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Get a Cable Modem ... Go to Jail

Due to a major production snafu last week, we are reprinting this article, which didnot run in its entirety. Subsequent to its first printing, a spokesman from @Home Networkcalled to say that his comment, "Our company has nothing to do with video," wasmisconstrued, and that he was trying to say that it was a local problem, and not anational problem.

Up until a few weeks ago, Judith Sammel thought that shemight have to change her Internet address from @Home to @Jail.

She shared her plight with Multichannel News via ane-mail entitled, "Get a Cable Modem ... Go to Jail," and through telephone callsto verify her kafkaesque encounter with her cable company.

Sammel, a resident of a Baltimore suburb, began subscribingto Comcast Corp.'s Comcast@Home in March. For a while, she was quite pleased with theblazing speeds that the cable-modem service provided.

But that short-lived pleasure turned to outright fear Nov.24, when a uniformed officer of the Baltimore Police Department showed up at her door andserved her with a summons to appear in Baltimore County Court.

The charge: four counts of cable fraud. The penalty: up totwo years in prison.

Sammel was obviously surprised, even more so because shedidn't subscribe to Comcast's cable-television service -- just its high-speed Internetoffering.

And she was a little embarrassed, too, because anout-of-town friend who had come to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with her witnessed thewhole ordeal.

What transpired over the next two months gave Sammel afirsthand look at the inner workings of the Maryland court system and a keen understandingabout what can happen when a company fails to communicate with its different divisions.

Sammel looks back on the ordeal with a sense of humor. Butat the time -- especially when she was staring at official-looking documents threateningher with prison -- it was far from funny.

Sammel said her problems began shortly after signing up for@Home Network service and declining cable-television service. An @Home representative saida filter would need to be installed at a pedestal box outside of her townhouse complex toblock video signals, but until then, she could enjoy the video service free-of-charge asan incentive to subscribe.

But the technician from Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore --the only company that had the authority to install the filter -- never came. Sammel saidshe never thought about it again until her @Home service went out and she called the cablecompany.

Sammel stressed that her interaction with customer-servicerepresentatives from both Comcast and @Home was pleasurable, and that the CSRs werecourteous, kind and helpful when they could be.

The real problem, she said, is a system that allowssomething like this to happen in the first place.

After being switched to several different Comcast and @Homerepresentatives, and continuing to ask that a technician be sent out to install thefilter, Sammel thought that the problem was solved. That is, until she got the summons.

"I was pretty sure that I could explain my way out ofit," Sammel said. "But then you hear of cases where everything goes wrong."

And in this case, everything apparently did.

When Sammel finally convinced Comcast that she was notstealing cable-television service, she got an unsolicited crash course in the Marylandcourt system. After reaching a Comcast representative who tried to get the chargesdropped, they found out that it was too late.

According to Maryland law, Comcast could only request thatthe charges be dropped, even though it was the entity that made the complaint. And afterComcast made that request, it was denied, because a court date had already been set.

That seemed a little peculiar to Sammel because, she laterlearned, the court date had been set even before she knew that she was being charged.

What's more, she learned after calling the Maryland StateAttorney's office that only one person could help her in her case -- assistant stateattorney Jason League -- and he was on vacation.

The State Attorney's office also told Sammel that ifComcast had promised to get the charges dismissed -- and its records showed no action byComcast since Nov. 24 -- she should be "on them" to rectify the situation.

League was said to be in court, and he could not be reachedfor comment.

After several letters between Comcast's lawyers and theMaryland State Attorney were exchanged, the state finally agreed Jan. 12 to acceptComcast's request not to prosecute the case.

Although the situation worked out in the end, it also seemsto illustrate a problem that has been prevalent recently in the cable-modem industry:Providers are all too willing to pass the buck.

@Home has been plagued with customer complaints aboutsluggish service in Connecticut and Fremont, Calif., recently. Although those problemsappear to have been solved, neither At Home Corp. (@Home's parent) nor the local cableoperators that provide the service has been willing to accept the blame.

And the tune isn't any different in the Sammel case.

Matt Wolfrom, a spokesman for @Home, said that although hesympathized with Sammel's ordeal, it is not an @Home problem.

"The local system is dealing with that," he said."Our company has nothing to do with video."

Richard Rasmus, vice president of online communications forComcast, also sympathized with Sammel's plight, but he downplayed its significance.

"This is really not a global issue," Rasmus said."It is merely an unfortunate outcome because of the fact that for the moment, we havetwo distinct billing systems that don't talk to each other."

Rasmus said the problem was created because the cableoperations use a billing system from CableData Inc., while the online division has an@Home system that uses credit-card billing. Each system, he said, has differentprovisioning needs and ways of manipulating data.

He also stressed that this is the only case that has beenbrought to his attention in a network that serves more than 50,000 customers.

"Sometimes it takes one instance to identify a chinkin the armor," he said.

The problem has been fixed, Rasmus added, and doing so wasfairly simple. Comcast Online has changed one process: In cases where a customersubscribes to @Home but not to cable, clerks are instructed to place their names in boththe online and cable databases so that they have legitimate cable drops.

The company has also made sure that everyone involved inthe audit process looks at both databases -- the auditors themselves, outsideinvestigators and legal counsel -- to make sure that mistakes haven't been made.

With these checks and balances in place, Rasmus said, it ishighly unlikely that a case similar to Sammel's will ever occur again.

Sammel said she had considered filing a suit for maliciousprosecution against Comcast, but she decided against it.

Sammel added that Comcast has offered to pay for the filingfee to have her record expunged -- about $30 -- but that has been about it. She alsoreceived a letter from Comcast Cablevision of Baltimore stating that it has changed itspolicy and it will allow account records to be exchanged between @Home and Comcastpersonnel.

And although she said she is happy with the @Home service,Sammel's sense of customer loyalty may not be what it could have been concerning @Home.

"When ADSL [asymmetrical digital subscriber line]service comes into the area, I'll look into it," she added.