moved to the MSO's in-house Charter Pipeline service.

"They told me to download new data from Charter.com," she said. "That didn't work. They sent me a disk. That didn't work.

"I spent an hour-and-a-half on hold on an 800-number. I know that because I heard 'Me and Mrs. Jones' about 14 times on Muzak. They told me, 'It's a problem with the Reno-Sparks network,' and I have no IP address."

The AT&T Broadband outage was especially irksome to some of the youngest and heaviest users of the fat pipe: students. As the semester draws to a close, it's time for term papers. And because some college professors now send and accept assignments electronically, the temporary inability to access the Internet has led to long lines at public terminals on some college campuses.

For example, the University of California at Berkeley school newspaper reported that students there, vowing not to return to their cable provider, were looking for subscription information on digital subscriber line services and Hughes Network Systems Inc.'s DirecPC satellite product.

By midweek, local operator AT&T Broadband announced it had readied its alternate network, ATTBI.net, and said it would migrate its customers to that domain. But that did not end the connectivity chaos.

"Getting reconnected is nothing short of a nightmare," said Dan Calic of Fremont, Calif. He's a member of the users group that represents the first U.S. cable-modem adopters.

AT&T Broadband told customers to reboot their computers to be automatically reconfigured to the new network. But some subscribers went back to dial-up in the interim, so the reboot didn't click in. That's when they learned about AT&T Broadband's new "four-call" rule.

If level-one technical support staffers are unable to help a customer, they can only attempt to call level-two technicians four times. If they fail to get through, they must instruct the customer to call back.

"I couldn't believe it," Calic fumed. He'd already spent hours trying to regain his connection. The first call was to a help number that has been turned into a phone bank to instruct @Home customers to dial a second number. After 45 minutes on hold at the second number, level-one tech support couldn't help him and accidentally disconnected him while trying to transfer to him to a level-two staffer.

After he redialed to the same number — and spent 35 minutes on hold — Calic said that level one tried to reach level two four times before telling him to call back.

But Calic has connections of his own. His next call was to the AT&T regional vice president, and a technician visited his house within hours.

"I shudder to think what the vast majority of the subscriber group is going through," he said.

Most of Excite@Home's MSO partners made deals to keep the network active until the end of February. The fact that AT&T Broadband opted to shut down shows a "deep lack of respect for their subscribers," he added.

The outage appears to offer an opening to competitors looking to poach high-speed customers from cable, but many of those companies say they will not specifically attack AT&T Broadband on the Excite outage.

Knology Inc., a cable overbuilder that competes with incumbent operators in the Southeast, will "absolutely not" market against the Excite outage, said CEO Rodger Johnson.

"We will market our strengths, not their weaknesses," he said. "We hope they get it all sorted out. We support the ability of customers to have a choice."

Knology did notice a slight uptick in the number of inquiries about high-speed connections last week, as did Millenium Digital Media, which competes with AT&T Broadband in several markets, including Seattle.

"Our business has always been strong," noted Millenium Northwest region president Steven Weed, who cited the overbuilder's attractive $20 price for a high-speed connection. Most of the calls last week were by consumers asking about Millenium's construction schedule.

"We told them we're building out as fast as we can," he said.

Even representatives of SBC Communications Inc., famous for its "Web hog" commercials and other ads critical of cable modem "faults," said they will not rush out with Excite failure ads. But SBC spokesman Joe Izbrand said, "We'll definitely initiate advertising to reach out to consumers to point out the reliability of DSL."

But the competition might not need to sell on that point. Even though Charter sent out several advance warnings of a possible shut down — and despite the fact that her service has been restored, replete with improvements like Outlook Express 6.0 — Sparks' resident Anthony called back to say her confidence remains shaken.

"They're working really hard," she said. "I'm just not sure I trust 'em right now."

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