Comcast repairs high-speed service

Outages: A week of intermittent interruptions has dogged the company's broadband service.

April 16, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Last-minute taxes were e-filed, digital baby pictures were viewed, and homework topics were Googled by customers of Comcast Corp.'s high-speed cable Internet access service Thursday night - and the company breathed a sigh of relief yesterday.

The "intermittent" service disruptions that had pestered the company and its 7 million customers on several of the previous seven nights didn't materialize Thursday, Comcast reported. The root cause was identified as a "memory leak" in computers that direct Web surfers and e-mail to the right destinations.

But the incident left many of those customers steamed, and it raised a question for all Web-dependent consumers: How can they know which of the Internet service providers is most reliable? Unlike phone and power companies, no Internet service provider is required to report service outages to any government agency - or even to their own customers.

"This is not a market where consumers are empowered with information," said Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst at the Consumers Union in Washington.

Reliability, she said, "is just one of the things that consumers would like to know" about access providers. The public also would like greater clarity about download speeds and about when low "introductory" rates expire, she said.

Comcast's customer growth is evidence of its reliability, said David N. Watson, executive vice president of Comcast Cable. The company added nearly 550,000 customers in the third quarter of 2004.

Watson said Comcast's own data show the reliability of its Internet access service growing from 99.84 percent in 2002 to 99.96 percent in the first quarter of this year.

"We absolutely understand how important the Internet is to our customers," he said. "There is plenty of word-of-mouth information about reliability on Web sites and elsewhere."

Even the perception of reliability can be a critical issue in the fierce competition in the fast-growing market for high-speed, or broadband, Internet access.

In e-mail and postings on Web sites, some Comcast customers said the service outage prompted them to sign up with rival Verizon Communications Inc.

But Verizon had its own widespread service outage in January, and Web sites where Internet users share information about their providers are full of reports of intermittent outages at that firm and others.

In the third quarter of 2004, the latest period for which comparable numbers are available, subscribers to Comcast's Internet access service grew by 9 percent to 6.5 million, making it the nation's largest such provider, according to Leichtman Research Group Inc., a media markets research company. Comcast has since grown to almost 7 million customers.

Verizon grew by 10 percent to 3.3 million, according to that study, making it the second most popular digital subscriber line (DSL) provider and fourth-largest high-speed service provider overall.

Overall, 2.3 million customers signed up for some form of broadband service during that period, bringing the total broadband market to 31 million.

Mindful of that competition, a Comcast spokeswoman repeated the company's offer to provide - "on a case-by-case" basis - partial refunds to customers who ask for them.

As for the cause of the problem, Watson said Comcast engineers identified the memory leak - in which the network's domain name system lost data - on Thursday evening. A fix was installed that night.

The hubbub over the service interruption didn't anger every Comcast customer. "My analysis: BIG DEAL!" wrote John Demusiak of Salem, Ore., in an e-mail. "No one in my family, or anyone I know died because I couldn't get on the Web. ... It was good to get acquainted with my wife again."

Sun staff writer William Patalon III contributed to this article.

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