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AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

Small Texas Town Don't Need No Stinkin' CenturyLink

The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:

At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”

After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:

“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”

Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.

Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbps download and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:

“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”

Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:

“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.

Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave in another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Seth's Tale of Comcast Woe Perfectly Illustrates Many Internet Policy Problems

Ideally, working from home allows one to choose the environment where he or she can be most productive. In the case of Seth that was Kitsap County in Washington State. Unfortunately, incompetence on the part of Comcast, CenturyLink, and official broadband maps led Seth down a road of frustration that will ultimately require him to sell his house in order to work from home.

The Consumerist recently reported on Seth's story, the details of which ring true to many readers who have ever dealt with the cable behemoth. This incident is another example of how the cable giant has managed to retain its spotless record as one of the most hated companies in America

Seth, a software developer, provides a detailed timeline of his experience on his blog. In his intro:

Late last year we bought a house in Kitsap County, Washington — the first house I’ve ever owned, actually. I work remotely full time as a software developer, so my core concern was having good, solid, fast broadband available. In Kitsap County, that’s pretty much limited to Comcast, so finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.

We found just such a place. It met all of our criteria, and more. It had a lovely secluded view of trees, a nice kitchen, and a great home office with a separate entrance. After we called (twice!) to verify that Comcast was available, we made an offer.

The Consumerist correctly describes the next three months as "Kafkaesque." Comcast Technicians appear with no notice, do not appear for scheduled appointments, and file mysteriously misplaced "tickets" and "requests." When technicians did appear as scheduled, they are always surprised by what they saw: no connection to the house, no Comcast box on the dwelling, a home too far away from Comcast infrastructure to be hooked up. Every technician sent to work on the problem appeared with no notes or no prior knowledge of the situation.

It was the typical endless hamster wheel with cruel emotional torture thrown in for sport. At times customer service representatives Seth managed to reach over the phone would build up his hopes, telling him that his requests were in order, progress was being made behind the scenes, that it was only a matter of time before his Internet access was up and running. Then after a period of silence, Seth would call, and he would be told that whatever request he was waiting for was nonexistent, "timed out," or in one instance had actually been completed.

Seth usually had to be the one to make the call to Comcast for follow up. There was one notable exception, however on February 26th:

Oh, this is fun. I got a call from a generic Comcast call center this morning asking me why I cancelled my latest installation appointment. Insult to injury, they started to up-sell me on all the great things I’d be missing out on if I didn’t reschedule! I just hung up.

In mid-March, Comcast discussed the possibility of building out its network to Seth's house but he would have to pay for at least a portion of the costs; he was interested. Pre-survey estimates were up to $60,000. A week later, Comcast contacted Seth and told him that they would not do the extension even if Seth paid for the entire thing. 

Comcast was not the only provider Seth contacted. When he first learned that Comcast did not connect his home, he contacted CenturyLink. He was told by a customer service tech he would be hooked up right away but the company called him the next day to tell him that CenturyLink would not be serving his needs. They were not adding new customers in his area. 

Nevertheless, he was charged more than $100 for service he never could have received. Seth had to jump through hoops to get his "account" zeroed out. CenturyLink's website showed that they DID serve Seth's address, reports the Consumerist and, even though they have claimed to have updated the problem, the error remained as of March 23rd.

Official maps created by the state based on data supplied by providers, are grossly incorrect. As a result, Seth's zip code is supposedly served by a number of providers. While that may be true on paper, it doesn't do Seth much good. A number of those providers, including Comcast and CenturyLink (as Seth is painfully aware) do not serve his home. Satellite does not cannot the VPN connection he needs due to latency inherent in satellite Internet connections. He is using cellular wireless as a last resort now, but only as a short term solution because it is limited and expensive.

Ironically, Seth's new home is not far from the Kitsap Public Utility District fiber network. Because state barriers require the Kitsap PUD to operate the network as a wholesale only model, however, Seth cannot hook up for high-speed Internet. He would only be able to connect if a provider chose to use the infrastructure to offer services to him.

Here we have the perfect storm of harmful state barriers, corporate gigantism, and  "incumbetence." From his blog:

I’m devastated. This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if there’s any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.

This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn’t serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.

I don’t know exactly how much money I’m going to lose when I sell, but it’s going to be substantial. Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses.

So, good bye dream house. You were the first house I ever owned, I’ll miss you.

But putting all the blame on Comcast ignores the failed public policy that allows Comcast to act like this. Providers like Comcast lobbied legislators and DC to ensure no map could be created that would be useful. The carriers have refused to turn over data at a granular level that would prevent these mistakes from happening. And whether it is the states, the NTIA, or the FCC, they have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on maps that do little more than allow carriers to falsely claim there is no broadband problem in this country.

And we have utterly failed to hold our elected leaders to account for this corrupt system. Something needs to change - but it won't until people stand up and demand an end to these stories.

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.