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Excite@Home refugees find services lacking

Customers hit by the demise of the high-speed Internet service brace for more potential headaches as AT&T Broadband and Comcast merge their vast cable networks.

Customers who were whipsawed by the demise of Excite@Home are bracing for more potential headaches as AT&T Broadband and Comcast merge their vast cable networks.

Earlier this month, AT&T Broadband switched its customers from Excite@Home to its own network. The results were ugly for 850,000 subscribers: temporary loss of Internet access, new e-mail addresses, frustrating slow speeds and lost e-mail. There were also changes to the user agreement that could wreak further havoc.

Comcast customers, who also will be switched from Excite@Home by the end of February, are dreading a repeat fiasco.

"I cannot, in all consciousness, pay the premium price that Comcast is commanding for a crippled ISP," computer consultant Eric Guy wrote in an e-mail to News.com outlining his dissatisfaction with the post-Excite@Home options.

And now there's a new worry for customers of both companies, as the merger of AT&T Broadband and Comcast threatens further dislocation. The cable giants agreed this week to a $72 billion merger that will create a cable TV and broadband behemoth.

Those in charge of hammering out the details of the merger might learn a lesson from the demise of Excite@Home as to how much pain customers will put up with before they switch to a competitor. Already, DSL providers are actively pursuing disgruntled AT&T Broadband customers.

For now, the companies say there will be no immediate change or interruption to their service.

"It's business as usual," said AT&T Broadband spokesman Andrew Johnson. Comcast and AT&T will operate their separate businesses until the merger closes in mid- to late 2002, and a transition team will scrutinize any issues that rise surrounding branding and technical integration, he added.

The transition from Excite@Home is already causing some concern among subscribers who have seen their connections go up and down or who are attached to features particular to their previous service.

For example, Excite@Home has allowed its subscribers to use their high-speed connections to tap into office networks using VPN software. For telecommuters or people who otherwise must check office e-mail or tap into internal networks from home, this is a critical activity.

Using an ordinary Net connection is not secure enough to satisfy most businesses, so a special kind of protected connection must be set up that allows people to tunnel into an internal company network--but keeps out hackers and unauthorized surfers. It doesn't necessarily take up more network bandwidth than an ordinary connection, but it's harder to tap into from the outside.

AT&T Broadband allows this capability, Johnson said, as long as it's clear that the connection is not to be used to operate a business out of the home. Like Excite@Home, AT&T Broadband bars ordinary consumer connections from being used to run businesses or operate servers, as those activities can use a disproportionate amount of bandwidth.

Comcast's subscriber agreement, by contrast, does not allow VPN connections, although it does not appear that the company actively blocks them. A business service, which does support VPNs, is available for $95 a month instead of $39.

Comcast has also angered a few of its subscribers by saying it will not provide access to Usenet newsgroups, a sprawling bulletin board system where thousands of groups, dedicated to every imaginable niche interest, trade everything from technical information to copyrighted movie files.

One customer wrote to News.com saying he would be losing access to critical information he uses as a computer consultant, and his wife would be losing access to groups dealing with home schooling.

"Both of these are invaluable aids to our lives," Guy wrote. "I would expect to see many of (Comcast's) current and future customers reconsidering their broadband provider."

The AT&T and Comcast transition team will need to pay close attention to such complaints if they turn out to be common, deciding which policies can be supported technically and which are financially feasible. Analysts say Comcast is likely to listen to its customer complaints and add the features they're losing.

"I think, over time customers are going to demand things like VPNs and home networking," said Cynthia Brumfeld, an analyst with research group Broadband Intelligence. "It will take time...but Comcast will listen."

Executives in a conference call discussing the deal Thursday morning gave a glimpse of how the companies might handle this kind of issue.

They stopped short of actual details. But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts waxed imaginative for a moment about dedicating more of the actual cable wires to data services, which could hugely expand the bandwidth available to consumers.

AT&T Broadband CEO Bill Schleyer spent a little more time describing plans for "tiered" services, in which the cable companies could offer different packages of speeds and features to different customers. Telephone companies and other DSL (digital subscriber line) providers have long done this, but the cable companies, so far, have not gone beyond the planning stages in this area.

"We can design packages for the light user, the medium user and the heavy users, instead of offering everyone at one price," Schleyer said.

Analysts said that type of system would better accommodate customers who wanted features such as VPNs or home networking support, although subscribers might wind up paying extra.