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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Fremont Had It All, Until Web Reality Hit @Home

Internet: The Bay Area suburb was among the first to adopt the high-speed system, but now it's paying a price.

July 26, 1999|CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For one wonderful year, Kimberly Paternoster lived in Web-surfer nirvana. A computer programmer and entrepreneur building a business pertaining to Web auctions, she was among the first 100 charter subscribers to @Home--an ultra-high-speed connection to the World Wide Web that operates over cable television lines.

At first the service seemed to fulfill its improbable performance claims--100 times the speed of a standard phone connection to the Web for only $39.95 a month.

Web sites and video clips snapped instantly into view. Paternoster could send large graphics or data files to colleagues in seconds instead of the minutes she was used to with her clunky old modem connection. Best of all, the service was always on. Without the necessity of dialing into a phone line every time she needed it, Paternoster could treat the Internet as the utility it was always forecast to be.

In short, a Web junkie's dream.

But it didn't take long for the dream to fade.

"For a year, everything was great. Then suddenly I started experiencing slowdowns at 6 p.m. and on the weekends."

In November came a worse collapse. For nearly three weeks, subscribers all over Fremont--an affluent Bay Area suburb of about 200,000 residents on the fringe of Silicon Valley--were prevented from logging on for days at a time. When they broke through, Web sites loaded onto their screens with the speed of molasses flowing in a virtual winter. Callers to customer service routinely spent two hours on hold, at which point they were connected with technicians who had no idea how to help.

In sum, Fremont has learned that being a technological pioneer can be something of a mixed curse.

The experience suggests that @Home (now known as Excite@Home) and its partner and largest shareholder, Tele-Communications Inc. (recently acquired by AT&T), rolled out service to Fremont before it was sure it would "scale"--that is, work as well with 1,000 subscribers as with 100.

"The irony is that since Fremont was where the product was initially rolled out, users here had to endure the most inconveniences," said Dan Calic, a subscriber who formed a local user group to pressure the service provider and local officials.

Most New Products Harbor Many Bugs

But the experience may be more predictable than ironic.

Many people have learned never to buy a car in its first model year, so defects can be discovered by less-skeptical drivers and corrected by the manufacturer. But at least with automobiles, consumers expect a product that will eventually operate as advertised.

In today's world of high technology, most new products harbor numerous bugs, sometimes serious enough to destroy their effectiveness. Product life cycles have become so short and the pressure to bring them to market so strong that software developers have long since given up the goal of delivering completely bug-free programs. In a Faustian bargain well-known to experienced computer and Web users, consumers have become used to serving, in effect, as manufacturers' guinea pigs in order to be first on their block with exciting new features or services.

Microsoft Corp., the biggest software maker, offers the biggest target for such complaints. The company catches plenty of derision for not getting products right until about the third try; that is, after consumers have used two earlier versions and reported hundreds or even thousands of defects. The reason, according to Microsoft programmer Andrew Shuman, writing in a recent edition of the company's online magazine, Slate, is that Microsoft programmers attempt to satisfy every obscure user need under crushing deadlines.

As Shuman wrote: "If our software is occasionally too fat, we developers fall back on the same excuse philosopher Blaise Pascal offered three centuries ago for his verbose letters: 'I have only made this [letter] longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.' "

As a community of "early adopters"--that is, well-heeled and technically savvy consumers--Fremont is currently bearing the brunt of guinea-pigdom in the digital communications age. That's not to say that it bears the burden alone: Severe service problems have also affected other early installations of @Home in Hartford, Conn., and six other Bay Area communities--in which outraged subscribers were awarded three months of free service while technicians conduct a top-to-bottom examination of the network.

Operating under similar pressure to capture market share in high-speed network access, the @Home service in Fremont has been so consistently unreliable that the Fremont City Council has been considering setting minimum service standards--an unprecedented move to regulate Internet service. (The council believes it can do so by virtue of the obligations AT&T owes as monopoly holder of the local cable TV franchise.)

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