Put plainly, Judith Hedges says she was bullied and intimidated by AT&T to upgrade from DSL Internet service to U-verse Internet. The Arlington woman says she was warned repeatedly by mail that if she didn't call the company and upgrade, her service would be terminated.AT&T wasn't kidding. She turned on her computer recently, and the Internet connection was dead.AT&T has found a new way to lure customers to its supposedly faster U-verse service: Force them to take it.Company spokeswoman Alejandra Arango says the marketing tactic is part of a plan "to offer a better user experience to our DSL customers. We are moving some who live in high-network-traffic areas to our advanced U-verse network."The benefits to customers, she says, are better speed and "the availability of other U-verse services and integrated features."What that means: more stuff you can buy.Hedges wanted nothing more than her quite acceptable DSL speed for online work and play. Then the letters started coming from AT&T with dire warnings:"This is a final reminder that within the next 15 days, your current service will change to AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet Service.""Contact us now to ensure a smooth transition.""Note: if you have phone service that depends upon your high speed Internet line ... this means that you'll experience an interruption of your voice service -- including 911 emergency services."AT&T urged Hedges to call the company and listen to "exclusive offers" and learn how she could "bundle your Internet, TV and phone for one low price."She didn't want any of that, so she didn't call.After getting that dead screen, she did call and was told that she had to take the upgrade.When I ran this scenario past Notre Dame Law School professor Joseph Bauer, an antitrust expert who opposed AT&T's failed merger with T-Mobile, his response was, "That's the kind of thing I would expect out of a small firm, not from someone like AT&T. It's pretty remarkable if they are indeed doing that. That's far over the line."What's AT&T's reply to critics who say that it's behaving in a heavy-handed way?"This is an effort to improve our customers' experience and offer the latest and greatest technology that we have developed to service their needs," Arango told me.As with most things related to AT&T, when you ask a question of two different people, you will get two different answers. (This is known as Watchdog Nation Corollary No. 1.)That's what happened here.Is the upgrade mandatory?The AT&T spokeswoman says the only DSL customers who don't have to switch are those in areas where U-verse isn't available.But I also wrote to AT&T's social media manager, "Mike," from the AT&T website, just as any customer can. Mike didn't write back, but "Kenneth" did."Most times you still have a choice in keeping your traditional DSL rather than switching to U-verse. I hope that's helpful," Kenneth wrote.Yes, very helpful.Two different answers.That leads The Watchdog to suggest this: If AT&T tries to force an upgrade on you, scream bloody murder.Tell them "Kenneth" says you don't have to. Even better, threaten to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (more on that later).Another concern: Is the upgrade free?The AT&T spokeswoman told me that "the large majority of existing customers we're reaching out to can upgrade to the same-speed package on U-verse without an increase to their broadband bill."AT&T's warning letter to Hedges uses the word free as a come-on, too, when it states, "In order for your new service to work you'll need new equipment which will be provided to you free of charge."Believing she had little choice, Hedges agreed to the upgrade "in protest," she says. Nobody told her about other charges.AT&T salespeople usually forget to mention add-on charges, and customers often forget to ask questions that would inform them. (This is known as Watchdog Nation Corollary No. 2.)When Hedges' first bill arrived, she saw charges she didn't expect. About $300 worth. Besides the $29.95 monthly charge that she knew about, she had a $100 charge for "Internet Gateway" and a $149 charge for installation. The equipment was free, but add in prorated charges, taxes, surcharges and fees, and the total hits $337."Now this is getting scary," Hedges says.AT&T explains that DSL customers who live in areas where U-verse is available will switch to new rates, terms and conditions (including bundle discounts). Meanwhile, DSL customers on term plans who'd face a price increase but who don't want to upgrade will be allowed to cancel without paying early termination fees.An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment about AT&T's action. She asked me to inform Hedges that she can file a complaint with the commission. "Apparently, this is the world we live in," Hedges says. "And AT&T reigns supreme."The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043Twitter: @davelieber
Filing a complaint
Complaints about telecommunications companies go to the Federal Communications Commission. Call 888-225-5322 or file at www.fcc.gov/complaints.