Tuesday, August 07, 2012

How Comcast Is Ruining My Stomach Wall

Comcast has the broadband rights in my hometown. They are a monopoly, and that is a Very Bad Thing. The problems take many forms, such as Comcast forcing me to rent devices from them for $10 USD each per month when I could purchase the equivalent technology for far less. That's just one of the recurring annoyances of being a Comcast customer; there are others. At the other end of the spectrum of evil is the ominous threat that Comcast may one day charge me an exorbitant fee to access Netflix or some other bandwidth-consuming video service as a means of twisting my arm to use the Comcast "On Demand" service instead.

Neither of those concerns are what's eating my stomach wall today, however.

We have Comcast's "Triple Play" package which includes cable TV, Internet, and telephone service. In early June, all three services started failing periodically. First it was about once a day, then it was more often. I called for service and was told that crews were working in the area and that was the probable cause. I was skeptical, but I didn't push for a service call.

Regarding my skepticism: How often do crews do work in the same area every day for a few weeks, including weekends, and accelerate the number of outages per day as they do so?

About a week later, the intermittent outages were still happening, and more frequently. I called again and this time they scheduled a service call. I don't recall when I called to make the appointment, but I think there was a few days between the call and the service visit. Not bad, in the big picture, but aggravating. If I had pushed for a service visit on the earlier call, perhaps the problem would have been solved already. Instead, I endured another week of intermittent problems, and I had to wait a few more days for the fix. In retrospect, I wish that had been true.

The technician arrived at around 3PM on Friday, June 22nd. He went straight to the cellar where the underground cable enters the house. He measured the signal strength and said there was a problem. He went out to a box near the street and did some tests there. He returned and said that there was adequate signal at the street, but not enough after it passed through the underground cable. He said the existing RG-6 cable was the issue. For the given distance, the cable should have been RG-11. The technician had no good answer for why the cable had worked fine for twenty-three years prior to the current problem surfacing. He said that the cable may have minor physical damage and that finally caused an issue.

I didn't believe him. I am not an expert, but as part of my job I manage the technology infrastructure of retail locations that use underground conduit for various signal cables, including RG-6, RG-11, CAT6, etc. I saw the underground conduit installed when the house was being built, and it was installed properly. The only thing in the conduit was the RG-6 cable, and there were no tight bends in it. The cable may have been damaged when it was installed, and it may have aged through freeze-thaw cycles, etc., over twenty-three years, but it didn't seem likely that would cause the intermittent outages. But, hey, he's the technician and he says the cable is the issue.

OK, where do we go from here?

He can't fix it. Comcast has subcontractors that install underground cable. He'll arrange for that process to start, and then they'll arrange for a Dig Safe survey and the other necessary steps.

I stopped him right there. There's no need to call Dig Safe or dig in the yard at all. Comcast should use the old cable to pull a new cable through the conduit. He says that won't work. Well, he qualifies himself, it might work, but if the existing conduit is damaged or they can't pull a cable through it for some reason, they'll want to be ready to dig a new channel for the replacement cable.

The lunatics are running the asylum.

There's no evidence—yet—the conduit is damaged. Pulling a new cable through is easy, and cheap, and it's best for both Comcast and me to pull a replacement cable through and see if that solves the problem. There are cheap ways to make a pretty good guess about whether a conduit is damaged: you pull on one end of the cable, and if the other end moves, it's likely the conduit is OK and you can pull a new cable through. Sorry, no can do, the only thing he can request is a new cable and that means Dig Safe and other steps and it will take a few weeks. He leaves and promises that someone from a separate contractor hired by Comcast will contact me. It will take a minimum of three weeks to get it resolved. That's awful, but again, in retrospect, I wish that had been true.

The contractor calls me relatively soon after that. He says they will use the existing conduit if they can. They will do the site visit to assess the situation within two weeks, and then schedule the actual replacement. I don't understand why they won't send a crew to (A) see if pulling a new cable will work and (B) do the survey for digging a channel for a new cable if pulling a cable won't work. That's one visit instead of two, less cost for Comcast, and a faster resolution for me. It must make too much sense, because that's not the way they do it.

Two weeks later, orange paint and little flags show a path from the electrical box near the street across my lawn to the house. Evidently, Dig Safe has paid a visit. I call the underground cable contractor and leave a message: when can you schedule the cable replacement now that Dig Safe has done their thing?

A few days go by and the contractor doesn't reply, so I call again. I leave a message.

I get a call back the next day, which was Tuesday or Wednesday last week, more than a month since the original trouble call to Comcast. The underground contractor says that he is waiting for Comcast to authorize the work.


