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ISP Failures Put E-Mail Into Limbo

Internet: Consumer advocates and others are pushing for stronger laws to protect subscribers, but they face opposition.

January 31, 2002|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Donner, a stage manager for Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, relies on electronic mail to keep in touch with producers, directors and the executive staff of the Redondo Beach theater company.

So when Excite@Home Corp. abruptly shut down its high-speed Internet service last month, Donner was suddenly cut off from his colleagues--not to mention the rest of the global computer network.

"I'm angry," said Donner, who lives in Van Nuys. "There are people who have my e-mail address from my business card or my online resume who will try to e-mail me. They won't know that they can't get me by e-mail."

Donner is one of the more than 12 million customers who have been separated from their e-mail addresses since the technology meltdown began in mid-2000.

Now that e-mail addresses are becoming as critical as phone numbers, some consumers and government regulators are looking for ways to ensure that they don't simply disappear when Internet access providers run out of money.

"With all of this constant disruption of small companies going under and big companies devouring others, what are the rights of the consumer?" said Casey Corr, a former Internet executive in Seattle whose e-mail address was a casualty of the Excite@Home meltdown.

"They tell us the service is important to your life, and then when it goes out they say, 'We'll give you a day's refund.' Well, wait a minute. If it's essential, give us more," Corr said.

Due to the quirks of history, customers who rely on traditional phone networks for their Internet service enjoy more government protection than those who get access via cable, satellite or other technologies.

The Federal Communications Commission is looking into rewriting its rules so that the consumer protections are uniform, according to a spokesman in Washington.

"It makes no sense at all," said Carl Wood, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission.

"You have this very fragmented regulatory environment, and so the regulations can't be very effective. There should be some service guarantees and some assurances to customers," Wood said.

Current law requires phone companies to give at least 30 days' notice to state regulators before they can shut down their networks.

That's to ensure that customers have plenty of time to switch to a new service provider, notify friends, family and business associates about the change, and, if necessary, print up new business cards and office stationery, said Scott McCollough, legal counsel for the Texas Internet Service Providers Assn.

But that law didn't prevent a bankrupt NorthPoint Communications from abruptly shutting down its network last year, after a judge approved the sale of the company's assets to AT&T for $135 million.

Internet service providers such as MSN.net, Telocity and MegaPath relied on NorthPoint for high-speed digital subscriber lines, and they in turn cut off access to nearly 120,000 customers from Los Angeles to New York.

In response, the California PUC ordered NorthPoint to turn its network back on so that 40,000 customers in the state could make an orderly migration to alternate ISPs. But it did little good. By then, NorthPoint had already run out of cash and laid off most of its staff.

Regulators in other states, including Texas and New York, worked with NorthPoint and other service providers to move as many customers as possible from the ailing network to a healthier one.

"The Bankruptcy Court was trying to protect the [NorthPoint] creditors, and the [regulators] were trying to protect the consumers," said Donna Nelson Geiger, the lead attorney on the NorthPoint case at the Texas Public Utilities Commission.

"Those goals were somewhat divergent, so it involved a balancing act. We could have required them to stay in business, but it's not clear how you'd do that," she said.

Consumer advocates argue that stronger protection laws would help.

Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute in New York, has drafted a bill of rights for e-mail users. It includes the right to keep a long-standing e-mail address even if an ISP goes out of business. There's also a guarantee that e-mail sent to a defunct address will be forwarded to a new address for six months, similar to the grace period that follows the introduction of a new telephone area code.

But ordering a bankrupt ISP to stay in business "is like telling the heart attack patient not to die until everybody's ready for him," said David Robertson, vice president of the Texas ISP Assn. in Bastrop, Texas.

"This is a free market," said Robertson, who is strongly opposed to regulating Internet service. "It could be a selling point for ISPs to talk about how they keep everything backed up and will allow automatic e-mail forwarding and retrieval under any conditions."

Mustering the support to pass new laws aimed at protecting Internet users will be tough, because "it's become almost like a religious crusade to keep the Internet unregulated," said CPUC Commissioner Wood. But if telecom failures continue to leave e-mail addicts stranded in 2002, consumers may begin to change their minds.

"When they lose their Internet service for a couple of weeks," Wood said, "then they turn to us and say, 'Where were you regulators? Why were you asleep when all this was happening?'"

*

Karen Kaplan covers the Internet. She can be reached at karen.kaplan@latimes.com.

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