My experiences with Comcast

I have been a customer of Comcast (nee Insight) for 6 or 7 years now, and I have had a few experiences which highlight the kind of company that they are.

I live in Indiana and I am recording this on August 23, 2010.

Independent contractors

Insight used to use independent contractors for all installation and troubleshooting (I think). When I bought my house 5 years ago, an independent contractor showed up to hook up the cable. He was a nice guy and did a good enough job, but he was obviously just a slackjaw with a couple tools and no particular expertise.

In July 2010 I happened to see someone who appeared to be an independent contractor (but maybe he was stealing cable for all I know). He ran a ladder up the pole near my house. Instead of leaning the ladder on the pole, he leaned it directly on the cable itself! To my surprise, he didn't immediately break the wire, so I let him be.

But a week later my cable literally fell off the pole. I suspect that while he was up there his ladder inadvertently severed the support wire that had been holding my cable up, so the coax itself stretched and eventually broke.

Employee technicians

So I called Comcast and two days later they had sent someone to my house and he had reattached the cable. Yay! That's a pretty good response time too. If only I didn't have the suspicion that it was their damn policy of using independent contractors that caused the trouble in the first place.

I noticed that my connection had gone from "bad" to "worse." I set up a monitor and determined that for between 1 and 12 hours each day, I would lose approximately 50% of the packets simply going between my modem and the Comcast gateway. So I called customer support and said that if the problem was not fixed, I would switch to DSL.

I despaired at the thought of one of those slackjaw independent contractors ever diagnosing the problem. I figured they would come out and say "problem, what problem?" and leave, billing me for the visit. I mean, the problem is intermittent and hard to explain to a non-technical guy (such as a cable puller).

But the next day the guy showed up and, to my surprise, he had a Comcast shirt, a Comcast van, and (more importantly) a Comcast signal analyzer. According to Murphy's dictate, the connection was behaving perfectly that morning and I told him "well, it doesn't work a lot of the time, but it's working fine today, I hope you can still figure out what the deal is." He hooked up the signal analyzer said "oh man that's way out of balance," and went around replacing all of the 1970s-era fittings in the line between my modem and the demarc box. He hooked up the analyzer again, it showed fine. And now it works, I've dropped only one packet between here and the gateway in the last week.

And I tried to tip the guy because of all the thorns he had to go through in my yard, and he rejected the tip.

So the independent contractors (including the guy who set me up in the first place, who overlooked the outdated components) range from crappy to criminal. The Comcast innovation of using employee technicians seems to be a real upgrade over the old Insight policy, but I think even Comcast still uses independent contractors for installations.

Fees

Insight had me on a $45/mo "introductory offer" which never expired, and Comcast continued that tradition for a couple years. But last year they started increasing my rates. First they added a separate "basic cable TV" package, which I did not use and they would not remove. Bah bundling! Then they added a "modem rental" fee of $5/month. And now my bill is around $70/mo for basic internet service.

But after a year of paying the modem rental fee, I became curious. I am a paper-trail packrat, so I found the Insight invoice from 2005 when my cable was installed. It showed an item labeled "modem purchase." !!

So I called Comcast, and what is remarkable is what _wasn't_ said:

Comcast: How can I help you today?
Greg: Last September you started billing me for modem rental, but I own my modem. And I know I own my modem because I have the receipt.
Comcast: Alright, please hold while I look into this.
... less than 1 minute ...
Comcast: Yes, our records show that you own the modem. Please hold while I calculate how much of a refund you are due.
... less than 1 minute ...
Comcast: We will refund you $56 for the modem rental fee. Is there anything else I can help you with?

The key part is that they already knew that I owned the modem! I assumed that they decided to start charging me a modem rental fee because they had queried my account history and determined (erroneously) that I did not own the modem (perhaps records got lost when they bought Insight). But in fact, they knew all along that I had owned the modem! The fact that lead them to start charging me the modem fee was their belief that they could get more money out of me by adding a fraudulent item to my bill!

Note the phrase "fraudulent item." It's not a coincidence, or a euphemism, or an exaggeration. They committed fraud. Apparently willfully!

I would be overwhelmed with joy at the opportunity to participate in a class action lawsuit.

It reminds me of this time I went to a Korean restaurant in midtown Manhattan. We were a large group and our bill was accordingly large, and they apparently counted on the fact that we would accept it at that. But we all threw in what we thought we'd et and we were still $150 short, so we started to examine the bill to determine which among us were being niggardly. We quickly determined that nearly half of the items on the bill were duplicates. So we asked the waitress about this, and her response was astounding. Without missing a beat, she said "oh, I will fix" and went into the back room and came back very quickly with the correct bill. We didn't have to point out the duplicate items, we didn't have to argue with her. She knew full well that the bill was fraudulent when she handed it to us. So on the way out, I yelled to the other patrons, "count your bill!" And today with this little web rant, I am yelling to other Comcast customers.

Performance

This is why I am still a Comcast customer. Over the last few years, my speed has been upgraded several times. I used to keep track of the upgrades as they happened. I remember not so long ago being tickled pink when they upgraded me from ~128kb/s upstream to 512kb/s upstream. But for a year now it seems like downloads in excess of 10Mb/s (that's the fastest LOCAL ethernet that I had in the 1990s!) is just an every day phenomenon, good for bragging to my third-world friends about and little else. Already my cable modem is faster than 802.11g in practice. If they continue upgrading at the current rate, they will exceed my 100baseT ethernet in less than 5 years. I'm not sure I even care!

I had a bunch of fancy firewall settings on my local machine that guaranteed that my SSH sessions would be low-latency even if I happened to be doing a full-bore upload in another window. The settings depended on the amount of upstream bandwidth available, so I had to update them every time Comcast upgraded my connection. About a year ago I was testing to see what my current upload cap is, so I could change the firewall. I was surprised to see that my upload cap had become so high that I could do the upload without delaying my SSH sessions even with the firewall rules disabled!

In other words, my upstream is now so fantastically large that I can pretend it is infinite. It is no longer a scarce resource.

Maybe DSL and "U-verse" related upgrades have made AT&T into a contender. But I'll tell you, the water on this side of the dam is plenty warm!

Update on April 7, 2011

Comcast gave my phone number to a company named Evergreen Sales & Marketting, 888-289-3188. Evergreen proceeded to call me 4 times in the last week, but with a dead line. Not even a tape recording. I finally decided to track down the source of these dead-line calls, and both Comcast and Evergreen have now added me to a do-not-call list. But I don't see how either of them thought this was a good idea in the first place! Searching for that phone number reveals that a lot of people are upset by this behavior.