The Incredible Incompetence of Comcast

What happens when economies of scale are taken to ridiculous proportions? The wretched customer service of Comcast, AT&T, Etc.

We recently had to move our Institute for Local Self-Reliance office within Minneapolis due to our old building being razed shortly for student condos. Given the paucity of choices, we are stuck with Comcast as our ISP (the other option is a slower, less reliable CenturyLink DSL connection).

Dealing with Comcast for the move has been a reminder why communities are smart to build their own networks. They can ensure a much better customer experience because they are not so unmanageably large. In telecommunications, some scale is desirable because key costs are somewhat fixed. Regardless of how many subscribers a network has, it has to advertise, do tech support, keep the network functioning, and more. Spreading those costs across a wide base makes sense.

But when you take it to the levels of national carriers, you end up with customers having to call India to talk to a living human. After enough complaints, some of those jobs have come back to the US, but customer satisfaction remains elusive because of the difficulty of managing tens of millions of customers on probably hundreds of different internal systems -- most of which do not talk to each other.

To ensure continuity of service for our office, we installed business-class service at our new location before we moved. We were told that on the day of the move, we could switch our static IP from the old location to the new with just our account number and the MAC address of the Comcast modem already installed in the new location.

On that day, I called Comcast with that information and was told I needed to have our "new" account number. I said that we didn't know anything about a "new" account number as we were moving our service and they specifically told us that we only needed the Mac addy and the account number we have long used.

Comcast Anchor on Economy

The Customer Service Rep could not tell me the new account number. I asked if he could find it with several different pieces of unique information I did have and was told no. It was not possible.

Frustrated, I said, "screw it," and just plugged old Comcast modem into the network, wondering if it would magically work with the correct static IP. And Lo, we were back on the Internets. All of them. Problem temporarily solved.

Of course, because Comcast's network is a last-generation cable product, it shares bandwidth among many users. We often achieved something close to the advertised speeds at our old location but our new location must be more heavily oversubscribed because the connection is noticeably slower.

After settling in, we called Comcast to figure out what equipment to send back to them and make sure we were only being charged at the new location.

Helpfully, when we supplied our "old" account number to the CSR this time, they were able to instantly tell us what the "new" account number was. Any illusion of progress was shattered when they insisted that they had already turned off service at our new location because they thought we were moving out of the location we had service at for 7 days to the place we had service at for years.

Of course, if they had actually terminated our new service, we would not have been able to call them over our VoIP phones, so we were reasonably sure they just had no idea what they were doing. As a side note, we originally tried to use Comcast VoIP service, but the lag was so terrible and their service so miserable, we switched to an independent VoIP company that does a much better job.

While they were trying to figure out how many ways they had screwed up (keeping us on hold for over 30 minutes), their network hiccuped and we lost the call. So we called back. They eventually got their act together enough to tell us we had to change the modem configuration, which resulted in lost connectivity briefly.

When it came back on, the modem worked but our router did not. It took another hour of us troubleshooting what the Comcast CSR had told us before it all worked again. For now. We are honestly expecting to show up for work soon to find no Internet connectivity and a note from Comcast saying that they transferred our service to someplace in Florida.

Comcast reality

Update: Sure enough, they shut down our service the day after I wrote this. In the midst of a staff meeting we were doing over Skype, we lost our connection. After a few minutes isolating the problem to Comcast's network, we called them. They informed us that we hadn't paid our bill by its due date. Again, we were confused because our bill was due on Oct 28th ... does Comcast employ precogs now? (If you don't get it, start reading Philip K Dick or watch Minority Report.)

Apparently Comcast's accounting system reset our bill due date to IMMEDIATELY NOW and shut down our service after noticing it hadn't been paid. Not that they bothered to notify us in any way. But after getting someone on the phone at Comcast, they were able to work it out. We only lost about 1 hour of staff time between two people - way below average when dealing with this wretched company.

In trying to sort through it all, we realized we have received three different bills over the past two weeks and though the lovely CSR suggested we had a credit on our old account, we cannot find evidence of that anywhere. No worries, we'll just waste more staff time trying to sort out Comcast's mess from what should have been a simple move.

