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Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 9

Susan Crawford’s latest piece on municipal broadband discussed a real problem that mayors of communities can have a definite impact in helping resolve: the digital divide.

Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In Massachusetts, WWLP’s Anthony Hill reported on the small city of Leyden, whose residents may finally be getting high speed Internet access. The city is supporting a $2 million project, which will be up for a vote by residents this coming spring. 

The Monroe Courier reported this week on how 25% of Connecticut towns could soon be a formidable force against big cable. The cities are joining together to demand better connectivity and to make the state the nation’s first Gigabit State. Our story on Connecticut here.

“The response from our state’s towns has been overwhelming,” Consumer Counsel Katz said.  “I’ve heard over and over that municipal officials are frustrated with available internet speeds and the cost to their towns of upgrading internet networks.  These 46 municipalities have made the decision to take control of the situation.  From the high school to the town hall to the library, the demand for faster internet speeds and greater bandwidth is ever-increasing. Businesses face the same challenges, and we know more residents than ever are asking the same question: How do we get faster, cheaper, more reliable internet? Partnering with the private sector to examine the best way to build and finance these Gig networks is the first step in making them a reality in Connecticut.”

From California’s Mendocino County, we found yet another reason why communities should consider municipal fiber: residents there are still dealing with damage inflicted after an AT&T broadband outage left people with out phone and Internet for nearly 45 hours! Adam Randall with the Ukiah Daily Journal reported that officials say the outage was due in part to AT&T’s refusal to upgrade its copper wiring.

“AT&T's unwillingness to address repair issues in Mendocino County in a timely manner is something that has continued to irk [chairman of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, Jim] Moorehead, along with other officials, including Congressman Jared Huffman.

Some of the affected customers are now experiencing landline outages, with the biggest concern being those who are not able to connect with 911 in case of an emergency, Moorehead said.”

Joan Engebretson wrote about North Dakota’s surprisingly high fiber-to-the-home percentage

…because North Dakota is so rural, 96% of the state (on a geographic basis) is served by one of 18 small rural telecom companies – and those companies have made deploying FTTH a high priority.

The small companies’ rural status also has enabled them to benefit from several USDA programs. According to a report released in late December, the USDA has invested more than $330 million in broadband in North Dakota since 2009…

Brian Heaton with GovTech covered Iowa governor Terry Branstad’s plan to “connect every Iowan.” 

“For Iowa to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace, we must connect every acre to high-speed broadband Internet,” Centers said. “Not only does that mean connecting agriculture to high-speed Internet, but it also means making sure Iowa’s schools have the ability to give our children access to educational resources available online and main street businesses can connect with the global marketplace.”

Google and Title II

The FCC’s decision on reclassifying the Internet as a utility could be music to Google Fiber’s ears.

TechDirt’s Karl Bode again weighed in on how ISPs use utility pole rights to block both private and municipal broadband projects:

Bureaucratic pole attachment rights negotiations are already sometimes annoyingly cumbersome, but they're also one of many ways incumbent ISPs thwart competitive efforts. Municipal broadband efforts in Utah, for example, were hindered by a litany of Qwest (now CenturyLink) lawsuits aimed at blocking local community ISP Utopia from having access to the company's poles. In Austin, where AT&T owns around 20% of the city's utility poles, Google Fiber ran into some initial obstacles getting pole attachment rights because AT&T argued Google wasn't officially a telecom company. 

And Martin Blanc with BidnessEtc continued to explain how the search engine giant would benefit greatly from reclassification as Title II.  

“[Google Director of Communications Law Austin Schlick] told the FCC in a letter last week that such reclassification will promote competition in the industry and induce more investment in the sector, and will also promote the provision of broadband Internet to more markets.”

Reid Schram with Epoch Times broke it down to Google's bottom line:

“Google is asking for this because as they’ve been trying to roll out their high speed Google Fiber service to different areas, they have run into major problems getting permission to access things like utility poles and cable carrying conduits. AT&T and Comcast have long been afforded ease of access to these key pieces of infrastructure, as they are classified as a cable tv provider, and thus a utility."

