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Unhappy Customers Picket France's Cybercable

Customers of French ISP Cybercable, whose service has been plagued by numerous technical glitches and bad press since its much-anticipated launch last year, this week gathered at the company's Paris headquarters to protest what they are calling Cybercable's inept handling of malfunctions and customer communication.

"Their service has been a complete technical disaster, but they continue to take our money," said Bertrand Penn, president of LUCCAS, the French acronym for "Association of Cybercable Users," one of two such groups to form in France.

The company has also faced criticism in Strasbourg. Penn said he had received hundreds of e-mail messages from Cybercable customers, complaining about such problems as unreliable connections due to insufficient network capacity, repeated service interruptions, particularly on news services, and lost e-mail. He taped printouts of several dozens to the glass of the company's vestibule.

The protesters brought old hard drives, network cards and a 24-line switchboard to present to the cable operator, which rents its infrastructure from France Telecom.

"Since it seems obvious to us that the company's technical means are insufficient, we made a collection to help Lyonnaise complete its repair work in an acceptable amount of time," Penn said.

The company, a subsidiary of the Suez-Lyonnaise group, reportedly fired its first technical team in February. Last week it suspended marketing in Paris, where most of its 27,000 customers live, until October to give it time to overhaul the system before adding to the load.

Among LUCCAS's demands is a schedule for improvements. The company has offered no compensation for service lapses, but did tell subscribers they could cancel their one-year contracts.

Still, analysts said Cybercable is confident it will not lose many subscribers, because with subscriptions starting at FF199 (US $34) per month for unlimited connection time, including both access and communication, it's easily cheaper than connecting via France Telecom's pricey local telephone network.

Cybercable users pay an additional FF3/MB after passing 125MB of total uploads in a month. They must either buy a cable modem for FF2,690 or rent one for FF79 a month, with a FF500 deposit.

A Cybercable representative met the LUCCAS members and accepted their equipment. He said the company would provide customers with a timetable on improvements to take place over the summer and would create user-contact groups to get constructive criticism. Judging from the email posted outside, it should get plenty.

"Cybercable has kept only half of its promises," said one message from a customer named Elisabeth. "They didn't keep their promise of rapid connection speeds and downloads. On the other hand, they promised to make a monthly deduction from my account, which they have punctually kept!"