Call the Cable Guy. Again.

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kenneth Bayes's request to Comcast was routine. He was moving his family from Fairfax to a new townhouse in Haymarket and wanted to transfer his bundled television, Internet and phone services.

A specialist for customers moving to new homes took the order and said all systems were go and everything would be up and running the day after his move in April.

After five weeks, 20 calls, a day off work and three visits that ended without any idea why Bayes couldn't get service, Comcast found the solution to this head-scratcher of a problem: The company hadn't run cable lines to Bayes's house.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, has enjoyed explosive growth in recent years as households clamor for broadband Internet and high-definition television that will allow them to exchange family videos over the Web, talk via instant message and order movies on demand.

Even with the housing downturn, Comcast's revenue last year rose 24 percent, to $30.9 billion, and it had 24.7 million cable subscribers.

That growth has come at a price for customers, public interest groups say. As the company races to add subscribers, many of whom pay more than $100 a month to use phone, Internet, wireless and video services, Comcast has not focused on funding and fixing problems with its customer service, the critics say.

"They bit off more than they could chew, and the victims of their overweening ambition is us," said Bob Garfield, a radio host and creator of Web site, one of several sites created in recent years as an outlet for customer complaints of all kinds.

Comcast said it is has poured "billions of dollars" into improving its network, customer service and sales operations. Spokeswoman Jenni Moyer declined to say how much the company has spent on such improvements, but in the Washington region, Comcast has put $290 million into laying down more fiber between neighborhoods and its technology centers. The company has also created a customer-service call center in Largo that will eventually have 500 employees.

Yet Comcast officials acknowledge that the company is struggling to keep up with its own growth.

"We are a victim of our own success, to a degree," said Rick Germano, senior vice president of customer operations. That expansion has been lucrative: Chief executive Brian L. Roberts took home $20.8 million last year, and the company is putting the finishing touches on a $435 million office skyscraper in downtown Philadelphia.

Many cable, telephone and Internet service companies have struggled to keep pace with customer service as they have gone through a recent period of rapid growth. Washington area residents last year complained to the Better Business Bureau about their cable, Internet and phone more than about other services, including home contractors, auto repair shops and car dealers.

In the Washington area, Comcast serves 1.1 million customers and competes against Verizon Communications in suburban markets for all three services, although Verizon has yet to roll out its fiber network for District residents. Comcast also competes with smaller cable providers such as Cox Communications, which provides video and Internet services in the region.

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