Throughout it all, the Comcast customer representatives have been very helpful - much like I imagine demons in hell might be. "Oh, we are very sorry, but management policy is for you to burn for all eternity. I wish there was something I could do about it, but I just work here. Can I help you in any other way?"

So why are communities smart to build their own networks? Because they can make sure local businesses, residents, and nonprofit organizations don't have to depend on this kind of pathetic service.

Rural Broadband Stimulus Project in New Mexico Threatened, Saved

A last mile broadband project in Taos, New Mexico, encountered a temporary snag and appears to be back on track. The situation highlights the potential conflict created between federal and state entities. State officials acted to show their support and now expect the project to continue.

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) was awarded a $45 million grant and an accompanying $19 million loan from the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) stimulus funding. The project is expected to span about 3,000 square miles of New Mexico and will include smart grid technology in addition to high speed broadband to rural communities. From a story on the USDA website:

The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) “fiber-tohome” project will allow greater bandwidth, providing the quality necessary for applications such as telemedicine, teleconferencing and video sharing for education, business and entertainment. Once completed, the co-op’s project will make broadband service available to 29 communities, reaching about 20,500 households, 3,600 businesses and 183 community institutions, including hospitals, schools and other government facilities. Two Native American pueblos will also receive broadband service once the project is complete.

In September, 2011, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) included as part of a rate order that KCEC spin off its broadband business into an independent company.  J.R. Logan covered the story in the Taos News:

The PRC's original order stated that Kit Carson must create a separate Internet subsidiary to protect electric ratepayers from potential losses, or explain why such a separation was not feasible.

According to the article, KCEC received communication from the RUS looking for clarification on whether or not the order was entered and would be followed. The RUS wanted a definitive answer because divestiture would violate the terms of the agreement between KCEC and the RUS. The entire project was in jeopardy.

RUS Logo

According to another Logan article, feds froze funding last week for the project, which began construction in July. One hundred jobs halted immediately. With the potential loss of an additional 300 future jobs, the state PRC chose to act right away.

Jackie Jadrnak covered an October 16 hearing of the PRC for the ABQJournal North. The commission decided unanimously to remove the requirement for the spin off, hoping to save the project and get the money flowing again.

New Mexico’s utility regulators today removed an obstacle that had blocked funding for a just-started $64 million broadband project in northern New Mexico.

“We’re going to put this to rest,” Commissioner Patrick Lyons of the Public Regulation Commission told a crowd of people, who overflowed the hearing room into the hallway and lobby and cheered the commission’s actions. “We need to send the RUS (Rural Utilities Service) a message that we support this.”

If the project had been scrapped, the coop would likely have had to reimburse the $12 million already spent on the project. The project status looks to be restored and the community appears to be moving beyond this bump in the road.

Help Get the Word Out About Community Networks

What will we be talking about that the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver, April 5-7 of 2013? Lots of things, but let's make sure Community Networks are on the agenda!

The National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) is a great gathering of enthusiastic people who want to build a better media that reflect the values of all America, not just corporate America. Free Press organizes the event every other year.

For the next 10 days, we can vote on what sessions we want to see at the conference -- and the process is very easy. Jump over to voting.freepress.net, fill out a simple 3 entry form, click on the confirmation email that is immediately mailed to you, and select the sessions you want to see.

There are a ton of great proposals, but we are really hoping to see a few sessions on community broadband, so we have a few recommendations. Given the importance of the Internet to distributing media, we need to make sure this conference has a strong suite of sessions discussing how we can improve universal access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks.

Our top recco is a session we proposed ourselves, Community Broadband Creates Jobs, Choices, and Cost Savings.

Below are some additional sessions we are also excited to see. Regardless of which sessions are picked (some may be combined), we hope to see you at NCMR!

Community Broadband Bits 17 - Joe Knapp of Sandy, Oregon

Sandy has run a wireless network for over eight years and has just announced a partnership with i3 to bring FTTH to everyone using i3's technology to run trunk fiber lines through existing waste water and storm water pipes. We previously wrote about Sandy here.

