'Brand X' Communication

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, July 11, 2005; 9:42 AM

I asked readers in a column published late in June to share their horror stories of trying to get reliable Internet service. I wanted to illustrate what I see in the near future for people who face limited choices, something I don't expect to improve following the Supreme Court's "Brand X" ruling on June 27. In that case, the six-justice majority said cable companies do not have to lease their networks to rivals who don't otherwise have the means to compete.

I said then -- and still say now -- that customer service would improve more than we imagine if, say, your local cable customer service representative knew that people might switch to another provider if they could. Many readers agreed, and many didn't. Here are some of the most interesting responses that I received. I wish you happy and frustrating reading:

  • Roland Rode, Hanover, Pa.: "My main gripe is that our local cable company makes us subscribe to their crappy basic cable which we would otherwise happily live without, which we have to pay for in addition to their already high broadband charges."
  • Dillon Markey, Hollywood, Calif.: "I set up my Internet with Comcast Cable and got the digital cable setup as well. The whole thing was supposed to cost me $87.90 per month, which I think is a lot considering I didn't sign up for anything fancy and that's the cheapest package available anywhere! After the first month Comcast raised my fees by $20. After the second month Comcast raised my fees again by $20, and the third month again the same amount. The only response I've gotten from any customer service rep is an indignant chortle."
  • John Cunningham, Herndon, Va.: "Many times I'll call up to report an outage, and they'll say 'Oh yes, Herndon has been down all day.' Then I ask for a refund. They usually give it to me, but why should I have to ask?"
  • Miguel Sanchez, McAllen, Tex.: "Internet access through cable is very expensive down here in south Texas. In order for me to get high-speed Internet I only have one choice, and that is Road Runner, which is provided by Time Warner cable. I cannot get DSL installed because I live far away from SBC's backbone telephone line. I cannot go wireless because it is super expensive and very slow."
  • Michael Turner, New York: "We run a very small (four-person) office in midtown Manhattan. Over the past two years, our DSL service has ranged from a slow crawl to complete failure. Remodeling on a floor below ours resulted in the loss of our telephone and DSL service for three days largely owing to difficulties scheduling an appointment with a Verizon technician. At that point we were ready to switch to cable modem. We spent nearly four months leaving voice-mail messages with Time Warner all but begging them to let us give them money. When a technician finally did arrive, he informed us that unless we could convince the entire building (eight stories with at least 15 separate businesses) to switch to cable modem, then it wasn't worth the investment for Time Warner to provide us cable modem service."
  • Tim Taylor, Joplin, Mo.: "The company is Cable One, and service is beyond horrible. A recent tech support e-mail describes a procedure to follow when the network goes down, which happens every day. First, we are instructed to power down all equipment, unplug the cable modem and any wireless routers and reboot all systems. This works for maybe an hour when the whole process must be repeated because of another crash. The final insulting sentence in the e-mail was 'Expected Resolution Date: Not Known.' That was six months ago."
  • Ryan Hill, Waukesha, Wis.: "My story starts with the cable company, a monopoly around here (Time Warner). For six months, I contacted them nearly every other week trying to just get basic cable. Even though my neighbors on all sides of me had cable and the cable company had flags in my back yard where their line went through, they continually told me that my address was not in their database and it would be added within a week or two. After six months of trying to get in their database so I could get service, I gave up and got satellite."
  • Lisa Johnson, Washington: "I decided to switch cable providers from Starpower to Comcast. The tech guy hooked up the cable television service, no problem. But he couldn't get my cable Internet going. He said something about 'there being a problem outside.' They came about three times over the next 10 days and none seemed to grasp how to get me connected. Finally, I called Comcast for what had to be the 10th time, and a few hours later they called back. It turns out that Comcast cable Internet was not available in my apartment building. Flash-forward to about a week later. I was talking on the elevator with a neighbor, explaining this whole drama. She replied, 'I don't understand why they couldn't get your service up and running -- we have Comcast Cable Internet, and have had it since we moved into the building.'"
  • Chris Greene, Potomac, Md.: "After the first big afternoon thunderstorm of the season knocked out my cable, I tried contacting Comcast to repair it. The first evening I couldn't get through to Comcast customer service. I reached them the next evening (a Tuesday) and they indicated since there were no other outages reported in my area, I would have to wait for a service technician to come out to the house on Sunday. That Sunday, the service technician determined that the outage wasn't a problem in my house. He indicated the problem was with the lines coming into my house and that another technician would have to provide the service. I asked how long that would take and he indicated it could take up to seven days -- 14 days from the original outage. After three days, I called Comcast to learn they had no record of a follow-up service call. Four days went by and still no service. I called and they told me it would be another two weeks!"
  • Josh Banta, Hauppauge, N.Y.: "At our apartment, we had cable outlets in the bedroom and living room, and thought it a simple matter to get everything switched on. But a problem arose during our installation session, for which we waited a couple of weeks. The problem was that the cable jack in the living room was not live. The cable guy said to us -- no joke -- 'The cable in the living room is not working. What should I do?' Cablevision said they do not handle such problems and that we would have to hire our own electician. Thinking quickly, I called my apartment complex. The receptionist knew that the live cable wires were up in the attic. I put her on the phone with the cable installer, and she had to walk him through how to feed a live cable wire down from the attic to the cable jack in our living room."

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