2015

A couple of writers this week commented that America’s slow-to-the-draw connectivity may be a good thing– it could serve as a wake up call for communities that want to take back their local authority. 

Bruce Kushnick predicted 2015 will include a lot of hair-pulling by cable and phone customers: 

... There is one shining light -- A wise friend of mine once said, "It has to get so bad that people actually notice." With 4 million people commenting about Net Neutrality, the so called "ISPs" being considered the 'most hated companies in America' in 2013 and Time Warner and Comcast being the most hated companies in 2014 -- out-stripping every other industry, or that the major media actually used the term "Title II"-- maybe, just maybe, the sheep have woken up from their slumber.

But, right now, for communications, the year 2015 looks like it will just suck to be a customer of America's telecom-cable trust."

The Washington Post’s Brian Fung reported on the proposed new definition of broadband: 25 Mbps. He said that Wheeler’s recommendation recognizes that the government is finally catching up to technology advancements:

“In 2012, the most recent year for which the FCC has published data, 94 percent of Americans already had access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. While that may have been enough for most people then, it represents the bare minimum now."

Top of the Dung Heap Awards 

Tech Dirt’s Karl Bode and Erika Rawes with The Wall Street Cheat Sheet listed the Top 10 WORST businesses in 2014. Spoiler Alert: SEVEN out of the 10 from Big Telecom. We could have been knocked over by a feather by shear surprise… not really.

"It’s frustrating. And although the customer service rep claims to “understand you are frustrated today,” there is only so much these reps can do, given they are trained to utilized the most inexpensive and cost-effective potential “solutions” for the business, as opposed to doing what’s easiest and most convenient for the customer.

On top of the fact that customer service reps are often trained to lean toward inexpensive solutions that drive customers crazy, most reps are also working for sub-par wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), customer service reps are paid median hourly wages of around $14.85 per hour and those on the lower end of the wage scale earn less than $9.50 per hour. However, in 2001, the median hourly wage for these representatives was $12.23 — or $16.31 in today’s money.

Not only have wages declined for these workers, automated systems and online systems have reduced the need for them. Sure, customers want human interaction, but they also want that interaction to be friendly and productive. This personal and friendly interaction is something so many businesses lack."

But you can take (some) solace in this: you may now find it easier to complain about that telephone and cable service! 

The FCC unveiled its new “one-stop shop” complaint site for filing and tracking complaints about robocalls and fraudulent charges. Teresa McUsic with SavvyConsumer gave a full list of where and how to complain early, and often.

Ting to Offer Fiber Internet Service in Charlottesville

Comcast may be an ISP Goliath, but a new David will soon move to Charlottesville. Tucows Inc., recently announced that it plans to begin serving as an ISP in the area and will eventually expand to other markets.

In a Motherboard article, CEO Elliot Noss said:

"At the simplest level, we'll be offering a lot more product for the same price, and a much better customer experience. We want to become like a mini Google fiber."

The company began in the 1990s and is known for registering and selling premium domain names and hosting corporate emails accounts. Two years ago they ventured into wireless cell service and were immediately praised for their top notch customer service and no-frills billing. Tucows promises to fill the customer service gap left by incumbent Comcast, one of the most hated companies in America.

Tucows will operate its Internet service under its cellular brand, Ting. It will take over existing fiber infrastructure owned by Blue Ridge InternetWorks and will begin serving customers as early as the first quarter of 2015. Ting hopes to be able to charge less than $100 per month for gigabit fiber service. Comcast charges $90 per month for 50 Mbps and CenturyLink charges $40 per month for 10 Mbps in Charlottesville.

As far as "fast lanes" go? From the Motherboard article:

Noss said that the company is dedicated to net neutrality as a "sensible business practice" and said "it's our responsibility to make sure content like Netflix is fast on our network. We're not looking for content providers to pay us in a double-sided fashion."

Ting reaffirms that philosophy on the Ting Blog:

Tucows believes very strongly in the open Internet. Up until now, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do but educate, agitate and contribute. Getting into fixed access, owning our own pipe, is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach when it comes to the open Internet and net neutrality.