Joe Knapp, the IT Director for the city of Sandy and the General Manager of SandyNet, is our guest on this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast - episode 17. He discusses how Sandy began offering broadband access to itself, residents, and businesses and how they expanded to fiber originally. And toward the end, he gives us the low-down on how the partnership with i3 is structured.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Port Angeles' "The Mesh" Up and Running

Citywide Internet will soon be available as a monthly service in Port Angeles on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Mayor Cherie Kidd, Police Chief Terry Gallagher, and Councilwoman Brooke Nelson participated in a ceremonial "cable cutting" event last week. The event was to celebrate the new network, nicknamed "The Mesh." Arwyn Rice, of the Olympic Peninsula Daily News covered the event in a recent article.

According to the Metro-Net website, a $2.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant funded part of the $3.7 million Wi-fi system. The network serves a dual purpose, serving public safety first responders and a separate level for public access. From the News article:

The public safety system allows police officers to track each other through the city so that they know where their backup is without having to call radio dispatchers.

They also can do their own searches on driver's licenses and license plates, check recent call histories and access reports, said Officer Erik Smith, who demonstrated the use of the system in his patrol car.

Eventually, the system will be patched into the city's security cameras and police car dashboard cameras — and potentially Port Angeles School District security cameras — so that officers will be able to monitor situations at City Pier from their cars at Lincoln Park, said Police Chief Terry Gallagher.

“The limitation is our imagination,” Gallagher said.

While access is free through October 31, OlyPen MetroNet will start offering a variety of plans on November 1. Mobile and fixed-point service will be available and range from $5.95 (some sources say $4.95) for one day to $37.95 per month. Every user will receive the first hour of Internet access free each day.

As we have often found, the spirit of collaboration and determination on a local level helped realize this possibility:

The extensive Wi-Fi system was possible because those creating the network had the cooperation of a utility system that already had the infrastructure in place, said Columbia Telecommunications Corp. founder and principal engineer Lee Afflerbach, who designed much of the system for the city.

The system that was created depended on the ability of the many public and private entities who were willing to work together, Afflerbach said.

“Port Angeles has unique character. It is small enough to work with but big enough to be real,” he said.

Afflerbach said he engineered the system for a major Silicon Valley city that initially expressed interest in a citywide Wi-Fi network but ultimately backed out.

“Port Angeles was the first to say, 'Do it,'” he said.

In September, Port Angeles received the 2012 Community Broadband Wireless Network of the Year award from NATOA for "planning and deploying an innovative, multi-use, multi-sectoral wireless network to serve public safety, consumers, local government and tribal needs."

Another Maryland Community Explores Network Possibilities

Not long ago, we brought you news about the status of the new network being constructed in Carroll County, Maryland. The County is partnering with local Maryland Broadband Cooperative to provide better service to local businesses.

Earlier this week, Brett Lake of the Carroll County Times reported that Westminster, a town of about 18,000 residents in the north central part of the state, will move forward with a broadband feasibility study. From the article:

The study will include an assessment of the city’s long-term broadband needs, a market and benefits study, analysis and business plan, a detailed installation plan and options for potential funding opportunities.

...

Among the scope of work performed for the study includes the likely long-term broadband needs of Westminster’s community including residents, businesses and industrial parks.

The study will also provide the city with the potential market for fiber-based voice, data and video services along with the opportunities and obstacles for economic development related to the fiber-based services.

The city will also receive a report on the benefits and risks of community broadband initiatives on various fields including education, public safety, healthcare, economic development and government services.

The study is scheduled to be completed within nine months. We look forward to following the developments in Westminster.

"Models for Building Local Broadband" Forum Archive Now Available

On September 19th, the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC) hosted "Models for Building Local Broadband: Public, Private, Coop, Nonprofit." Christopher Mitchell was one of several panelists who discussed local broadband options and challenges.

The presentors live streamed to 138 attendees with 93 watching remotely various locations and 45 at the Media Center. If you were not able to attend or stream the live event, you can now watch the archived version. You can learn a little about the event and watch it at the UCIMC website, or watch the YouTube video here.