I'm guessing here, but the screwed up Comcast process has resulted in way more effort—and cost—than necessary to replace the cable, and spending decisions have to get approved by someone, and that someone doesn't give a crap that having all three services go down in the final heat of the Men's 100 Meter Dash is a Very Bad Thing. What's especially annoying is that Comcast has a quadrillion commercials during the Olympic coverage bragging about their service.

I got a letter from Lorna Edwards of Comcast on July 13th telling me to call her if there's an issue the underground cable contractor can't resolve. I leave a message for her that explains the basics. She doesn't call me back. I call her again, explain the basics, and she doesn't call me back.

I call the main Comcast customer support number to try and get around the unresponsive Ms. Edwards. The resulting call is worse than the old Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine, and that's only after waiting forty-seven minutes to talk to Abbott. First, I spent two minutes navigating their touchtone menus. Then I waited forty-five minutes to talk to a live person. Next, I have to repeat to him my home telephone number because his system doesn't pop that information on his screen when the call is routed to him. I ask, why does the system ask me to enter it if a human is going to ask me to repeat it later? He says it may be because I used a cell phone to call, not the main telephone number associated with the account. I explain that the main telephone associated with the account is part of the problem: I can't use it because when the Comcast service fails—which it does routinely—calls get dropped.

On to the meat of the matter, and frustration sets in immediately: he has no record of there being any outstanding service required at my location.


I explain to him the process so far. This takes time; the problem doesn't seem to fit into any support model of his. He tries to repeat things back to me, but screws it up. This happens multiple times. Here's an example.

"OK, so what you are telling me is that a technician fixed the problem back in June, but now it's back?"

I didn't say anything even remotely like that. I correct him; the problem was never fixed, the technician couldn't fix it, etc. He argues that his system says the June trouble ticket is "Resolved". I tell him his system is wrong.

This goes on for twenty minutes. I only argue with him because he says that he wants to send another technician to the house, a repeat of the June experience. I try again to explain to him that I am calling so that someone at Comcast will authorize the underground cable contractor to do the work. He won't budge. After a total of about ninety minutes I get so frustrated I hang up. I need to end the call because I was getting so angry that I was afraid for my health. As seen in the Urban Dictionary, "[Stress is] the confusion caused when ones mind overrides the body’s natural desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it." To be fair, I don't think the Comcast agent was an asshole. Will all due respect to our politically-correct times, I think he was stupid, and his stupidity was magnified by inadequate support tools.

Time check: that conversation was on Saturday, August 4th. The original call to Comcast was placed in early June. At this point in the story, I'd been trying to get Comcast to fix the problem for two months.

On Sunday, August 5th, I call the main Comcast support number. After the usual lengthy wait, I get connected to a agent. I immediately ask to talk to a supervisor. The agent explains that the supervisor's time is valuable—evidently, mine isn't—and so he'll gather some facts and then transfer me. As I expected, his system has no record that there is a problem at my location. I'm ready for that, and I tell him that his system has a record of the June 22nd service call, and that the record is wrong. After a few minutes, he transfers me to a supervisor named Sarah. She asks me to explain the situation to her, so as I suspected, the explanation I gave the agent was a complete waste of time. I went round and round with her trying to get her to accept that someone at Comcast has to authorize the underground cable contractor to do the work.

She also refuses to consider giving me a credit for the constant outages since June because there is no record in their system of problems on the line during that time. I point out that there is a record of a trouble call on June 22nd, a letter from Comcast on July 13th, and multiple calls from me from mid July to the (then) present time. She says her system doesn't show it, and the most she could ever authorize would be based on my call that day. I say I will bring the matter to small claims court. She says, well, that's your prerogative.

We return to the outage and how to resolve it. She tells me repeatedly that the only thing she can do is have one of the regular technicians visit the site. Given the outcome of the previous visit on June 22nd, that didn't make sense to me. I assume that the technicians follow a protocol, and one step in that protocol is to measure the signal strength at the street and then as it enters the building, and if that is not within an acceptable range, the cable between those two points has to be repaired or replaced. In retrospect, I should have accepted it.

I finally got the supervisor to accept that something else had to be done, but before she could tell me what would happen, the line went dead. I was on my cell phone—the Comcast telephone line is unreliable, remember—and it's possible that it was just a dropped call. On the other hand, it's possible she hung up on me. There was no other indication of a bad cellular signal. Anyway, I had spent 71 minutes on the phone and there was no clear outcome of what was going to happen. I had to call back.


I called back, fearing the worst: a long wait, another battle with a agent to get him or her to connect me with a supervisor, no reasonable expectation that I could get reconnected to Sarah so I'd have to explain the whole situation to another supervisor and argue with them about what should be done. Luckily, the wait was short. I got connected to Mary C., and I had the first pleasant experience of the whole ordeal. I did a brief explanation of the situation and asked to speak to a supervisor. She said that she could help me, and then echoed back what I had told her perfectly and told me what she could do to help. She agreed there was a big problem and she would make sure I got a refund based on the original trouble call. She promised to chase down the people within Comcast to determine how to authorize and prioritize the underground cable install.

