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Road Runner: Speedy link, spotty help

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 1999


The Road Runner's Internet journey has hit some speed bumps.

Some subscribers say Time Warner's cable modem Internet service has too many disruptions and too little customer service.

They'd cancel it, too, if only it weren't so darn fast.

"I know what it's like to get a taste of the speed," said Bill Harting, a software developer in Palm Harbor and an early tester of the system. "Going back to a 56k modem would be painful."

Harting and others posting messages in newsgroups on Road Runner have been complaining about a laundry list of problems, from service disruptions to lost mail to slowdowns. Time Warner's advertising promises are hollow, they say.

While the complaints vary, nobody seems happy with Road Runner's help desk.

"The help desk, they're no help, that's for sure," said Tom Highsmith of north Tampa, who says he is no technological guru but recognizes a glitch when he sees it. "It's pointless (to call). They tell you it's your problem."

Cable modems offer Internet access at speeds up to 50 times faster than a 56k modem on a phone line, a major attraction for people frustrated by busy signals, slow dial-up service and Web graphics that take forever to load.

Sooner or later, Time Warner customers may have to decide whether they want to entrust all their communications needs to the cable company. This month, the media giant and AT&T struck a deal to offer local phone service as well as fast Internet access to cable subscribers nationally.

Time Warner rolled out Road Runner in fall 1997. A year ago, it had about 1,500 subscribers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. It projected adding about 700 subscribers a month. Now it has 16,500 subscribers in the area and is adding about 700 a week, according to Mark Bailey, Time Warner's general manager for online services. Nationally, the service says it has 180,000 subscribers.

Bailey has seen the postings from unhappy customers in the newsgroups (available only on the service). He has exchanged e-mail with some subscribers. He knows the service has not kept up with its growth.

"'Within a couple of weeks there should be a noticeable difference in service levels," Bailey said.

Time Warner has a two-tier help desk setup: Calls first go to a national center in Tennessee, where Bailey says Time Warner doubled the staff recently. Then they may be referred to the local center if the problem requires a repair visit. Bailey says the local staff has grown from 11 to 28 since Dec. 31.

It is adding equipment and has changed the company that staffs its help desk to try to keep up.

"We can't afford, Time Warner or Road Runner, to have a bad name," Bailey said, acknowledging that the cable TV industry has long had a reputation for poor service.

I signed up for Road Runner in April, and probably don't push the system as much as others do. It is my seventh online or Internet service in eight years (Prodigy, CompuServe, AT&T, GTE, WOW and America Online).

I've had mixed results in calls to the Road Runner help desk. The most frustrating: Trying to set up a personal Web page and failing despite following Road Runner's instructions. I gave up.

When I bought a computer recently, it came with a $100 rebate offer if I signed up for its Internet access. So I did. I got a busy signal on the first try, a reminder of one of the frustrations that led me to Road Runner.

Scott Smith, a computer draftsman in Lutz, says Road Runner's help is worse than other Internet service providers he has tried. While Bailey says Road Runner has someone monitoring the newsgroups and addressing complaints, Smith says information has been scarce.

"They just never tell anyone what's going on," Smith said.

The complaints have sparked spirited comments in the newsgroups, and brought forth supporters, as well.

"Why not drop your RR connection and go back to a 56k modem and quit griping?" one message asked.

Said another: "'If you really look at the posts here you will see that it's generally the same people posting . . . The postings in this group do not represent the vast majority of RR users."

Road Runner is not the first service to suffer growing pains. America Online caught the wrath of consumers several years ago for busy signals and slow service when it couldn't handle the number of subscribers signing up.

But Harting, the software developer, says he expected Road Runner technical problems and customer service glitches when the service began.

"I didn't expect to see it today," he said, "and I didn't expect the disdain they have for customers."

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