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@Home Rolls Out Upstream Rate Limit

Some subscribers to Excite@Home's cable-based Internet service are griping openly about the company's handling of a forthcoming cap on users' upstream data rates.

News of the nationwide 128-kbps upload limit leaked out recently when an internal memo from @Home to cable system operators was posted to several Internet newsgroups. The document detailed the company's strategy for handling the anticipated public relations and customer service issues created by the policy, which the memo refers to as the ONadvantage Upstream Enhancement.

Currently, @Home provides upstream rates of up to 1 megabit per second in some service areas.

The memo coaches customer contact personnel to keep the new strategy "low-key in the eyes of the subscriber" and "to avoid talking about it to begin with if possible." The document also advises against using the term "upstream limit" or mentioning the 128-kbps rate.

@Home spokesperson Matt Wolfrom Wednesday wouldn't vouch for the authenticity of the leaked document. But Wolfrom did confirm that the company is in the process of rolling out the ONadvantage policy to all its subscribers, although he declined to outline the status of specific @Home cable system operators. @Home previously said it instituted a 128-kilobit upload rate limit on subscribers in Fremont, California, to solve performance problems in that area.

The purpose of the upstream cap, according to Wolfrom, is to prevent what he called "subscriber abuse," particularly the running of a Web server from an @Home account.

"You have to have an economic model where you're not giving away bandwidth. We don't want to fall into the AOL trap where you don't scale your management of your network. We want to get ahead of the curve so the subscriber group as a whole gets a higher denominator of service."

Wolfrom pointed out that the new policy will not place limits on subscribers' download speeds, which @Home advertises as reaching up to 3 Mbps. But some users, among them individuals who say they abide by @Home's acceptable use policy, are not appeased by this explanation.

Scott Greczkowski, founder of the Connecticut @Home Users Group, said it's the company's job to scale its network to meet demand and to deliver on its advertised promises. And he reported that members of the user group are nearly as upset about the way the company is communicating the changes as they are about the changes themselves.

"They call it a feature when it's actually a downgrade. They don't come right out and say they're implementing a cap; they just try to sneak it in. They're always blaming things on people abusing the network, but people are just using the network."

Last February, TCI@Home had to rescind parts of a new acceptable use policy after loud objections by subscribers. But the ONadvantage policy is unlikely to rankle many users, predicted Michael Harris, president of cable research firm Kinetic Strategies.

"Among a small group this is a lightning rod, but it's not a big deal for the average user. So for @Home to clamp down and police the network in a fair way is good news," he said.

Harris nonetheless criticized @Home for not having a higher-speed, premium service available for power users at the rollout of the ONadvantage policy. According to Harris, such tiers can better meet the needs of different market segments, but will be a challenge for cable access providers to implement.

@Home expects to deliver soon a premium service to be called @Home Professional. According to Wolfrom, the new tier will offer higher data rates and allow users to run Web servers and two-way applications such as videoconferencing.