I was ecstatic, but also in shock. Mary C. was the first person at Comcast who sounded like she truly sympathized with the situation. That would not have been enough, by itself, but coupled with her willingness to assume responsibility for pushing the issue inside Comcast, I felt there was finally hope that the issue would get resolved. She told me she would contact people via email that day, then she would call me back (unbelievable!) on Tuesday to give me a status report.

On Monday morning at 8AM, I got a call from the underground cable company. They asked me if they could come by that morning to replace the cable. (Whatever Mary did, it worked.) It wasn't really convenient for me that they come at that time, but there was no way I was going to refuse. They came and they did exactly what I expected: they spent about forty-five minutes to assess the situation and then they used the old RG-6 cable to pull a new RG-11 cable through the conduit.

I inspected the old RG-6 cable and I could find no damage. There were no kinks, no cuts or abrasions in the cable, no evidence of water damage, no bite marks from some critter or damage by insects. The cable looked new, which is what I expected given it was brand new in 1990 and it has been protected in the conduit, three feet underground, for twenty-three years. Is it possible the cable was bad? Yes. Is it likely? No.

After making the necessary connections, the crew asks me to confirm that everything is working. It is. I explain that the problem is intermittent so I can't be sure it's fixed, but they seem to have installed the new cable properly. They were gone by about 11AM.

At 12:20PM, the line went down and we lost all three services for about 30 minutes, a repeat of the problem we've been having since early June. The underground cable was not the problem.

The problem is not solved. I would like to call Mary C., and I know how to do that now (she told me), but Monday is her day off. I could wait for her to call me on Tuesday, but she was supposed to update me about the underground cable replacement, and due to her efforts, that is now complete. It seems to me that I should call Comcast support so they can have a technician come out and figure out what the real problem is. I have to repeat the story to yet another Comcast rep, and the guy is really annoying because he keeps giving me monotone responses that are supposed to make me feel better but just make it worse. His approach is totally unsympathetic and phony. He agrees that I need a technician to visit, and asks me if they can come Wednesday. I ask what time. He says they don't provide a time estimate for "pole work", i.e., work that is between the street and the house. I explain for the second time that the underground cable has been replaced and the problem isn't solved. The technician will need to get in our house to diagnose the problem, at least to measure the signal strength and probably more. He explains that given the way he has described the problem in the system, he can't get me an appointment with a scheduled time.

Perhaps you've seen the Comcast commercials where they promise to give two-hour windows for service calls, guarantee that they will be on time, etc. If you are still reading this epic customer service failure story, ask yourself how likely it is the guarantee means anything relevant to customers.

I ask to speak to a supervisor. It's outrageous that I should have to be home all day Wednesday after all the time an effort I have put into getting them to fix the problem. I start to plead my case to the supervisor, she stops me and immediately agrees to change the support call to an appointment with a predefined time. I ask her why I had to bang my head and kick my feet to get an appointment, and she has no good answer. The call is winding down when she drops in a nice little bombshell: I have to call back later in the day to confirm that the appointment is not canceled.


She explains that there is a service outage in the area and when that service outage is repaired, an automatic process will cancel all service appointments for the area. I explain that my service is working (it had come back by the time I got through to her) and that whatever the outage was, it didn't affect the problem at my house. That doesn't matter; the system is automatic and there's no way to defeat it.

My cell phone indicates that I have been on the phone with her and the other agent for more than an hour. I ask her how she would feel if she had invested an hour to get a service appointment and was told that she had to call back to make sure the appointment wasn't canceled. She doesn't answer and repeats the company line: this is how it works, there's nothing she can do about it, she has been instructed to advise me that it is in my best interests to call back later to determine if the appointment has been canceled. I ask to speak to her supervisor. She says she can request that a manager call me, but the manager will not be able to help. She explains that checking a service appointment is easy; you can do it without waiting for an agent. The system will detect that there is a service call outstanding and present an option to check on it. It's ridiculous that I have to baby sit the appointment to make sure it's not canceled, but at least the call to check it should be relatively short. Unless it's canceled, of course. She does not know the exact steps to check an appointment using the touchtone keypad, but she's been told it's easy. The call ends after 71 minutes.

A few hours later, I call back to see if the appointment has been canceled. There is no prompt to check on the appointment. Any rationale human would conclude that the appointment was canceled. I wait to talk to an agent to get the appointment rescheduled. After about 8 minutes—a short time by normal Comcast standards—I talk to an agent. He says the appointment has not been canceled. He cannot explain why there was no option to check the appointment in the automated telephone menus, but he think it may be because I called from a cell phone that is not associated with the account. I explain that I was prompted to enter the telephone number associated with the account early in the process.

