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Net bill of rights set for vote in California

City officials in Fremont, California, are set to vote tomorrow on rules that would apply strict customer service standards to AT&T's cable Internet modem service.

City officials in Fremont, California, are set to vote tomorrow on rules that would apply strict customer service standards to AT&T's cable Internet modem service.

If successful, Fremont would be the first city in the United States to give Internet service provider (ISP) subscribers an official customer "bill of rights." Other local governments, many of which are beginning to assert their own control over high-speed Internet services, will closely watch the outcome of the vote.

Building a Net bill of rights The vote also comes as AT&T's commitment to cable modem service Excite@Home hangs in doubt. The company said last week that it is exploring possible outside deals for its ownership stake, and sources say the company has talked to Microsoft and Yahoo about selling its Excite content division.

The Fremont proposal would force AT&T's TV cable and Net data services to follow the same set of service rules, city officials say. One of the most controversial aspects of early discussions--regulating the speed of Internet services--did not find its way into the recommendations, however.

"The thrust of the recommendations is to confirm that cable Net service should be regulated the same way we regulate other things going over cable lines," said Dan Schoenholz, the city analyst who drafted the proposal.

AT&T has worked with a group of city officials and local activists over the summer to help draft the rules.

"We've said from the beginning that the standards on the video side of the business should be transferred to the data side," said Andrew Johnson, an AT&T spokesman. "It made sense to us that the standards be adopted."

AT&T would be required to answer at least 90 percent of customer service calls within 30 seconds. At least 95 percent of cable Internet service installations would have to be made within seven days of a customer's order, and 100 percent would have to be completed within fourteen days.

The company would be required to release statistics on these and several other measures once every quarter, and would be fined $9,000 a quarter if it doesn't meet certain goals.

That's not a lot of money for a firm with a nearly $133 billion market cap. Yet AT&T knows it can't afford a bad rep, as it competes with local telephone companies to sign up customers for high-speed Internet services.

The early complaints from users in Fremont and elsewhere have prompted the company to raise its service standards, the company says.

"We made an internal decision early this year that we would strive to meet these customer service standards across the board," Johnson said. If the vote is approved, Fremont would still be the only place where service rules are mandatory.

Speed issues
The city decided that it did not have the power to regulate how fast the @Home service should download files and Web pages from the Internet, Schoenholz said. That had been a key topic of discussion, after members of Fremont's cable modem users' group complained that their service had dramatically slowed as more people signed on.

"There are so many factors that play into the download of a [Web] page on a computer," Schoenholz said.

But AT&T has agreed to share statistics about the speed of its service with the users' group. That will let the consumers compare the service more accurately with competing high-speed Net offerings from companies like Pacific Bell, Schoenholz said.

Johnson stressed that the company had been sharing this information since February with the users, and the action was not part of the mandatory standards.

"We always monitor our network, and we will continue to share some of that information on an informal basis," Johnson said. "But this is not part of any commitments we made to the city."

The Fremont city council is scheduled to vote on the standards at its meeting tomorrow.