Consumer Reports Asks and People Answer: Love Chattanooga, Hate Comcast

Consumer Reports (CR) has once again gone straight to the source to collect opinions on subscribers’ experiences with their Internet access, telephone, and pay TV services. Unsurprisingly, a vast majority of respondents to their survey of 176,000 people expressed dissatisfaction with the large national providers. Once again, municipal network Chattanooga EPB Fiber walked away as the only Internet service provider to receive top marks for value, speed, and reliability.

This isn’t the first time the Tennessee publicly owned network appeared at or near the top of the list in a customer satisfaction survey. In addition to consistent high scores on CR surveys, EPB Fiber has also earned kudos from J. D. Power.

After Chattanooga EPB Fiber, Google Fiber was the only private sector ISP to garner a positive rating from subscribers. Google Fiber also obtained a favorable score for value.

Bigger is Better (Not!)

The most recent survey from CR also underscored what many Internet access, pay TV, and telephone subscribers keep expressing year after year — that they despise the big, corporate behemoth providers. When it comes to Internet access, smaller cable ISPs fared a little better, but only Armstrong Cable Company, serving communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and four other states, received an “overall satisfaction” rating.

RCN, Hawaiian Telecom, and Grande Communications also did better than the large ISPs, including Comcast, Spectrum, and Cox Communications.

Hiding Fees in the Bundles

According to a CR article on their survey and analysis of the results, approximately 75 percent of subscribers answering the survey needed to bundle TV, Internet access, and telephone to obtain what they thought was the best deal. Subscribers reported that, even though they had to continually haggle for acceptable pricing, they still felt overcharged.

One of the most prominent areas of complaint from subscribers who answered the survey, dealt with hidden fees, unexplained increased, and confusing bills. Things haven’t changed much since David Cay Johnston wrote about how the big ISPs are ripping off subscribers in this fashion back in 2012.

Comcast was once of the culprits most often cited as sending out bills that confounded subscribers, but Cox Communications was another offender:

"My bill with Cox keeps changing. It is up more than $10 from an earlier bill, with no change to my services!" [Gene Plains from Nevada] wrote. Customer service has been inconsistent, he added. "I call them to discuss how to lower my bill every time I see an increase, and sometimes they help, sometimes they are just rude. I call Cox so much that they are listed as one of my favorite phone numbers."

Gene submitted his story to Consumers Union at WhatTheFee.com, where individuals can provide details about their experiences with fees related to a broad range of goods and services. The Consumers Union is also hosting a petition aimed at urging pay TV providers to provide transparent billing.

The Latest Comparative Research on Rates

As subscribers from Chattanooga can attest, publicly owned networks have a reputation for providing a good value for monthly rates. Consistently, people who subscriber to the big ISPs complain about the rates they pay for the services they get. In a January 2018 report, the Berkman Klein Center took a deeper look at rates and the services they offer in their report, Community-Owned Fiber Networks: Value Leaders in America. The researchers’ data covered advertised offerings and publicly owned networks typically provided a better deal for the money.

Publicly owned networks typically avoid introductory rates and pricing gimmicks, which makes their rates and billing more transparent. By keeping it simple and straightforward, munis like EPB Fiber can concentrate on delivering good service and don't need to rely on tricks to nickel and dime their subscribers.