Remember, this is a "triple-play" account: I have telephone, cable TV, and Internet via the Comcast service. How on earth could they make it a requirement that a customer call from the telephone they provide when the reason for the call may include that the said telephone line isn't working? I have no idea if that is really the requirement. For the purposes of this story, it doesn't matter.

The appointment is still in force, but I'd wasted another eleven minutes to confirm it.

OK, we've caught up to the present. Today is when Mary C. promised to call me with an update. I got home from a morning meeting and Mary C. from Comcast has called three times. (She's great!) I asked her to call my cell phone, but she called our home telephone instead. So far, that's the only mistake on her part. I couldn't call her back directly—a (deliberate?) limitation of the Comcast system—but I could call support and ask them to send her a message so she would call me back. I called support, there was only a short wait, and after seven minutes, the message was on the way to Mary C. She called back in thirteen minutes; she was on a call with another customer. She got an update from me and said she would keep the issue in her active folder and would check back again after the service visit tomorrow. I thank her. Nothing major accomplished, but I feel more confident that whatever is required between now and the final solution, it will go more smoothly with Mary's help. She represents ownership of the issue on the part of Comcast.

So, as things stand, the problem is not fixed. Hopefully, the technician who visits tomorrow will find the actual problem.

From what I can tell, Comcast needs a lot more people like Mary, and not solely because it's been incredibly easier for me to interact with her compared to everyone else.

On the first call I made on Sunday, August 5th, I spent about 30 minutes waiting to talk to an agent, then I spent a total of 41 minutes talking to two different people. They didn't help me. On the second call, I got lucky and got Mary, and the call was 19 minutes of which about 14 minutes were actually spent talking to her. If she spent 16 minutes sending email messages and doing other post-call steps to get the right resources at Comcast working on the problem, her total time investment would equal the 30 minutes I wasted with the two ineffective agents on the first call that day. I suspect she spent less than 16 minutes. It's a win-win: more agents like Mary would mean customers would spend less time on the phone and they'd feel confident that Comcast owned the problem and would solve it. Comcast would save money because agents would spend less time helping customers, even if you include time spent after the call.

Unfortunately, Comcast doesn't seem to have many people like Mary, and its support systems make the problem far worse. The acid eating its way through my stomach wall since early June is evidence.

UPDATE: Thursday, August 9th, 2012

A technician and a supervisor visited my house yesterday. They found a minor problem and fixed it, but they did not think the minor problem was causing the outages. They said the signal strength was fine and the signal was very clean, i.e., little to no interference. They didn't understand why the system was failing intermittently. They replaced my old cable modem as a precaution.

As they were finishing up, we got very lucky: the system went down. The technician traced the signal and the problem was outside the house. He went out to the "tap" where the underground cables for six homes in the neighborhood connect to the wider network. There was no signal there, and that indicated that there was a problem further upstream. As he was looking at things, he got a call from someone else at Comcast who was monitoring the signals in the area. That person said a node had failed somewhere outside the neighborhood. The technician and the supervisor left. The system was going up and down, but it was a good experience overall. The two guys were friendly and competent, and the lucky timing of an outage while they were here really narrowed things down.

About twenty minutes after they left, another Comcast employee knocked on my door. He said he replaced an amplifier at the node that failed. He wasn't completely certain that the amplifier was the problem, but he was pretty sure. There have not been any outages since then, and that's a good sign.

If the failing amplifier is the cause of the outages, then all the homes in my neighborhood were affected. The service technician said there were no service issues reported by my neighbors. He suspected that they didn't use the system as much as I do—I work from home—so they didn't notice some outages and ignored the others. If they had complained, it would have helped immensely because it would have indicated that the problem was at the tap or upstream. Comcast would not have bothered to replace the underground cable, and that would have sped things up.

I think the problem is resolved. I sure hope so!

UPDATE: Saturday, November 10th, 2012

The problem was fixed by changing the amplifier, and service was reliable for a few weeks after that. I got a one-month refund for my trouble.

At the end of the August, Verizon completed the FIOS installation in my neighborhood and we became eligible for that service. I decided to switch from Comcast cable to Verizon FIOS. While I had no illusions that Verizon would deliver their service flawlessly, I had to switch as a (mostly symbolic) protest of the awful service I received from Comcast. The FIOS install wasn't exactly smooth, but the installers worked through the issues and everything was working well by the time they left. I got a faster Internet pipe than I had before for about the same cost (see Speedtest.net results), and that makes a geek like me happy even if I don't really need all the speed.