Angry subscribers are deluging AT&T's customer service centers with complaints, griping that their high-speed cable modems are worth little more than pokey, antiquated dial-up modems. Others say that they can access only a limited number of Web sites, and some say they have no service whatsoever.
According to scores of CNET News.com readers, connections to the AT&T Broadband Internet network allow users to receive only 128 kilobits of data per second from the Internet to their computer. That's about twice as fast as the theoretical maximum speed of a conventional dial-up modem, and it's a far cry from the 1.5 megabits of data that AT&T touts that its "blazing fast" network supports.
Former Excite@Home customer Keith Cronin says he rarely downloads MP3 music files or other bandwidth-intensive applications, but he can already feel the slower AT&T connection to his home computer in Pittsburgh. Earlier this week, he tried to download a file that he said would have taken 10 minutes on the Excite@Home network, but the AT&T network churned for almost an hour to complete the process.
"The broad in broadband is shrinking dramatically, while the bite in my wallet is increasing," said Cronin, who relies on his $45.95 per month connection for Web surfing, gaming and instant messaging. He also buys cable TV and a cable phone from AT&T, and the Excite@Home migration fiasco has caused him to reconsider.
"I am just about to tell AT&T where they can shove their cable modem, their Platinum Package Digital Cable I fork over $80 per month for and their cable phone I shell out $45 per month for," Cronin said. "I expect better from a company I invest a great deal of my monthly bill money into."
Some AT&T Broadband Internet customers say they'd love to swap modem problems with Cronin and other users complaining about slow connections. Pockets of users in Colorado and Pennsylvania have no connection at all.
They say that customer service agents have told them that service will be restored Sunday at the earliest, but it could take weeks longer.
AT&T Broadband Internet, the Englewood, Colo.-based division of the telecommunications giant, admits that technicians have not switched over every customer it shared with Excite@Home, which ended service the morning of Dec. 1. Spokeswoman Sarah Eder said that a number of outlying regions in Colorado, including Aspen and Fort Collins, as well as State College, Penn., are still without service. She estimated that fewer than 10,000 of more than 850,000 former Excite@Home customers are still unconnected.
Some customers were having slower connections, Eder said, in part due to the crush of new customers and a "DNS blip" earlier in the week. Domain name servers translate easily identifiable domain names, such as www.news.com, to their numerical Internet protocol addresses, such as 126.96.36.1990. When they go down, it's difficult to surf the Web by typing in conventional universal resource locators (URLs).
For most users, slow connections are unrelated to AT&T's downstream cap of 1.5 megabits--which itself is about half as fast as the Excite@Home network.
"We did a migration of more than 850,000 customers in six days," Eder said Friday. "There's bound to be a few blips here and there. We figured it was important to get people migrated and have some connectivity than none at all. We didn't do five days of testing and then move everybody; we just moved them."
Eder said she didn't know when service would improve.
Customers want credit, not excuses
Eder said AT&T would not issue credit for customers experiencing slow connections. AT&T's offer of two days of credit for each day that customers are without service applies only to people who had to use dial-up access or had no connection at all--including some of the stranded people in Colorado and Pennsylvania.
That upsets a lot of customers: Why should they pay as much as $49.95 per month for service that is only marginally faster than dial-up access? Many have come to rely on high-speed connections for telecommuting, file downloading and fast Web surfing, and they say the migration crimped their online habits for nearly a week.
Dial-up access through AOL and other providers, which ties up a residential phone line when in use, is usually less than $25 per month, and some dial-up providers offer free e-mail. AT&T and other broadband providers like to boast that their service is 50 to 100 times as fast as dial-up.
Sacramento, Calif., resident Dennis McLeod is one of many customers considering defecting to another broadband provider because of the slow speeds. Earlier this week, he noticed that his AT&T cable modem was slow, so the systems administrator performed a series of tests.
"For grins, I unplugged my network cable and hooked up my phone line to the modem and dialed out to Earthlink," a dial-up connection that works through his 28.8-kilobits modem, he said.
His dial-up connection was faster.
"I will definitely be looking for another provider if this doesn't improve," McLeod said. "I'm paying $50 a month for what is supposed to be 'the new AT&T Broadband Internet network'...But a simple $12 a month dialup account performs better."
It's unclear whether AT&T's new customers are entitled to refunds or credits for enduring the slowdown. Few laws govern the pricing policies of broadband providers.
In January 1997, America Online agreed to reimburse customers for their inability to get online. AOL settled after 37 state attorneys general threatened to sue on behalf of 8 million customers nationwide, charging that AOL's networks were overloaded with hundreds of thousands of customers who opened accounts in 1996 after a $19.95, unlimited access promotion. Customers who signed up for the service could get little except busy signals from their dial-up accounts.
Mark Kersey, a broadband analyst at La Jolla, Calif.-based ARS, said AT&T's most urgent threat isn't necessarily a class-action lawsuit but a massive defection of customers. He said migration problems were expected, but AT&T's handling of customer concerns has been sub-par.
"It comes as no great surprise there are slowdowns, seeing as they threw this network together in seven weeks," Kersey said. "You've got an oversubscribed and an incomplete network. They don't have support for 850,000 new subscribers. It's impossible to think they could have completed the migration so quickly without any problems. They should have been up front about that."
Torture by tech support
Tacoma, Wash., resident Randall Lewis isn't about to sue AT&T, but his patience is quickly fraying and he may jump to another broadband provider. He said his service allows him to surf the Web for about 30 minutes before cutting off inexplicably for hours or more. Calls to customer service representatives have been extremely frustrating.
"Three calls to tech support have been useless," Randall said. "Twice, they told me the solution was to re-boot my computer whenever the connection was dropped. The third time, the tech was clearly reading from a script and directed me to the AT&T Web site for settings I needed to check. That would have been difficult to do, because my connection had dropped."
Other customers say they understand the complexities of migrating 850,000 customers to a new network. But they are offended by AT&T's boast that the migration has been quick and seamless.
On Friday morning, AT&T issued a press release touting that it had "successfully concluded the move of more than 850,000 former @Home customers to its new high speed Internet network with the successful transition yesterday of customers in Connecticut." The release also quoted Susan Marshall, senior vice president, Advanced Broadband Services for AT&T Broadband.
"We're working hard to regain the confidence of our customers who have had to suffer a very challenging period without the high-speed Internet access on which they've come to depend," Marshall said in the statement.
AT&T customer Ron Naminski found the statement, as well as his numerous attempts to learn about when his service would be restored to full speed, highly distasteful. AT&T will not comment on when the service will return to its typical downstream capability of 1.5 megabits per second, and Naminski's repeated attempts on the toll-free phone line and online chat have not produced answers.
"Just try to go to the AT&T support chat site and you'll find yourself in a queue behind over 1,300 other folks," said Naminski, a systems developer from Mountain View, Calif. "I suppose that the long line is because folks want to tell AT&T just how happy they are with the new hastily constructed network they have provided...It would not have been such a stinging declaration if AT&T would have indicated that the current network shortfalls would be rectified within a reasonable period of time."