What a terrible Comcast rep can teach regulators about the Time Warner Cable merger

By now, you've probably heard about that epic phone call involving former Engadget editor Ryan Block and a Comcast rep who was trying to keep him from disconnecting his Comcast service. Block had already signed on with another provider, but the cable guy just wouldn't take no for answer.

The call was pretty crazy in itself. For eight minutes, the customer rep demanded to know why Block wanted out and kept challenging his choice to forgo the best Internet product in the country, seemingly unable or unwilling to understand that he'd already lost Block as a customer. Comcast has since apologized, saying the rep's behavior was "unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives." But the episode is actually far more worrisome for the company than it'll let on in any statement. Because the fact is, Comcast can't afford anything right now that even remotely puts its merger with Time Warner Cable in jeopardy.

If you haven't heard the call yourself, have a listen:

If you managed to make it through all eight minutes, you deserve a medal. (Comcast has acknowledged on previous occasions that people find its customer service lacking.)

Even though this episode by itself won't sink Comcast's regulatory approval prospects, it happened right in the middle of Comcast's charm offensive with decision-makers and the general public. Waking up to NPR's Morning Edition here in Washington, it's rare not to hear a Comcast ad touting the company's low-cost Internet Essentials program. With as many as 100 lobbyists reportedly at its disposal, Comcast has been working the halls of Congress pretty hard — and it's even taken its pitch to state regulators who could threaten parts of the deal.

For something like this to crop up now doesn't help Comcast's argument that controlling one-third of the pay-TV market would be good for the industry. To examine its claims, regulators are lining up economists and antitrust experts who'll determine whether the merger might threaten competition.

But what Block's ordeal highlights is something else--something that isn't as easily quantified by cold, hard economic analysis. It's the entirely human, emotional relationship between customers and their cable providers. This customer rep was the only way Block was going to get his service canceled; in the face of such obstinance, all Block could do was stay on the line and endure the punishment (or maybe hang up and hope to get someone else later).

The Federal Communications Commission, one of two agencies along with the Justice Department charged with approving the cable merger, typically considers the public interest as part of its mandate. Consumer advocates argue that quality customer service ought to be included under that umbrella. Yet the very fact that people are making that case at all underscores how subjective the term "public interest" really is, and why it's sometimes easier to focus on what can be measured or projected numerically.

Our competition policies just aren't equipped to deal with Block's kind of story; if they were, perhaps more than half of all Americans wouldn't say they'd cut the cord if they could.

So will this infamous phone call to Comcast play an unexpected role in the merger approval process? If regulators are thinking with their heads, probably not. If you believe no review process is complete without thinking with your heart, then you can't assume it won't have some effect. And it's the not knowing that may be causing heartburn for some company executives.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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