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 ComcastMustDie.com, 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.
In a recent national survey on customer satisfaction conducted by the University of Michigan, Comcast was tied for last among cable, satellite and television providers and was last in fixed-line telephone service.
Verizon scored barely above Comcast in satisfying phone and Internet customers, according to the survey.
Moyer said the solution to a service problem was sometimes difficult to determine -- a faulty Internet connection could be caused by anything from weather-worn cable lines to outdated community nodes that act as the central access point for dozens of homes in the neighborhood, she said.
That was the company's response to Charles Gati's complaint of persistent connection and quality problems with the television, Internet and phone "triple play" service he's had for the past two years. The Johns Hopkins University professor often works from his Dupont Circle townhouse and relies on the Internet for research and writing papers.
Since he signed up for the services, he's had eight visits by technicians. His neighbors have complained about similar problems, he said, and one technician said the neighborhood node hasn't been upgraded in years and is overburdened by the number of new customers in the area, who are doing far more on the network than they did when Comcast was providing only cable television.
"Don't advertise something you can't deliver. That's the heart of the problem here," said Gati, who said he was switching carriers.
Public advocacy groups such as Free Press have argued in filings with the Federal Communications Commission that Comcast should spend more money to upgrade its technology by expanding its neighborhood shared capacity -- the part of its networks used by more than one household. On the shared network, too much use at a given time can slow or degrade service.
The company said it suffers from congestion and slower Internet service when too many people in the same neighborhood are using the Web. Or when one user directly transfers large Internet files such as video clips to other users. Comcast has delayed the exchange of large files to alleviate congestion, a practice that has sparked additional criticism that the company is acting as a gatekeeper of Internet content.
The company wouldn't specify how much investment has been put into upgrading technology on the shared neighborhood network. Tony G. Werner, the chief technology officer, said the company doubled capacity at 10,000 of its 115,000 nodes in the past year through a technique called splitting nodes.
Yet Comcast will need to ramp up such improvements if it wants to stay ahead of the technological demands that are bound to strain its networks in the future, said Phil Doriot, a program director for the consulting firm CFI Group. Internet bandwidth has doubled every two years and is expected to continue to increase as video becomes more common on the Web.
"That puts more snow on the snowball that's already heading downhill," Doriot said.
Bayes, a membership specialist for the National Rifle Association, said his problem began before the first service agent came to his home. The new-home specialist should have been able to tell Bayes there was no service to his new home from the first call, he said. None of the many other service representatives caught that error for weeks.
Comcast installed a line from the neighborhood hub to his home almost six weeks after his first call.
"We went above and beyond for him," Moyer said.
But that wasn't enough for Bayes. Last week, he switched providers.