There’s been no shortage of Comcast horror stories in the media of late, the company promising time and time again that it has made customer service a top priority under the careful watch of a new “Customer Experience” VP. Except despite ten years of these promises and what seems like an endless parade of horrible PR, the customer satisfaction rankings for companies like Comcast are actually getting worse. That’s because with no serious competition forcing their hand and regulatory capture ensuring nobody tries to fix things, there’s simply no organic penalty for being historically awful at what they do.
While these kinds of stories are a dime a dozen, the Consumerist recently posted what I think is the near perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with the U.S. broadband market. The website tells the story of a Washington State resident named Seth, who purchased a new house after being told by Comcast (several times, according to a FAQ the user is maintaining) that the house was ready for broadband service. Of course once he moved in he was told that neither Comcast or regional telco CenturyLink could provide him service.
On it’s face that’s not necessarily a big deal — broadband coverage gaps are common, as are inaccurate service databases. It’s the experience the customer has with customer service after the fact that perfectly illustrates the utterly abysmal state of the U.S. broadband industry, and the way carriers’ left hand (or right hand, or left foot, or brain) usually doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Seth notes it actually takes months and more than three Comcast technician visits for the company to realize the house has never been serviced before:
“He just appeared out of nowhere and asked us where our cable box was,” writes Seth. “We explained that we didn’t have one, but that we did have a Drop Bury Request in place. He looked perplexed. He told us that there was no way a Drop Bury Request could possibly get us hooked up, we were too far away from the cable infrastructure. We asked him to contact someone at Comcast to get things resolved, and he left.”
Then on Feb. 9 another tech showed up — at least this one was on schedule — but just like his predecessors, this guy had not been given the memo that the house was not yet connected to the Comcast network. He was just there to hook up a modem and some cable boxes. Several days later — and again without an appointment — yet another Comcast tech showed up to do an install that simply couldn’t be done.”
From there, Seth has to stumble through layer upon layer of what can only be described as total, relentless absurdism, including countless conversations with Comcast support personnel, on site engineering visits, phantom appointment cancellations and claims by Comcast that he’d had a successful install when no work had actually been done. From there it goes beyond “horror story” and well into Terry Gilliam “Brazil” territory, with Comcast at several points being totally unaware of his work order status, whether his house has service, whether the house could get service, and frankly, what planet Seth lives on.
After initially being told he could pay part of the $50,000 to $60,000 needed to do a coax and hardware run to his house (pretty common for rural cable customers just out of range), Seth ultimately has to give up months later, after the company finally concludes the ROI on the work isn’t worth Comcast’s time, even with Seth and his neighbors footing the lion’s share of the bill. Seth then turns to regional telco CenturyLink in the hopes it could offer something vaguely resembling a sane business transaction, since their website claims he can get service. Yet somehow, his experience actually manages to get worse:
“But then the next day he got a call informing him that his area was in “Permanent Exhaust” and that CenturyLink wouldn’t be adding new customers. Of course, that didn’t stop CenturyLink from billing Seth more than $100 for service he never received and will never be able to receive. Seth then had to convince someone with CenturyLink’s billing department to zero out the account that should have never been opened.”
At one point, The Consumerist tries to lend Seth a hand and contacts CenturyLink on his behalf, only to be told by the support rep they can’t help because they’re leaving the company. Said rep then decides to forward on the complaint to a manager — who winds up being on a multi-week vacation. Ultimately, CenturyLink has to admit that their website has inaccurate data regarding its coverage area (data that hasn’t been corrected to date). CenturyLink, it should be noted, has played a starring role in protectionist state level legislation preventing neighborhoods like Seth’s from building their own networks, even in cases where CenturyLink refuses to service them.
With telecommuting to do and the daily usage caps of satellite broadband not an option, Seth’s currently stuck on a capped and very expensive Verizon LTE plan until he can figure out what to do with the house. As we’ve been discussing, AT&T and Verizon have been backing away from DSL in the hopes of shoveling customers just like Seth on to capped, very expensive LTE plans — in the process actually making already dismal fixed-line competition actually worse. Ultimately, this lack of competition means these companies don’t have to care whether you like their service — or their Kafka-esque support. You will, whether you like it or not, take exactly what they’re willing to give you.