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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.

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Chattanooga's Fiber Network Praised for Great Customer Service

One of the main differentiator's of community owned networks compared to the big cable and telephone companies is customer service. Being rooted in the community, vested in its success, and employing local residents just means better, more prompt service. A prominent Chattanoogan recently explained

My last shout-out is to EPB Fiber Optics.  This is not a paid commercial, just an opportunity for me to brag on some people who know what they’re doing.  I am the first to go on social media and complain about whatever store or business is guilty of subpar service.  It’s human nature, and it often makes for a good story.  I started using EPB for my cable, internet and phone service about a month ago.  I have encountered three problems during that time, none of them major, but all beyond my level of expertise.  Each time, I called their help line.  Each time, I spoke to local people who did not put me on hold for extended periods, nor did they force me to learn a new language.  They always solved my problem within five minutes.  My blood pressure thanks you, EPB.  This is how it’s done.

We hear these stories frequently with community owned fiber networks. It is hard to do a national study that quantifies the benefits of better customer service, but if we could, we have no doubt the locally owned networks would bury the national cable and telephone companies.

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

AT&T Fails Big in Dallas, Makes Big Claims for Austin

Even though I regularly read examples of terrible customer service from the massive corporations like AT&T, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and more, I apparently retain the capacity to be surprised as how bad they are. The Dallas Morning News recently ran this piece: "AT&T Never Misses An Opportunity to Miss An Opportunity."

In a neighborhood with poor access to satellite services and miserable with Time Warner Cable, people were thrilled when AT&T proclaimed it would be investing in U-Verse. Even though U-Verse is an amped-up DSL service that barely competes with cable connections, people who are fed up with Time Warner Cable were excited for a choice.

Lo and behold, right in the thick of the CBS-Time Warner fight, I received notices from AT&T that Uverse was now available in my neighborhood. This is something I’ve waited more than two years for. I was thrilled. Finally, there’s choice! Since receiving my first notice from AT&T in early August, I’ve been inundated with AT&T offers. Dozens of pieces of mail have arrived in my mailbox. Clearly, AT&T wanted my business.

And I wanted badly to give it to them. I phoned one day after receiving my first notice. I signed up immediately for service. The friendly sales person told me because of high demand, she couldn’t set an installation date for sooner than two weeks. Whatever. Fine. We agreed on August 19, somewhere between 9 and 11 a.m. I couldn’t wait.

Only they didn't show. They cancelled. And they cancelled the next appointment and put him off time and time again. But now he has a date of when he will be able to take service ... and I'm not making this up. 12/31/2036.

Those familiar with AT&T's announcement in Austin may think that it will take 23 years to upgrade Dallas because the massive corporation is focusing so much attention on Austin where they are kind of promising a gig.

Karl Bode has long been covering what he calls Fiber to the Press Release from AT&T.

The company has made it repeatedly clear that they aren't interested in investing a huge amount of money in fixed-line networks when the real money is in wireless and $15 per gigabyte LTE overages. While the company has made much of "Project VIP" network investment project, their investment numbers for that project have been a lot of smoke, mirrors and very fuzzy math.

However, local folks tell me that AT&T is indeed pulling permits and doing something differently - so this is not entirely smoke and mirrors. Just mostly.

And over at Stop the Cap, Phil Dampier has a deeper dive into AT&T's pool of obfuscation:

The five-county Austin–Round Rock metropolitan area has a population of 1,834,303 residents. Assuming AT&T managed to offer fiber service to 100,000 residents — and that is a generous figure, that represents only 5.5% of Greater Austin. The old U-verse is still a work in progress in several Texas cities, so it could take years for AT&T to deploy fiber in Austin. Expect AT&T to start with the low-hanging fruit — multi-dwelling units such as apartments, condos, and other similar buildings, some that already have existing fiber connections in place.

We still have no idea what AT&T is going to charge for its "Gig" ... which will start at 300 Mbps. Don't count on AT&T to suddenly invest in FTTH in your town - much better to take action however you can to solve your problems locally.

The First Honest Cable Company

This video is really making the rounds - I have seen it on multiple lists and many have forwarded it to me. I found it hilarous, but be warned that it features salty language that may be offensive to some and is probably NSFW.

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Charter Losing Money, Cuts Customer Support

A Stop the Cap! story about Charter cutting customer service positions makes a point we make too rarely. Not that customer service from the national cable and telephone companies is terrible and getting worse, but that some are constantly struggling to make a profit.

Investors don’t think too highly of the company either. Charter reported a wider third-quarter loss in November, losing $87 million compared with $85 million lost during the same quarter last year. Executives tell Wall Street the company was in chaos before new management under Tom Rutledge took over operations. Rutledge’s priorities are to invest in new set top boxes, convert more of its systems to digital, raise prices on services, cut back on promotions and retention offers, and centralize customer support operations.

Imagine that! When communities have to make investments and suffer losses, they are accused of failing. Charter is losing money (and recently emerged from a bankruptcy proceeding) and trying to make changes to correct its condition.

This is what happens to many firms in telecommunications. Only when it happens to those that are owned by communities, they are besieged with claims that such a situation is somehow proof that the public cannot own and operate networks.

Note that others, like Comcast, are actually lauded by Wall Street for operating in areas with so little competition that they can increase their rates at will -- hard not to make a profit in that case. Which is precisely why existing cable and DSL companies push laws to restrict local authority to build better networks.

Fibrant Network Gains Subscribers Despite Technical Difficulties

As we emphasize time and time again, communities build their own networks because they have to, not because they want to. North Carolina's Fibrant network in Salisbury is no exception and a recent technical headache is a reminder that no network is built without problems developing.

Fortunately, Salisbury's strong reputation for providing great, local customer service is helping as it deals with service interruptions that are the fault of the gear that runs the network. 

According to an Emily Ford article in the Salisbury Post, there have been several outages this month. While some outages are attributed to unreliable access gear, the city is still investigating to determine what other factors continue to cause problems. The network currently serves 2,160 subscribers, with 220 of them being commercial customers.

A November 9th Post article on an earlier outage, noted the problem with faulty equipment. A statement from Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury also attributed the outage to a lack of redundancy, which has since been repaired.

While Zhone has been the access gear supplier, Fibrant is now testing Calix equipment. Calix has long been a favored choice among community networks and has a very solid reputation. This is a reminder to communities of the importance of due diligence in choosing vendors -- make sure to talk to other community networks about their experiences with vendors. All equipment is subject to failure, so a key question should be how quickly different vendors respond with solutions to problems.

This technical problem comes on the heels of political problems as Salisbury has been targeted by Time Warner Cable for attacks. Readers will recall how Time Warner Cable successfully pushed the Legislature to pass H129 in 2011, a bill to neutralize publicly owned networks

Even though there have been recent outages, more people continue to take the service than to drop it. From the Ford article:

The week before the outage, 23 new subscribers signed up.

"Despite the outage, our customer base has grown," [City Manager Doug] Paris said, crediting Fibrant staff's dedication to customer service.

Jury said Fibrant's trials are to be expected, especially with a network built from scratch.

A 24-year veteran of the cable industry who took over Fibrant in March, Jury said Salisbury's network is so advanced he refers to it as "bleeding edge."

With no blueprint to follow, Fibrant is breaking new ground, he said.