Led by a group of @Home subscribers, this community on the edge of Silicon Valley is poised to become the first place in the country to hold an Internet access system to a strict set of customer service standards. The city is drafting a series of guidelines for customers of AT&T and its @Home Net-over-cable service.
The standards will likely target issues such as how long customers can be kept on hold when calling access providers and could possibly address the controversial issue of download speeds for cable modems.
The issue is the latest example of a local government attempting to extend its control over cable's influence in the growing Internet business. Last week in Portland, Oregon, a federal judge upheld the city's right to impose a requirement that AT&T allow other ISPs access to its cable networks.
"This is a first-in-the-nation look at this. They're plowing new ground here," said Andrew Johnson, a spokesman for the former Tele-Communications Incorporated, now known as AT&T Broadband & Internet Services.
Under federal law, cable operators are required to meet certain customer service requirements. For example, most cable TV installations must be completed within a week, Johnson said.
But Internet service providers are not beholden to any enforceable written standards--at least not yet.
The Fremont City Council established a task force to consider what type of requirements should be applied to AT&T's Net-over-cable offering. The group, which met officially in May, consists of five citizens, city staffers, and representatives from AT&T's cable unit and Excite@Home.
"Basically, the thrust of the agreement is to make sure that TCI performs at a certain level of quality, with certain standards," said Dan Calic, a member of the task force. "We're really pleased at what's happening."
Fremont was the first place Excite@Home's cable modem service was made available. AT&T also plans to offer trials of its cable-based telephony service in the city, which claims 173,000 residents and is located about 36 miles south of San Francisco.
Fremont is no stranger to high-tech controversy: A misconfigured router dramatically slowed the @Home cable modem service in Fremont last year, galvanizing protest among subscribers.
Calic, one of the leaders of the informal Fremont @Home user group that was spawned by that incident, said he subsequently learned about TCI's cable customer service obligations several months ago. He contacted Fremont city officials to see if these standards could also apply to the Internet business.
Told they did not, Calic and other users took the issue to the city council, and the council agreed to support the drafting of a set of Internet standards. At a meeting in March, officials created the task force and asked it to report back to the council later this year.
City staffers are reviewing suggestions from the task force and will write a set of standards this summer. The group plans to have a final draft completed by September, said Dan Schoenholz, a city staffer leading the process.
TCI's Johnson said AT&T and Excite@Home have not yet taken a position in the talks.
From hold time to download speed
Among the issues Fremont-area users are concerned with is the length of time they were stuck on hold with their cable company while waiting for customer service. Under federal law, cable operators must answer 90 percent of their customer service phone calls within 30 seconds, Johnson said.
"I don't think AOL's doing that and I don't think any other ISP is doing that," he said. "But that doesn't mean we can't have a different, better standard."
But handling the average cable TV inquiry is much different than most Internet-related calls, Johnson said.
"It's one thing to answer a call about what channel is ESPN on and I tell you channel 14," he said. "That call is a lot different from, 'How do I download an MPEG file to a Pentium III with this configuration?'"
But one of users' most persistent complaints--sluggish access speeds during peak usage hours--may not be addressed.
Schoenholz said complaints about speed were one of the top issues to come out of the task force's initial brainstorming sessions. City staffers are still considering including download times as one of topics in the draft guidelines, he said, but cautioned that it's still early in the process.
But TCI's attorneys have questioned the city's ability to go that far, and even the users' group is pessimistic about Fremont's ability to handle network speed concerns.
"I don't think the city has the authority to set standards for the product itself," Calic said.