Cable Modem

Uploaded: Tuesday, October 17, 2000, 12:30 p.m.

Internet woes leave customers fuming
Providers blame each other as access slows to a crawl

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

As Internet customers curse their computer screens, officials involved with bringing high-speed Internet access to Palo Alto are pointing fingers at each other over a series of outages that disrupted access for two weeks.

For the second time in three months, service on the high-speed ISP Channel Internet access slowed to a crawl, or shut down entirely, during the first couple of weeks in October. It is the second time the system failed since the beginning of August, when ownership of the cable lines transferred from the locally owned Cable Co-op to AT&T Broadband & Internet Services.

Officials from the three companies--the ISP Channel, Cable Co-op and AT&T--have offered three different versions of why more than half of ISP's 3,000-plus subscribers have been cut off from the Internet at various times since the beginning of October.

But whatever the cause or the culprit, insiders agree that the stoppages have been a source of frustration and embarrassment for this high-tech area, where many of the customers can reasonably claim to have invented some of the Internet technology they're paying for ISP to provide.

"A lot of the people feeling the pain have a lot of clout and a lot of contacts... There will be hell to pay," said Bob Moss, who served on Cable Co-op's board of directors.

The ISP Channel, for its part, would not publicly discuss blame for the problem.

"Until the problem is finally solved, it's not appropriate for anyone to point fingers," said Mark Heyer, ISP's director of customer communications.

As of Monday afternoon, Heyer said "it remains to be seen" what the true problem is. He confirmed that ISP did have a technical problem last Friday, but said it didn't have much to do with the outages overall.

"There was a router problem," Heyer said. "To the extent that this disrupted service, it didn't have much to do with the problems people were having."

Heyer said the company would give customers credit for lost service to go toward their future bills.

Customers said last week that they're frustrated by the Internet outages and the lack of help they have received when calling the ISP Channel or dealing with AT&T.

"The one thing their system is exceptionally good at is sending out bills," said Colin Mick, a Palo Alto resident who works with computer networks. "But acknowledging responsibility for poor service isn't something they do very well."

Former Cable Co-op board member Bob Moss said the quality of Internet service customers have received from the ISP Channel has diminished noticeably after the debt-ridden Cable Co-op sold its assets and turned the operation over to AT&T on Aug. 1. While ISP provides the national Internet service, the local carrier--now AT&T--has a contract to maintain local cable lines and wire the service into homes and businesses.

According to Moss, AT&T had little to no experience managing Internet service with Cable Co-op's system of coaxial cables, and failed to give some of Cable Co-op's technicians satisfactory job offers. Those technicians left, Moss said, and AT&T didn't have the necessary staffing and didn't conduct proper maintenance of the system, which he said suffers normal wear and tear often caused by weather conditions and temperature changes.

"The system requires attention to details," Moss said. "AT&T doesn't have it."

AT&T has a different explanation for the Internet problems. According to Andrew Johnson, a spokesperson for AT&T, the company inherited a system that was old and had not been well maintained. He said AT&T is doing the best it can patching up and maintaining the system until it installs more modern technology in three years.

"The used car is not running well," Johnson said. "There are some problems in the system we bought from Cable Co-op."

When asked why the same system hadn't failed as extensively under Cable Co-op's control, Johnson said the problems have inevitably resulted from Cable Co-op's lack of maintenance resources over the years. He insisted that AT&T had enough qualified people to run the system and did offer jobs to qualified Cable Co-op technicians, but some of them chose to leave anyway.

"A lot of that has come home to roost and that's independent of the sale to AT&T," Johnson said of the problems.

While Johnson attributed "25 percent" of the problem to AT&T, he said that 75 percent of the problem could be traced to ISP's end. Johnson said the ISP Channel had a "catastrophic" server problem that disrupted service last Friday.

Some customers said they may have to look elsewhere for relief. The city of Palo Alto, which granted AT&T the right to operate a cable franchise in the city earlier this year, doesn't have the authority to regulate Internet service and respond to consumer complaints--only the federal government can do that.

"But that's not to say we can't do some things," said Councilman Bern Beecham. One thing the city could do, he said, is encourage other Internet companies to come into the city to stimulate competition.

Other frustrated customers are placing their hopes on the fiber-optic ring built by the city. If that becomes available for widespread use, private Internet companies will be able to lease space on the city's system and provide service to any home or business in the city, further encouraging competition.

The city is expected to present a business plan for the fiber ring late next month.