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TW misdials in Houston

Time Warner Cable continues to find itself in situations more suited to a television show called "When Good Cable Companies Go Bad" than to a leading media company.

The most recent misadventure took place in Houston, where Time Warner Cable attempted to find out where Southwestern Bell (SBC) offered DSL services. The plan called for employees of Time Warner Cable and Road Runner to call SBC, order its DSL service, receive a confirmation letter, cancel the service, and then send the confirmation letter to the Time Warner Cable office in Tidwell, Texas. The incentive for TWC employees? Free Road Runner service or $100.

"Our first reaction was, what impact is this having on serving legitimate customers," said SBC spokesman Selim Bingol. "DSL is an incredibly popular service, and we're working night and day to provision it and get it out to customers. Forcing us to expend the resources, money and time to track down bogus orders can only hurt our ability to service our customers."

SBC doesn't know how many employees actually made the call, but Time Warner claimed it was only 20. "I think this puts it in context," said Time Warner spokesman Michael Luftman in a statement. He added that it happened only in Houston: "It was certainly not the result of any corporate policy. It was obviously a local initiative and shouldn't have happened."

Luftman added that once management found out about the calls, the program was suspended immediately. But letters exchanged by the two companies indicate that, when confronted with the accusation, Time Warner denied the incident ever happened.

On May 17, SBC sent a letter to Time Warner Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Christopher Bogart asking for a response either disclaiming responsibility or confirming that appropriate action to terminate the program had been taken. On May 18, Assistant General Counsel Jeff Zimmerman responded, saying, "We can assure you that Time Warner employees have not been engaged in any activities with the intent to burden SBC's staff and systems."

Bingol said, "We asked them these questions last week, and we got a totally unresponsive response. That's why we had to go to this level."

"This level" included filing a complaint with the Texas Public Utilities Commission asking that Time Warner and Road Runner end the practice, pay any civil and administrative penalties and pay the costs incurred by SBC in connection with the program. The cost is expected to be in the neighborhood of $300 per customer, but it varies. SBC also sent a letter asking FCC Chairman Bill Kennard to keep this in mind when considering approval of the AOL-Time Warner merger.

"We're asking the FCC to consider this as they review the AOL-Time Warner merger, especially after what [Time Warner] had done previously with Disney," Bingol continued. "There's a pattern that's starting to emerge of strong-handed tactics. They aren't helping themselves."