Video: 
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Community Broadband Bits 16 - JD Lester and Larry Gates - Chanute, Kansas

Following the release of our case study on Chanute, Kansas, we have an interview with City Manager JD Lester and Director of Utilities Larry Gates for our 16th podcast -- Community Broadband Bits.

JD Lester and Larry Gates discuss Chanute's network and its impact on their rural community. As detailed in the case study, Chanute built a fiber optic and wireless broadband network to connect schools, public safety, and local businesses. And they did it all without bonding or borrowing -- an impressive feat with implications for many other communities that have similar needs.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Chattanooga Fiber Network Reduces Cost of Electricity to All Customers

The Chattanooga Gig continues to benefit the community. We have covered some of the jobs that it has created, how it has lowered City expenditures and improved street lighting, and the recently announced speed increase without hiking rates. Now, EPB can also boast about how the network has significantly cut power costs.

Dave Flessner from the TimesFreePress.com reports that, thanks to fiber enabled smart grid technology, Chattanooga's electricity rates are 5 percent less than they would be without the network. From the article:

“The savings from the smart grid and the payments from the telecom division to our electric system are exceeding our costs and that is helping save money for every customer of EPB, whether you are signed up for any of our telecom services or not,” [EPB President Harold] DePriest told EPB directors Friday. “If we hadn’t made this investment, your electric bills would be higher.”

In addition to savings for every electric consumer, the network has been wildly successful for its video, phone, and Internet offerings.  There are 40,000 users to EPB and its telecom division generates more profit than its 73-year old electricity utility. Chattanooga is ahead of the game:

EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said the [American Reinvestment and Recvery Act] stimulus funds helped speed the installation of the smart grid network from the original plan of 10 years down to less than two years.

“We’re exceeding the goals we set in our business plan,” Ferguson said. “We’ve stayed ahead of schedule; we’ve stayed on budget, and the number of customers who have signed up is better than we expected. The acceptance has been huge and that’s where the revenue comes from that we can plow back into our business and help keep our electric rates down.”

Chattnooga is regularly visited by community leaders from around the country interested in finding out more about their network and how they created it. Obviously, word has gotten out about the many advantages to owning such valuable infrasctructure. From the article:

With its extra $200 million-plus investment in its fiber optic network, EPB also is paying more than $4 million extra a year in local taxes and is attracting utility visitors from around the globe interested in seeing how the smart grid is working here.

The biggest advantage, DePriest said, is the potential to recruit businesses eager for the first citywide gigabit-per-second Internet service or the improved power reliability of the smart grid.

“This is going to end up being another competitive advantage for our city either as new plants are looking at Chattanooga or existing plants make their case for investment here rather than at other company locations,” DePriest said.

The best place to learn more about Chattanooga's fiber network is by reading our case study: Broadband at the Speed of Light.

SMBS Will Expand with 4G Wireless

We have shared updates on Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) as they roll out their fiber routes in Jackson and surrounding towns. Now, we want to share info about their use of wireless to compliment the fiber network. According to the U-reka website, LocaLoop, Inc. and its subsidiary, SynKro Southwest, will soon be working with SMBS to expand SynKro 4G wireless fixed and mobile broadband Internet service to eight rural communities in the region.

SMBS and SynKro Southwest collaborated on a six-month trial installation in Bingham Lake. Additionally, the pair continued to build out the network in seven other nearby rural communities. From the U-reka article:

"Coming off the Bingham Lake trial, we look forward to delivering the same high quality network performance and user experience to underserved rural areas  across the SMBS service territory,” said Carl-Johan Torarp, founder and CEO of  LocaLoop. “We are expanding the network to complement SMBS’s broadband  service as well as providing their customers with mobile broadband Internet.”

SMBS received $12.8 million in BIP funds to develop an FTTH network to Bingham Lake, Heron Lake, Jackson, Lake Okebena, Round Lake and Wilder. This latest endeavor will offer even more coverage to the local residents. Maps and more on the SMBS website.