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Is Comcast e-mail back after breakdown?

One of the nation's largest cable companies says its e-mail systems are up and running again after a 24-hour outage, but some customers disagree.

Comcast, one of the nation's largest cable companies, said Friday that its e-mail systems were up and running again after a 24-hour outage, but some customers disagreed.

Customers were still reporting scattered e-mail outages Friday afternoon, hours after the cable company said its e-mail systems had been repaired.

Reports of outages came from areas including Kentucky and New Jersey.

A representative for the company said Friday she was unaware of any current e-mail outages.

Comcast customers had been unable to receive e-mail for at least 24 hours beginning Wednesday, an inconvenience that sparked anger and calls for government oversight of the nascent broadband industry.

A representative for the company said the outage was caused by problems with its e-mail distribution servers. Iniatially customers could neither send nor receive e-mail, but since late Thursday customers had been able to send but not receive, the representative said.

The outage persisted into Friday morning, according to a customer-support representative, and the system was clogged as Thursday's incoming e-mails were being distributed.

On Thursday, a representative for Philadelphia-based Comcast confirmed that as many as 470,000 customers nationwide had been affected by the e-mail outage since it began. The outage had shut down e-mail flow for roughly half of Comcast's 950,000 customers, mainly those whose e-mail ends in @comcast.net.

"At this point now, we are experiencing an outage, and we expect to have it fixed today," Comcast executive Jenni Moyer said Thursday around 10:30 a.m. PST. Moyer would not provide details on how the outage began or why it was continuing.

Many customers said they didn't care why the outage happened, but they wanted it fixed as quickly as possible. Some called for Comcast to reimburse them for the time they went without e-mail access or the time they had to endure sluggish dial-up access.

Jim Rapp, a tax adviser and preparer in Alexandria, Va., said he had been without e-mail since Wednesday morning. His access to the Web was also down, and he was unable to download a crucial 4MB tax software update needed for work.

"It cost me a day of tax-return completion," said Rapp, who could not get DSL (digital subscriber line) service at his house and worries that he has few options other than Comcast. "I think maybe the open-access question needs to be reviewed again, as they have a monopoly insofar as cable broadband provision...They can act differently than if multiple-provider options existed."

Rapp and others may have even fewer options if shareholders approve a pending merger between AT&T Broadband and Comcast. The two companies announced their intention to merge in December, when the deal was valued at $72 billion. The combined company would control an enormous user base and could increase prices in regions where customers have few options--and it faces tough scrutiny from antitrust regulators in Washington.

In a proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday, the cable giants disclosed that the U.S. Department of Justice has until Feb. 21 to determine if it should open a full antitrust investigation into the merger, which is expected to close later this year.

Excite@Home ripple effects
Some Comcast customers suspect the newest outage is one of many ripple effects from the transfer of customers from the Excite@Home fiber-optic network to an independent network that Comcast has been building. Redwood City, Calif.-based Excite@Home declared bankruptcy in September and is in the see special coverage: Complete coverage of Excite@Home troubles process of distributing its assets as it prepares for a total shutdown Feb. 28.

Other former cable partners of Excite@Home, most notably AT&T, have had extreme problems transferring customers to independent networks. Throughout early December, hundreds of thousands of AT&T customers were unable to send or receive e-mail, could not access huge sections of the Web and, for those with access, found that connections were only marginally faster than dial-up access.

The plight of the AT&T customers instilled fear in customers of Excite@Home's other cable partners, who worried that the same woes would plague them during their transitions. It also sparked calls from consumer groups and lawyers that the government should step in and regulate the nascent industry.

Comcast announced last week that its fourth-quarter cash flow fell 3 percent because of the one-time $140 million cost of moving customers to its network. Last fall, Comcast agreed to pay Excite@Home $160 million to keep its customers on the Excite@Home network for three months while Comcast switched them over to its new network.

Privacy woes
Earlier this week, many Comcast customers learned their privacy may have been compromised during the transition, when Comcast installed software that compiled detailed records of its customers' Web usage. The software--part of a newly built high-speed Internet service created see related story: Comcast's latest woe since the Excite@Home bankruptcy--was apparently intended to speed service and cut costs by "caching," or preloading, sites most requested by its customers.

Stephen Burke, president of Comcast's cable division, said Wednesday the company began storing people's Internet Protocol and URL information six weeks ago when it set up its new network. Meanwhile, civil libertarians and privacy advocates said storing data is a blatant abuse of customer data, which could be subject to subpoena by the government or by parties in civil litigation.

Former Excite@Home customers also worry that many benefits of Excite@Home will disappear when the transition to Comcast, Cox Communications and other cable partners is complete at the end of the month. Few cable partners provide connections as fast as Excite@Home provided, and many customers are grumbling about connection speeds that are roughly half of those offered by their former provider.

Comcast has also angered small-business owners, telecommuters and others who use their cable modems to connect to office networks using virtual private network (VPN) software. Excite@Home allowed the more secure VPN access, but Comcast does not. Customers can get it as a business service for $95 a month instead of $39--an almost threefold increase that many small-business owners and telecommuters are loath to pay.

Comcast has also upset subscribers by saying it will provide only limited access to Usenet newsgroups, a sprawling bulletin board system where thousands of groups, dedicated to every imaginable interest, trade everything from technical information to copyrighted movie files.

The changes infuriate Evan Wilner, a Comcast customer in Wilmington, Del., who was appointed Delaware's first public advocate in 1979 and served until 1991.

"My wife and I are very concerned that on Feb. 28, when we lose the Excite@Home system, we'll lose reliable Internet e-mail service and fall into the e-mail hell that Comcast has engineered in 2002," Wilner said. He added that Comcast has no excuses for the failure, seeing as the company has known about Excite@Home's demise since early December.

"This is an outfit--knowing what had to be done absolutely, without fail, in three months' time--that makes the same mistakes time after time," Wilner said.

News.com's Ben Charny contributed to this report.