Time Warner Cable’s “new” modem rental fee announced earlier this month sent many of its customers directly to their computers, not only to check their modems – but to examine their cable bills.

The $3.95 monthly charge for Internet modem use does not go into effect until Thursday, but some customers in Western New York said they are already paying a modem charge.

“Time Warner has always charged a $3.00 modem fee,” one Hamburg resident said in an email. “I am currently paying the $3 monthly fee, and I have the bills to prove it.”

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, has subscribed to the company’s RoadRunner Internet service since 2008, and she uses a company modem. About two years ago, she said, the $3 modem line charge disappeared and it was incorporated into the RoadRunner package price. “My bill has never been decreased by $3,” she said.

Other customers who furnish their own Internet modems also contend that the recently announced charge is not new.

“I am not sure how the modem charge is new news,” said John Iorfida, of Clarence Center. “I have had Time Warner for years for Internet service, and they have been deducting a $3 fee on my bill for a modem because I have my own Internet modem. They have been doing that ever since I started my service with them. I don’t get it.”

The same for Denice Hughes, of South Buffalo, who also supplies her own Internet modem.

“I have bills from Time Warner that show they started this practice with my February 2010 bill and charged $3 per month,” Hughes said. “So I don’t understand how they can say they are just starting to charge customers this fee.”

Both Iorfida and Hughes are former customers of Adelphia Communications Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Its assets were sold to Time Warner and Comcast for $17.6 billion in 2006.

Time Warner Cable has an A-plus rating – the highest given – from the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York, said Peggy Penders, public relations director.

“They have 160 complaints filed in the last three years. Fifty-five of those were in the last 12 months,” said Penders, who directed consumers to the BBB website to find complaint details along with the business response.

The confusion over billing, Joli Plucknette-Farmen explained, stems from a pre-existing practice by Adelphia of charging customers itemized fees for modem use.

“Adelphia used to charge separately for Internet service and the modem,” Plucknette-Farmen, Time Warner communications manager for Western New York, said in an email. “Several years ago, after Time Warner Cable began serving those former Adelphia customers, we combined the service and modem charges into a single price to make it consistent with way Time Warner Cable charged existing Western New York Internet customers at the time.

“As we introduce the modem lease fee, these former Adelphia customers are paying the same price as other Western New York customers for Internet service, and have the same choice whether to lease a modem or purchase one at retail,” Plucknette-Farmen said.

Jeff Blyskel, senior editor, writes about telecom issues for Consumer Reports, said he paid $7 monthly to Comcast to rent his Internet modem. He cautioned consumers to beware of add-on charges such as the modem fee.

“Understand that when you see a price for telecom service, whether it’s for the phone or for a bundle or for individual pieces of it like Internet or TV, that’s not the total price you will pay. There are add-on charges – for equipment, for turbocharging your Web speed, for a digital converter or cable card. You should understand what those charges are, and they should be itemized, There’s an installation charge, an activation charge.

“Look at the back of the bill or on the last page,” Blyskel advised. “There should a fee schedule that summarizes the charges. This should all be disclosed to you when you sign on or on the website or in the company literature.”

Locally, notices of the modem rental fee were mailed the third week of October, Plucknette-Farmen said. Customers were also advised that they could avoid the rental fee by purchasing their own modem. The approved Motorola modems range in price from $53 to $143.

Phone subscribers who do not have Internet service will not be charged the fee, according to the company. Phone subscribers who are looking to purchase Internet modems should make sure the modem supports voice service, the company cautioned.

One Time Warner customer asked if the company would allow him to purchase the company modem. “It would seem reasonable if Time Warner would allow me to purchase their existing supplied modem as a reasonable retail cost of $50 to $75,” Robert Williams said in an email. “At $3.95-a-month rental, the payback is less than two years. This will save me having to buy a modem and returning the one I have from Time Warner.”

Customers have two choices, the company reiterated, and neither includes purchase of the company-issued modem.

Time Warner customer Sally Olow, of Dunkirk, is debating whether to buy a modem. When she called the company with questions, the retired social studies teacher was given some surprising news.

“They told me to make sure I buy a wireless modem, since I was getting wireless service,” she said.

Since 2007, Olow had been paying a $5 monthly fee for RoadRunner wireless Internet, a service she did not have – or want.

“I get everything online, so I don’t really read my bill,” said Olow, who was issued a $340 refund.

“I wonder how many people had been paying for a wireless modem without having one. If there are 100 people at $340, that’s $340,000.

“I always told my students to be involved,” she said. “If you don’t take some positive action, you’ll get trounced on.”