Noss told Motherboard the company is looking beyond Charlottesville and taking input from an interested public at their website. They will first look at partnering, buying infrastructure, and leasing fiber from local governments. From the article:

"The one thing we won't do is spend a lot of time convincing people of the need for a fiber network,” he said. “We think that's a waste of time, and I think people already see the value.”

Can you Satirize Poor Customer Service from Big Cable Companies - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 130

Given all the horrible experiences people have had over the telephone with massive cable companies, it isn't clear that one can design a skit to parody such a conversation. Each time someone calls one of these companies is a parody in and of itself. However, given that this is a holiday week, we decided to have some fun and record two such conversations using some of real interactions we have had.

The first call is reflective of many attempts we have had in trying to ascertain prices for common services from cable and telephone companies. The second call, starting at about 10:30 into the show, involves someone calling in to have a repair scheduled, this was inspired by and fairly closely mimics what he went through after a neighbor's tree fell on his cable line, severing it from his house.

Just before posting this show, a colleague shared a hilarious comic from Pearls and Swine covering cable sales practices.

Next week, we will have a year-end conversation that itself ends with some predictions for 2015. After that, we will back to normal guests and our normal format. Enjoy the holidays!

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Let us know if we should try something like this again next year or for the 4th of July... or if we should stick to our knitting! Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama." We also use a dial tone sound in this recording from Sound Bible.

Boo! Share Your Comcast Horror Stories With Media Mobilizing Project

It was a dark and stormy night... A woman screamed! A shot rang out! You are gripped by the terror of your Comcast bill! No! No! Nooooo!

The Media Mobilizing Project knows how dealing with the most-hated company in America sends shivers up your spine. Now they want you to share your stories of terror at #Comcast HorrorStory. You can also find them on Facebook and relate your tales of bloodcurdling cable butchery.

More on the campaign:

Tell us your Comcast Horror Story! We at Media Mobilizing Project and CAPComcast.org know that many people have horrible times trying to get affordable rates and reliable service for their Comcast cable and internet.

In honor of Halloween, we want to hear your Comcast horror story! Did your bill make your blood boil? Does Comcast’s attempt to merge with competitor Time Warner Cable send chills down your spine? Tell us now, and on Halloween day we’ll share snippets from the top-10 scariest Comcast stories we see.

At the same time, we think it is "horror"-ble that Comcast pays less than 1/3 of the average taxes other PA businesses pay, with huge tax breaks on their headquarters in Philly -- while our City shutters public schools and cuts education to the bone.

You can also go to the CAPComcast.org website to share your story and sign their petition.

Can we handle the carnage? Only time will tell...

Cities in Kentucky and Massachusetts Want a Say In Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

As the feds continue to evaluate the wisdom of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, local communities in several states are attempting to throw a wrench in the federal approval machine.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the City Council recently refused to approve the transfer of the city's cable television license to Comcast. In order to sweet-talk the federal agencies concerned the merger may create too much market concentration, Comcast has worked out a deal with Charter Communications to transfer customers in certain geographic areas. Charter is the current incumbent in Worcester. 

According to a Telegam & Gazette article, the City Council does not need to approve the transfer for it to take affect. Nevertheless, the City Council voted 8-3 on October 14 to urge City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., not to approve the transfer of the license. If Augustus makes no determination, the transfer will automatically be approved.

The city can only examine the transfer based on four criteria including company management, technical experience, legal experience, and financial capabilities. Management and poor customer service are the sticking points for Worcester:

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country. 

"It's a terrible company," he said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out." 

A similar scenario is playing out in Lexington, Kentucky. The community is the second largest city served by Time Warner Cable in the state. They are concerned existing customer service problems will worsen if Comcast becomes their provider.

The Urban City Council drafted two resolutions denying the transfer. The resolutions had first reading on October 9. Customer service is, again, a point of contention.

According to an October 9 Kentucky.com article, the city proposed including a fine for poor customer service as part of the agreement.  The fine is in the current franchise agreement, but TWC will not agree to carry it forward into the next agreement. The two parties have been working on a new contract since the previous one expired in 2012.

From an October 7 article in Kentucky.com:

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said the city held two public meetings and also asked for public input regarding issues with the city's cable provider.

