Charter to SBC: Quit Lying About Us

Charter Communications Inc. last week said it filed a suit against an SBC Communications Inc. unit in federal court to derail a "false" advertising campaign that claims cable-modem service slows at peak usage times.

The MSO's suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Missouri, came after Charter senior vice president, general counsel and secretary Curt Shaw wrote a letter to SBC chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. The St. Louis-based MSO asked SBC's Southwestern Bell local phone operation to stop its "Cable Modem Slowdown" advertising campaign.

Charter had previously complained about SBC's digital subscriber line marketing tactics. Last year, SBC subsidiary Pacific Bell ran a series of anti-cable modem ads that employed the theme "Web hog." They depicted a street in chaos, with residents vandalizing one another's homes in retaliation against neighbors who slowed Web access by overusing their cable-modem connections. At that time, Charter wrote a letter of complaint to SBC.

That campaign ended, but Charter officials said they don't know if that was because of the letter or because SBC had completed its advertising cycle.

In the current crop of ads, which are appearing in St. Louis and other markets, parents instruct elementary-school age children on a new modem-use schedule. Since the modem slows during peak times, they explain, the children will now be awakened in the middle of the night to use the Internet to do their homework.

The suit claims that the ads violate the federal Lanham Act, which requires truth in advertising, and Missouri state law.

"Their message is just untrue," said Shaw.

Cable engineers claim that heavy usage slows the entire Internet, not just data-over-cable access. The ads infer that this slowdown does not affect digital-subscriber line service, but DSL lines are also subject to Internet-related slowdowns.

Charter also took umbrage at the suggestion that children would be dragged out of bed at 2 in the morning to use the cable modem, Shaw added.

An SBC spokesman said the telco has not received the suit yet and therefore can't comment specifically. But spokesman Selim Bingol said that cable networks are indeed shared and can slow during peak usage.

"The larger point, beyond this dispute, is that cable is an unregulated monopoly and it controls 70 percent of the broadband universe without oversight," Bingol said. Cable systems also often refuse to carry SBC's DSL ads, he added.

The slowdown advertising is an effort to inform consumers, said Bingol.

"I don't know how the local phone monopoly gets off criticizing us," Shaw replied. "The greater message is, if they think theirs is a better service, they should stress their benefits."