Thursday, February 19, 2009

Comcast Rant

Apparently, Comcast owns the equipment in the multi-unit building in which I live, meaning, they are my only option when it comes to cable TV. To be sure, I tried calling the other local providers, and they cannot provide service to my building. My wife and I both have cell phones, so we don't need a land line. But our building has one of those pager/buzzer units that allows visitors to call us from the front door, and allows us to unlock the door via the phone. My wife and I kept our cellphone numbers when we moved to Chicago, meaning that the pager/buzzer unit actually has to make a long distance call to reach our cell phones. And I found out the hard way that this pager/buzzer system has the most expensive long distance plan known to man. Because of this reason, we need some kind of local number.

Initially, we went with Comcast's "Triple Play" plan, which gives us high-speed Internet, cable TV, and phone service. The promotional rate is $99/month, which, sadly, is pretty reasonable for all those services in the Chicago area. However, the advertised price is a bit of a teaser, since it doesn't include equipment rental ($3/month for the modem) and all the various taxes.

After a while, we noticed something about their phone service: despite the fact that we rarely used it, it was often not working correctly: either there would be no dial tone, or we would be unable to receive calls. We don't have too many visitors, but we missed a lot of package deliveries (visitors are actually a simpler case---they know to call our cellphones if the buzzer isn't working; the delivery folks aren't that patient). A lot of the convenience of ordering food for home delivery was removed when we had to use our cellphones instead of Comcast's unreliable phone line: first by explaining our non-local area code (of which many restaurants are suspicious), then having to give special instructions regarding the effectively broken buzzer.

Feeling a general resentment towards Comcast, I embarked on a mission of reducing the amount of money I pay to them every month. My first step was to get rid of the $3/month modem rental fee. Since I had Internet and voice service through them, this required a special kind of modem---not just a "vanilla" cablemodem, but one that is also an EMTA (i.e. supports VOIP voice-over-IP). The Comcast-supplied modem was an Arris TM402P. After a bit of research, I came to believe that they would support the Motorola SBV5220, so I bought one on eBay.

When I received the modem, I spent about three hours on the phone with Comcast, trying to get it to work. At one point, the Internet was working; then the technician to whom I was speaking swapped two configuration parameters, and it stopped working. At this point, he decided he needed more information on the modem: where did I get it? He had to go to his supervisor who said that they needed to perform an "equipment research" on the modem. I had to fax them my proof of purchase (eBay invoice). A few days later, they got back to me and said that the modem isn't one of theirs, so I can't use it! To this day, I am convinced that if the person I was working with hadn't misconfigured their system, the modem would have worked fine. I have no way to prove this, but I truly believe they were simply refusing to let me use my own modem on a bogus reason. (Note: I abbreviated this story somewhat; see here for some forum posts where I go into more detail. What's also curious is that they'll let you use your own modem for Internet service, but not for voice.)

So I was stuck with Comcast's modem and its $3/month rental fee, and their under-performing voice service. Then I had an epiphany: VOIP, which allows one to have traditional phone service over the Internet. Skype and Vonage are two of the more popular VOIP providers; however, they are relatively expensive if you want to have an actual phone number that allows incoming calls from "normal" phones (i.e. non-VOIP phones, such as landlines and cellphones). This is our basic requirement: that pager/buzzer box in our building just dials a phone number whenever someone pages us.

After a bit more research, I found out that there are a lot of other VOIP providers; enough that it's easy to find one that has plans or a la carte services to meet specific needs. I went with CallWithUs. I basically pre-pay for outgoing minutes (I think the rate is 1.5 cents/minute), and pay $4/month for a local phone number with 3000 incoming minutes.

Back to Comcast: with them out of the equation for phone service, I can lower my bill in two ways: use my own modem, and drop Comcast's clearly over-priced, under-performing phone service. My wife called to have the phone service removed; I wasn't there for the call, but she said she was on the phone for over an hour! Actually, Comcast hung up on her on the first call; the second call required the hour of phone tree navigation, being transferred several times, asking to talk to the supervisor, etc... My wife was not working at the time, so she could afford to spend her time trying to get a better rate with Comcast. But what about people who have jobs and/or families?

Anyway, the phone service cancellation was approved. However, it takes 48 hours to process. I called within that 48 hour window, and tried to get my (Internet-only) cable modem (Motorola SURFboard SB5101) set up. We started down the process: I was gave the Comcast representative information about my modem, we did tests, but it wouldn't work. After discussing the issue with the supervisor, the problem was determined to be the outstanding work order on the voice shutoff. Okay, so I just have to wait out the full 48 hours, no problem...

On the second call (after the 48 hours), the representative I spoke to said he needed to talk to his supervisor before he could authorise use of my own modem. He came back and said that I had to return Comcast's modem before they could set up mine! I patiently argued with the guy for a while, then asked to speak to the supervisor directly. The supervisor repeated what the first guy said: they cannot set up my modem until I return the rented one. I couldn't believe it! I spent over 45 minutes arguing with him:
  • I said I've been through this process twice now, once with the VOIP+Internet modem, and again the previous night (when I was told I had to wait 48 hours). On neither occasion was I told that I had to first return the rented modem. I asked if this was a new policy, and he said no.
  • I also said, what if I return the modem, and come home and find out the new one does not work for some reason? Then I have to drive back to the office and re-claim it.
  • What if the office doesn't do the paperwork correctly, and says I didn't actually return it?
The supervisor basically stone-walled me. He kept saying, "I understand your concern, but I cannot do this until you return our modem."

I ended that conversation, then immediately called back. But this time I used different options on the phone tree. I got through to a girl who was very nice, and literally had me up and running on the new modem in less than 15 minutes! She didn't have to speak with her supervisor, she didn't mention anything about returning Comcast's modem... just asked for the information she needed, did whatever it is she does, had me do a few tests, and it was done. The call with her was the kind I expect when dealing with any company's customer service: polite, friendly, knowledgeable, competent, honest.

Based on my experience with Comcast, my theory is that a fairly large majority of their customer service employees are either grossly incompetent, or shady used car salesman types. My wife offered up an equally believable theory: that all their employees are instructed to flat out deny some high percentage of requests that would result in the customer paying less money to Comcast.

Sadly, my experience with Comcast is on par with the service and policies of the land-line provider I had back home (Ameritech, probably AT&T now). In my life, I have yet to have a positive experience with a big telecommunications company. Likewise, I've never heard anyone else relate a positive experience with big telcom. There are stories of above-mediocre service with smaller and/or independent providers. But these aren't available everywhere, and are facing increasingly monopoly-like pressure from the big players. My wife actually used to work for a small, family-owned telcom company: she said it is unlikely that they will be able to stay in business due to companies like AT&T overcharging for the leasing of their lines; companies like Verizon underselling them; and having no political clout with the FCC and local governments.

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