TCI cable Net access terms revised

The company rescinds its cable modem user agreement amid mounting customer concerns about an updated version.

4 min read
Tele-Communications Incorporated has rescinded its cable modem user agreement amid mounting customer concerns about an updated version that was released last week.

In addition to the new document, @Home Network--together with the cable operator--will step up attempts to clarify appropriate uses of its high-speed Net access service. The move is an attempt to avoid future uncertainties about customers' rights in using the growing broadband network, the companies said today.

Some consumers were livid over TCI's new agreement, which was emailed to 40,000 users of its TCI@Home service last week.

Concerns included a customer's privacy rights, their ability to check office email at home, and whether TCI had the right to republish material transmitted via @Home.

Instead the cable operator, one of the nation's largest and the controlling shareholder in @Home, will reinstate its original user agreement with the exception of some minor changes.

"We've received a lot of customer feedback about the revised agreement," said Katina Vlahadamis. "We've always had a policy of protecting our customers and we're dedicated to upholding their trust."

Some customers were concerned that, taken literally, the revised agreement would have allowed their personal information to be released to many third parties such as marketing agencies and other TCI business partners. Other language in the contract led some users to believe TCI had a right to republish their email--TCI said the clause simply protected the company from any potential copyright violations.

Now those clauses have been removed with the reinstatement of the old agreement.

The reinstated version also will include new legal language tweaked to allow TCI to continue to offer the service once Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS)-compliant modems are available in retail outlets. TCI, like all @Home's partners, currently leases the cable modem to the customer. Soon customers will be able to buy and install their own modems.

A new section also contains increased privacy protections, stating that "TCI does not sell mailing lists of TCI@Home customers, nor does it release individual TCI@Home customer information to third parties" without first getting customer consent.

Executives from both companies said it was never their intention to alarm users or infringe on their rights, but that explaining complex technological services in unambiguous legalese is often difficult.

As previously reported, TCI will explain the changes to users in a letter slated to go out today.

The agreement, revised for the first time since TCI launched the @Home service more than two years ago, did not affect @Home users served by any of @Home's 15 other North American cable partners.

TCI executives also said they are in the process of increasing the TCI@Home customer service staff by nearly 40 percent. The company expects to add another 90 people by the end of March to handle @Home calls, and TCI also has reinstated an online help section and live chat area for frequently asked questions about the TCI@Home data-over-cable service.

Clarifications @Home
@Home, which has come under increasing scrutiny since the leading cable modem service provider's blockbuster purchase of Net directory Excite, has had some performance problems in limited areas.

The company has long faced issues with a small percentage of users that hope to use the network--which typically offers downloads at speeds between 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second) and 3 Mbps--as a replacement for commercial bandwidth options. @Home's business division, dubbed @Work, is intended for businesses and offers cable connectivity in addition to T1s and even DSL.

Company executives said a handful of abusive residential users can, and have, unfairly used disproportionate amounts of bandwidth, slowing service for others at times. Because cable is a so-called shared network, users on any given neighborhood network "share" a limited amount of bandwidth. Therefore, if someone is hosting a popular chat server, a fellow user across town might face frustratingly slow Web surfing.

The company has policies in place against running Web and email servers or commercial businesses using the @Home residential offering in an effort to protect the vast majority of its users that rave about the service.

"We've experienced a degradation of service due in part to our lack of enforcing these policies," said Jonathan Rosenburg, @Home's senior director of marketing. "We are now being aggressive about enforcing these policies."

Company executives said the because providing a satisfying Internet experience is of the utmost importance to them, they will work to make sure all users are happy.

"We're trying to delineate much better what the proper uses are," Rosenburg said. "Clearly checking work email at home is something that is acceptable, and trading stocks at home is fine. Running a brokerage firm or real-time quotes out of your home is not."

He said @Home will post a "plain English" description of acceptable uses on the proprietary service as early as today, in an attempt to clear up any confusion customers may have about what they can and cannot do with their $40-per-month residential service.

Some customers are fearful the company will pare back the level of service they get now, in order to charge them higher rates for the same services later. @Home said that is not the case.

However, @Home is expected to announce further details of a plan to offer a tiered service sometime during the second quarter, Rosenberg said.

Although the plans remain largely undetermined, he said @Home is likely to offer a "managed solution" for consumers that wish to use multiple IP addresses, use the service for remote access, or run other resource-intensive applications such as videoconferencing, IP telephony, or Internet-based radio. The plan could lead to different pricing for added levels of service.