Cable Modem

Publication Date: Friday Oct 20, 2000

TELECOMMUNICATIONS:
Frustrated ISP customers seek city's aid

Little officials can do other than apply political pressure

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

As the ISP Channel high-speed Internet service experiences its third week of outages and slow connections, some angry Palo Alto customers are asking city officials to throw their political weight at the ongoing situation. Since the beginning of October, an estimated one-third to one-half of the ISP Channel's 3,000 customers have experieced problems with their Internet service. While that number may represent a small percentage of Palo Alto-area residents connected to the Internet, customers say the situation is disconcerting for the nation's high-tech capital, exposing the vulnerability of being tied to the Internet for personal and business transactions.

"It's deplorable, considering that this should be a high-tier area in terms of technology services," said David Gross, a Palo Alto resident.

Gross and several other customers went to Palo Alto's City Council meeting on Monday night, telling officials they were frustrated with the poor service and the lack of answers they've gotten from the companies involved with the service. Complaints and accusations about who is to blame for the problem have been burning up local conversations and several Internet "listservs," email-based discussion groups, for the past few weeks.

City officials say they're looking at a number of ways to address residents' concerns about the service: they're keeping in touch with the companies involved and are considering writing letters to legislators and the Federal Communications Commission about the situation.

"I think the city's got a critical role in addressing service and customer service issues," said City Attorney Ariel Calonne. "But our power is political rather than legal."

The city recently granted AT&T Broadband, the local carrier that brings the ISP Channel into homes and businesses, a franchise agreement that allows it to provide cable television and Internet services locally. But a federal court ruling earlier this year determined that local governments cannot regulate Internet service. Such enforcement powers fall to agencies like the FCC.

While it can't regulate the ISP Channel or AT&T, the city could encourage other Internet providers to come into town. The city had been talking with a new local player, RCN, for instance, but suspended those talks earlier this year to concentrate on the cable television and Internet sale from the local Cable Co-op to AT&T.

Some frustrated customers are calling on Palo Alto to open up the city-built, fiber-optic cable loop to widespread access for homes and businesses. So far, the loop has been operational on a limited scale. Councilman Bern Beecham, however, said the city doesn't know yet whether widespread use of the fiber loop is economically feasible for the city. The city's utilities department is scheduled to discuss the fiber loop situation at the Nov. 20 City Council meeting.

But right now, customers are left to make sense of the Internet problems and the three companies involved: the ISP Channel, which provides the actual Internet service; AT&T, which maintains the local cable lines and wires the Internet service into homes and businesses; and Cable Co-op, AT&T's predecessor. In the past few weeks, officials at each of the three companies have blamed, publicly and privately, the other companies for the service problems.

Mark Heyer, director of customer communications for ISP Channel, said Wednesday night that ISP and AT&T crews had been out for much of the day working on the system. But as late as Wednesday night and Thursday morning, at least some customers still couldn't get on the Internet.

"We really appreciate AT&T's efforts in helping to clean up the cable plant," said Heyer, when asked which company--ISP or AT&T--was responsible for the problems. Heyer said the cable plant is AT&T's responsibility.

AT&T's spokesperson, Andrew Johnson, said AT&T's network has been running fine since at least Monday morning and stated the problem is with ISP's service. AT&T has blamed Cable Co-op's maintenance history for the problems it had with the network earlier this month and in August, when another series of outages occurred. Cable Co-op officials have denied those charges.

Johnson said he doesn't know why so much anger has been directed at AT&T, because the customers subscribe to the ISP Channel, not AT&T--and he said ISP is responsible for the problems.

"We don't get paid for these customers," Johnson said. "We're the contractors. These aren't our customers. We are providing the network."

But a certain level of anger has been directed at AT&T, which successfully waged a campaign this year to buy the cooperatively owned Cable Co-op and promised good service to customers wary of losing local cable ownership. But now, in addition to the Internet problems, AT&T has also raised some customer ire by adding 88 cents to the monthly cable television bills.

Johnson said the increase will pay for locally produced cable programming, a condition the city placed on approving the sale. City officials said that expense was supposed to be absorbed by AT&T and not passed on to subscribers. But Johnson said AT&T told city officials that customers would pay for the programming subsidy.

"We made it clear that if they wanted (the charge), that it would be passed on to the customers," Johnson said.

City officials said they were looking into the cable television matter, too.