Cable users, Comcast have differing view


SOMETIMES I feel like the blind man trying to describe an elephant.

You've probably heard that old Indian parable: four blind men were summoned by Buddha to help settle a dispute among citizens about the nature of God.

Buddha's disciples put the four in different spots around an elephant and asked them to describe the animal. One touched the elephant's leg and said the elephant looked like a pillar. The second touched the elephant's belly and said it looked like a wall. The third touched the elephant's ear and said it looked like a piece of cloth. The fourth grabbed the tail and described the animal as a piece of rope.

"All of them are right," Buddha explained. "No one can see him completely."

Which brings me (by a roundabout route) to Comcast cable's high-speed Internet service. If you believe the messages and calls we've received, Comcast's switch to a new e-mail system has been an ordeal for some of its 950,000 customers, about 90,000 of whom live in the Baltimore area.

I've heard horrifying tales of woe -- customers who spent hours, even days, talking to help-desk technicians who often gave conflicting advice after Comcast's new software download crashed their PCs. Other complaints related to problems that persisted after an outage last week that prevented some 300,000 customers from receiving e-mail.

"If they paid me minimum wage, I'd be able to retire on the amount of time I spent on hold with tech support," said J. Wistar Huey III, 63, of Ellicott City, who finally got his problem straightened out this week.

Comcast tells a different story. By its account, the switchover has been a roaring success, a major engineering feat under tight deadline pressure.

"We've had hundreds of thousands of people make the change without a problem," said Scott Allison, Comcast's vice president for online services in the mid-Atlantic region. "It's probably very frustrating to those people who have had problems, but we're constantly tweaking and adjusting the system and resolving these issues as they arise."

That reassurance doesn't resonate with Ellen Cutter, a free-lance writer from Aberdeen who has grown to depend on Comcast service for her livelihood.

"I don't care about the 98 percent that work. I care about the 2 percent I live in," she said after her system was trashed by Comcast's software.

These perceptions are critical to Comcast and the entire broadband industry, which expanded rapidly in the late 1990s and currently has about 10 percent of the national home Internet market. Now that it has the early adopters, it must convince a new generation of customers that high-speed service is worth twice the price of a standard dial-up Internet account.

The industry got a black eye in December, when Excite@Home, which provided the high-speed Internet backbone for Comcast, Cox, AT&T; and other cable companies, declared bankruptcy, threatening service for more than 4 million customers nationwide.

Since then, Comcast and other cable companies have been scrambling to bring their own networks online -- a tough job made more urgent by Excite@Home's decision to shut down operations Feb. 28.

The stakes are particularly high for Comcast, which wants to acquire AT&T;'s cable business and needs to convince federal regulators it can handle the job.

Comcast switched customers to its own network last month, which required nothing more than a computer restart for most users. But converting users' e-mail accounts from their @Home addresses to new ones was harder, requiring them to change settings in their e-mail software.

Comcast urged customers to download software to do the job. But instead of merely adding a new e-mail account, the package installed a sophisticated new help system and made changes in critical system settings.

Nobody knows how many systems crashed -- Comcast officials say it was a relative handful -- but the folks who owned them complained vociferously -- with good reason. Those I spoke with said Comcast eventually solved their problems -- but only after days of hassles. It's also fairly clear that the vast majority of users had no problems -- otherwise I'd be writing about lynch mobs storming Comcast headquarters.

In the coming weeks, customers may find themselves dealing with other unwelcome changes. Some already complain that the new e-mail system limits the number of people who can receive carbon copies of messages. Others are miffed because the system changed their user names -- no more periods, hyphens or underscores allowed.

In other areas, users are complaining because Comcast is now capping download speeds at 1.5 megabits per second. Allison noted that this is the maximum speed Comcast has always guaranteed in its terms of service.

"It's part of our practice of maintaining network performance" by ensuring that heavy users don't hog bandwidth, he said.

Some customers are complaining that they can no longer use Virtual Private Networking (VPN) software, which provides a secure "tunnel" through the Internet from their homes to their corporate networks.

Allison said VPN is excluded in the company's terms of service, although Excite@Home's network allowed it. If they want VPN, customers will have to upgrade to Comcast's $95-a-month professional service -- twice what they're paying now.

This attitude may be Comcast's biggest problem. On one hand, it advertises the reliability of its always-on, high-speed network. On the other, the company argues that it's a "residential" service and that people who want more should pay for it.

Unfortunately, many subscribers are self-employed or use Comcast's service to access corporate systems from home. In other words, they don't just like cable service, they depend on it.

But if Comcast uses its "residential" argument as an excuse for shoddy service or as a crowbar to pry up a few more dollars, more than a few customers could learn to depend on satellite or DSL.

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