At least three cable companies are in discussions with Excite@Home, trying to work out a deal that would prevent a broad shutdown of the high-speed Internet service.
Cox Communications, Comcast and Charter Communications were still negotiating with Excite@Home on Monday morning on behalf of more than 1 million customers. Those customers still have high-speed Internet access through Excite@Home, the companies said, but some have reported slow or inconsistent connections since Saturday morning.
Many of Excite@Home's 4.1 million customers have been worried about a slowdown or termination of service since Friday, when Excite@Home received permission from a bankruptcy court judge to shut off service to its cable company partners. That move came at the behest of creditors, who argued that the cable companies weren't paying enough for the service.
Excite@Home partners with numerous cable companies--including Cox, Comcast, Charter and MediaOne--to provide high-speed Internet access. Excite@Home customers represent 45 percent of home broadband subscribers, but the Redwood City, Calif.-based company declared bankruptcy Oct. 1, putting the service in jeopardy for all 4.1 million users.
AT&T has offered to buy the company for $307 million, but customers remain worried about massive disruptions or possible termination of service.
AT&T, the largest Excite@Home cable partner, terminated its contract with Excite@Home and shut off service to most of its 850,000 consumers Saturday morning. AT&T said in a statement that it has switched about 40 percent of those customers to its own network, and it is promising the remaining customers a transfer to the AT&T network as soon as Friday.
AT&T has already switched about 330,000 subscribers in Oregon, Washington and the Dallas area to AT&T Broadband Internet service, requiring them to assume new e-mail addresses. The transfer typically causes intermittent outages and slowdowns, and many customers are angry about having to tell friends, co-workers and others that they have new e-mail addresses--a process that can be tedious and frustrating.
Like other cable partners of Excite@Home, AT&T has been preparing for the possibility of a switch for its Excite@Home customers for months. But it didn't begin transferring the first customers--about 86,000 subscribers in Oregon and Washington--until early Saturday morning.
Despite brief outages for almost all of the 850,000 customers that Excite@Home and AT&T shared, many people who have been switched say the new network functions as quickly as Excite@Home's service.
"I'm impressed they fixed it so quickly with @Home going out of business," said Ben Humphrey, a software engineer in Seattle who pays $39.95 a month for his AT&T service. "I was very worried I'd lose my service, as I much prefer the cable modem to my brief experiment with DSL. I'll stick with AT&T."
AT&T says it will transfer customers in California and Illinois to its independent network Monday. By the end of the day, AT&T expects to have switched 657,000 customers--leaving only about 23 percent of its customers completely without service.
Dial-up access: "Miserable experience"
AT&T has promised customers a credit of two days of broadband service for every one day they are without it. On Saturday, AT&T also promised some customers free dial-up access while their high-speed connections were down.
But AT&T is only providing free dial-up access to those customers who cannot immediately be switched to AT&T Broadband Internet. By the time AT&T sent CD-ROMs to customers in Texas, California and several other big markets, said spokeswoman Sarah Eder, they would already have been switched to the new network with high-speed connections. Sending them dial-up installation kits would have been a waste of time, Eder said.
"Originally we said we could do this in 14 days," Eder said. "But we're moving more quickly than that. This is not a long migration window; we're talking hours and days, not weeks."
Eder added that only "small pockets" of customers--including those in relatively remote Aspen, Colo.--would receive free dial-up access. She would not say what percentage of AT&T's 850,000 customers would have to wait for more than a few days for broadband service.
Despite the faster timeline for transfers, many subscribers are still upset--chiefly at the lack of customer service from AT&T.
AT&T's toll-free hotlines were jammed with angry callers throughout the weekend. Many of those who reached a customer service agent--after as many as 40 phone calls or several hours on hold--said service representatives were of little help.
Although AT&T representatives began calling subscribers Saturday to warn them of outages, many people were surprised to find their computers did not have a high-speed connection Saturday morning.
Gregory T. Stovall, a systems architect from Garland, Texas, said the AT&T representative who called his house Saturday morning told Stovall's 6-year-old child about the outage--so Stovall himself didn't know about the terminated service until he logged on. Then he had to revert to dial-up access--a fate that many broadband users dismiss as unbearably primitive--until AT&T transferred him to its own network.
"Waiting for modem to negotiate, waiting for authentication, watching a page build excruciatingly slowly on the screen...was a miserable experience," Stovall said. "I cannot believe I ever existed like that. I say 'existed' because dial-up is not 'living.'"
Excite@Home's non-AT&T subscribers may not have to endure the same fate.
Excite@Home and Cox reached a "nonbinding agreement" on the basic deal terms Saturday, Cox spokeswoman Ellen East said. She said the companies are hashing out a formal legal agreement but did not provide details. East added that the company was hopeful a deal would be reached Monday.
Cox has not transferred any of its 550,000 users to its own high-speed network, and Excite@Home has agreed to keep Cox's service running while a deal is being reached. East said Cox's network is 75 percent complete, and the company hopes to begin transitioning customers this month.
Comcast also continues to negotiate with Excite@Home, and many customers say service--which was disrupted Saturday--is back to normal.
Around 90 percent of Charter's Excite@Home customers have been switched over to Charter's own Pipeline service, spokesman Andy Morgan said. The company is still waiting for equipment to complete its network, and two systems in the Northwest remain on Excite@Home, Morgan said.
Charter executives were negotiating with Excite@Home on Monday. Morgan said Excite@Home had agreed to continue providing service to those systems while the companies negotiated.