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@Home users granted Net bill of rights

The Fremont City Council votes unanimously to pass an ordinance that will establish customer service standards for Internet access, one of the first pieces of legislation in the nation to do so.

    A local government in California voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that will establish customer service standards for Internet access, one of the first pieces of legislation in the nation to do so.

    In a 4-0 vote, the Fremont city council approved standards governing how AT&T must treat its cable modem service subscribers.

    The decision puts Fremont, California, Building a
Net bill of rights a suburban city south of San Francisco, squarely on the map as the first local government to require an Internet service provider to live up to certain standards or face fines.

    Although many traditional dial-up ISPs have customer service policies in place, they are not legally accountable to any local government agency. Cable companies, however, operate under local franchise contracts with city and county governments.

    The final customer "bill of rights" policy, voted in yesterday, is the result of months of negotiations between city staff members, Excite@Home executives, subscribers, and AT&T representatives. AT&T is the largest shareholder in Excite@Home, the nation's biggest high-speed Net access provider.

    Regional AT&T cable spokesman Andrew Johnson said the telecommunications giant is comfortable with the new standards, which mirror similar federal requirements for cable television service, and believes the company can meet the new goals.

    "We were part of the process and it reflects our current operating philosophy," Johnson said. "There's nothing in there that is unexpected or that will cause us any problems to meet."

    Among the requirements, AT&T must ensure the following:

    • At least 90 percent of customer service phone calls must be answered within 30 seconds.

    • Customers are allowed to pay for services with cash and checks, in addition to credit cards.

    • Service outages must be fixed within 12 to 24 hours, 95 percent of the time.

    • Written communications, including email, must be responded to within ten business days.

    AT&T will try to turn the standards into a positive for the company by marketing them as a competitive advantage against other Internet service providers and digital subscriber line (DSL) companies that do not have their own service guidelines, Johnson said.

    Concerned users are largely happy with the new customer service standards. Dan Calic, founder of the Fremont @Home Users Group, called them a "symbolic first step."

    But Calic said certain key issues, including guidelines for the download speeds of the @Home service and how penalties for violations by AT&T will be imposed, remain unresolved. And Calic's group would have liked to have had a written requirement that AT&T periodically release statistics about the speed of its cable modem service, but the proposal remains unresolved.

    "While in general we're pleased, really the two hot-button issues are not going to result in what the users had hoped," Calic said. "It's a step in the right direction, but it's like three steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backward."