For Dawn Faris, a Pleasanton, Calif., mother of three, the switch means that the end of her e-mail address has changed from "@Home.net" to "@Attbi.com," and she has spent considerable time trying to inform friends and family.
Faris sent a blanket e-mail to 50 to 60 people with the new address. Worried that many people would not receive or read the e-mail, she also verbally alerted the teachers and parents of her daughter's kindergarten class--as a designated "room mom," she often communicates with other parents via e-mail because it is "practically the only way to get a response from me."
She also is concerned about losing income from her part-time business selling kitchen products for direct marketer Pampered Chef. "Anybody who knows me, knows me by my e-mail on the back of the catalog," Faris said. "Guess what? Their e-mails are not getting through now."
Faris is among 850,000 customers who received a new address after AT&T Broadband and Excite@Home failed to renegotiate a service contract last weekend, prompting AT&T to move its customers to its own network. The transfer spawned a deluge of complaints, initially about being cut off from the Internet and more recently about lingering e-mail problems.
Failure to receive e-mail is just one aspect of the frustration. Some customers are worried about e-mail that was stored on Excite@Home servers and is now inaccessible. Others are concerned with the cost of printing business cards with the new addresses. And still others grumble about the time they are spending manually updating e-commerce and content sites with their new location in cyberspace.
After all, e-mail is considered the "killer application" of the Internet, and disruptions can hamper a range of activities, from searching for a job to working at home to sending baby photos to a grandparent.
E-mail addresses prized
While the Net simplifies many tasks, a change of address is not one of them.
To change a home or business address, you fill out a card and the post office reroutes your mail to your new location.
But people sending e-mail to some former Excite@Home customers Thursday received this reply (the customer's e-mail address has been omitted):
"This message was undeliverable due to the following reason: HEIALMBOS.MHRIH. Please reply to Postmaster@mail.plstn1.sfba.home.com if you feel this message to be in error."
The inconvenience could be eased by including a note stating that the customer's account has been changed and that the first part of the new e-mail address is the same, but that the end (or domain portion) has been changed to "@attbi.com."
A stable e-mail address is of enormous value to many Net users. According to Forrester Research, 80 percent of subscribers use the Internet service provider's branded e-mail address. Of those people, about 40 percent say they're not interested in switching providers because they don't want to lose their current address.
This sentiment is powerful ammunition for such Internet providers as AOL Time Warner in the war to defend market share and win new Web subscribers. AOL has become a Net powerhouse because of a simple formula: Most people who sign up for a free test-ride of the service become subscribers, partly because they are loath to change their e-mail address.
Former Excite@Home customers are particularly hobbled because the company is not forwarding e-mail to new AT&T addresses, nor is it providing access to archived mail, leaving millions of pieces of e-mail in a digital limbo.
Neal Nuckolls, who lives in Mountain View, Calif., just a few miles from Excite@Home headquarters, said the switch has been "a pain" for family members. In addition to losing archived messages and failing to receive some e-mail, he also "must track down and request fixes for all the mail aliases which have their old email@example.com address, which will take several days. Right before Christmas, too. Perfect timing."
AT&T Broadband and Excite@Home blame each other for the inconvenience.
AT&T Broadband spokeswoman Sarah Eder acknowledged that customers have called, complaining that they are not receiving forwarded e-mail from their Excite@Home accounts. She added that subscribers should call Excite@Home for answers about e-mail stored on that company's servers.
But Excite@Home is tight-lipped about the missing messages, declining even to say whether e-mail is being forwarded or whether customers will eventually gain access to archived mail.
Spokeswoman Londonne Corder said only that the company "suggests that subscribers contact the cable companies about their plans for e-mail transition services for their former @Home customer accounts."
Former subscribers say they don't have access to these networks so they can't get old e-mail. While some stored archived mail locally on their PCs, others opted to leave mail on the network's server to save hard drive space.
The inconvenience hits job hunters particularly hard because a disabled e-mail address can be a bad sign to a potential employer. E-mail has also become an easy way to arrange interviews and to research a potential employer.
"If someone tries to send to my old e-mail address--perhaps an employer responding to a resume I've sent out--they get a message that 'the user's account has been disabled,'" said David Wilson, a Seattle resident looking for employment. "Thanks, AT&T, for not even paying to forward e-mails for a while."
Wilson added that he's spent hours visiting Web sites to update newsletter subscriptions and other services.
Meanwhile, many customers say they learned long ago to rely on Web-based e-mail services, such as Microsoft's Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, for key communications because of the possibility of such changes.
"I've switched over to Hotmail for all my important communications because I don't have any faith that this 'attbi' address will remain that very long," said David Hagan, a Belmont, Calif., resident. AT&T Broadband is on the block, and its sale is expected any day, which might result in another domain change.
"Long and short of it, kudos to AT&T for reconnecting the network, negative points for taking care of their users," he said.
Wilson compared the situation to AT&T nixing phone service without notice.
"Does AT&T think it would be acceptable to disconnect the phone number of a good, paying customer with only vague advance notice? Especially if (it means) there will be no forwarding of calls to the new phone number and there will be about a day and a half where we're just going to disconnect your service with no advance warning? No?...So, why would they do this to their broadband Internet clients?"