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French Court To Investigate Complaints Against Cybercable

A French judge this week appointed an independent expert to investigate user complaints of a dramatic deterioration in bandwidth at the ISP run by Lyonnaise Cable.

The company acknowledges that on September 20 it slashed bandwidth on its Cybercable network from 2mbps to 512kbps.

"They did it without giving customers any advance notice," said Bertrand Penn, president of LUCCAS, the association of Cybercable users that filed suit in county court on Nov. 30.

The 150-member association contends that the move breaches an equipment-deterioration clause in the one-year contract that Cybercable customers sign to get unlimited access for FF199 per month. Modem rental is an extra FF79.

"Essentially, the judge needed technical advice in order to decide whether or not the cut in bandwidth constitutes a reduction in performance," said Penn.

The company said the subscriber contract did not address bandwidth.

"The problem was that about 5 percent of our customers were taking up more than 50 percent of our bandwidth capacity, to the detriment of others," said Fabien Viry, a spokesman for Lyonnaise Cable. "They make big downloads, such as for Linux programs, and some customers had set up servers on the network, although the contract prohibits it.

The expert is expected to issue a report in the spring.

The company initially moved to have the case thrown out of court on technical grounds. Still, Viry said it was pleased with the decision.

"The specialist is not only going to look at bandwidth, but also at the fact that we've improved service for the vast majority of our customers and tripled network capacity," he said.

Penn said the company is confusing two issues.

"Obviously we're not against improved service," he said. "The point is that we signed a contract for access at a certain bandwidth and we want it restored to what it was before Sept. 20."

Lyonnaise Cable launched Cybercable in smaller French cities in 1996, waiting until late 1998 to take on the Paris market. The company halted marketing in May and promised to make changes, amid a spate of bad press citing abysmal service, and a LUCCAS-organized protest on its doorstep in eastern Paris.

In another move to clamp down on bandwidth use, in January Lyonnaise Cable plans to start charging customers that exceed the monthly 125MB download quota stipulated in the contract. Each meg beyond that is to cost FF3.

"Until now we had no way to meter use, but now we do," said Viry, adding, "Big users have been warned."

The company plans to re-launch marketing in March, boosting its subscriber base of about 28,000.

"You can't just arbitrarily change the contract and say, 'Voilà, that's how it's going to be.' That's no way to treat a paying customer," he said.