The city received "reams" of negative feedback from citizens, she said "It's everything from equipment, to service, to cost or the inability to understand how costs are set."

Council members also want to ensure that the local cable office be open some evening and weekend hours so customers can seek help. They also want to include an existing provision wherein the provider maintains a studio for public access television.

"We want to keep these terms in our current agreement," Gorton said. "For our citizens, we are working hard to get a good franchise agreement."

Back in Worcester, community leaders recognize their limitations:

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said there is no question there is a need for better cable television service in Worcester, but added that federal laws are unfortunately geared more in favor of cable companies than consumers. 

"We can make it sound like we are taking on the big boys, but in reality this will go nowhere," he said. "People want better service but I'm not sure the council floor is the way to get better service. We are just bit players in a big play. It may feel good to vote this, but it may very well end up having no effect." 

Comcast Responds to "Break-Up" Call With Customer Service Rep

Comcast's Chief Operating Officer, Dave Watson, recently posted a letter on the Team Comcast employee site in response to the viral customer-retention call from hell, reports the Consumerist. In his letter to Comcast minions, Watson admits:

The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do.

Watson also expresses that the call was "painful to listen to" and vows:

We will review our training programs, we will refresh our manager on coaching for quality, and we will take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors. We can, and will, do better.

Just a few days ago, over at the "Comcast Voices" blog, Tom Karinshak, Senior VP of Comcast's Customer Experience, vowed to investigate and wrote:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize.  The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. 

Regardless of whether one chooses to believe the response crafted for Comcast employees or the one posted to placate the general public, is this the company we want controlling our online access? If Comcast is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable, we can expect more of the same.

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

Gigabit Network Expansion Moves Forward in Longmont, Colorado

Construction on Longmont's fiber expansion will begin by August 13th, reports the Times-Call. TCS Communications of Englewood, Colorado recently signed an agreement with Longmont Power & Communications (LPC) to deploy the gigabit network for $20,095,022. Completion is scheduled for 2017.

A July 14th article on the project noted that LPC and TCS will complete construction in six phases. A substantial number of potential subscribers will have access early in the process:

The first phase will be done in south-central Longmont, the area nearest to LPC itself. The work will then proceed into central Longmont by early 2015. At that pace, 11,147 of the utility's 39,061 customers would be able to get fiber service within a year of the start of construction.

Readers will recall that last November the people of Longmont voted to approve a $45.3 million bond issue to bring the network to every premise in the city. Chris spoke with Vince Jordan, one of LPC's champions, in episode #106 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Clearly, LPC is carrying on the customer service priority established by Jordan and the LPC crew:

"We set a high bar with regards to quality of work, customer service and timeline," LPC general manager Tom Roiniotis said in a release Monday evening. "We want to make sure it is done efficiently; we want to make sure it is done right."

LPC provides updates and a map of the project at its website

Early Lessons from Longmont - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 106

Longmont is about to break ground on the citywide FTTH gigabit network but it is already offering services to local businesses and a few neighborhoods that started as pilot projects. Vince Jordan, previously a guest two years ago, is back to update us on their progress.

Until recently, Vince was the Telecom Manager for Longmont Power and Communications in Colorado. He has decided to return to his entrepreneurial roots now that the utility is moving forward with the citywide project. But he has such a great voice and presence that we wanted to bring him back to share some stories.

We talk about Longmont's progress and how they dealt with a miscalculation in costs that forced them to slightly modify prices for local businesses shortly after launching the service. And finally, we discuss the $50/month gigabit service and how Longmont has been able to drive the price so low.

You can read our full coverage of Longmont from this tag.

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 via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Comcast Named the Worst Company in America, Gets Yummy Cake

Not everyone hates Comcast. Antennas Direct.com, helping cable TV customers cut the cord, recently surprised the corporate behemoth with a congratulatory confection. To our delight, they shared some moments from the experience.

The Consumerist recently named Comcast the 2014 Worst Company in America. Based on customer comments in the video, clearly Comcast deserves this prestigious designation. Do we want this company controlling our most important communications tool? Let them eat cake.

Video: 
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