High-speed MSN: Truth in advertising?

Customers ask why they are being sold more than they bargained for when signing up for MSN satellite service at RadioShack outlets.

When is the fine print too fine?

Some customers attempting to sign up for MSN HighSpeed satellite service through RadioShack stores say the terms and conditions have proven a little too subtle for them.

Microsoft (msft) and RadioShack announced in September plans to offer StarBand Communications Inc. satellite Internet access to rural customers in the United States starting in November. In the past two months, RadioShack has been taking pre-orders for customers who qualify for the service.

But RadioShack also has been informing customers interested in MSN HighSpeed that there's a catch:

Those who want satellite Internet access need to junk their existing computers and buy brand-new Compaq Computer Corp. (cpq) systems outfitted with satellite-compatible network cards.

"I was given all the details surrounding cost and installation," said one customer, Austin Myers, who was interested in signing up for the satellite service at his local RadioShack store. "I agreed with them, and at that point the RadioShack salesman asked which computer I wanted.

"That's when I was told that I must buy a new Compaq computer along with this service," said Myers, a systems professional with A M Engineering, based in Denver, Mo. "I explained I had no need of another new computer, as I have several, and just wanted the service and hardware/software to go with it.

"I was told that the only way to get the service is to buy a computer, that it had to be a RadioShack-supplied computer, and that it had to be a Compaq computer. I asked why and was told the reason was that the Compaq was 'specially' configured for the service.

"I then asked which Compaq computer I had to purchase. I was told that any of them priced between $799 and $1,499 would qualify. So much for 'special' configuration."

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the company has been forthright about its MSN satellite requirements since Microsoft announced HighSpeed in September.

At that time, Microsoft unveiled its deal to offer customers a choice of DSL- or satellite-based MSN Internet access service at 5,800 RadioShack stores with Microsoft Internet Center store-within-a-store areas.

"We've been very clear in all of our materials -- press releases, fact sheets and so forth -- that you have to purchase a pre-configured PC with the satellite service up front.

"That's a solution for right now. We're working out an alternative solution over the next couple of months," the Microsoft spokeswoman said.

Microsoft's September press release on MSN HighSpeed access stated the following: "Consumer benefits of MSN HighSpeed include a fast and always-on connection, hassle-free installation and service, and a great value for high-speed Internet access. All the benefits of MSN HighSpeed cost as much as a regular dial-up Internet service and a second phone line."

There was no mention in the joint Microsoft-RadioShack press release of the need for customers to purchase a new PC as part of the HighSpeed service agreement.

In the MSN HighSpeed fact sheet, there was one mention of the new PC requirement. The satellite service is priced at $59.95, according to the fact sheet, plus $299 for a satellite dish and two PCI cards.

In the list of requirements, "a satellite-enabled computer that can be purchased when service is ordered either online or through RadioShack retail locations for around $700 (monitor and speakers not included)" is noted.

A RadioShack spokeswoman, when asked about the Compaq PC requirement as part of the deal for MSN HighSpeed satellite access, said that RadioShack employees "should be telling customers (about the need to purchase a Compaq PC) up front."

She added that StarBand was working on a version of the service that would not require a pre-configured PC, which should be available to consumers some time next year.

She explained that RadioShack is requiring the purchase of Compaq systems because of a partnership agreement with the PC maker.

"The bottom line: In order to purchase this service it must be through RadioShack, it must include the sale of a computer, and it must be a Compaq computer," said Myers, the unhappy customer.

"I guess that pretty much closes the door on the idea of equal access. Isn't this the very thing the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) said wouldn't happen?

"Personally I feel like this is just one more instance of Microsoft trying to control user access, and finding a backdoor to the average user's pocket," Myers added.

Some customers interested in MSN satellite service noted there could be ways to circumvent the requirement to purchase Compaq computers. One noted that customers in-the-know could request RadioShack sales reps to sell them the StarBand satellite service directly. Others mentioned that StarBand satellite service also will be available through certain EchoStar Communications' DISH Network retailers, in addition to RadioShack outlets.