Marylouise Roach had just walked into her Rockville home from a week's vacation in Florida last year when the stench hit her.
"Oh my God, somebody's dead in the freezer," she remembers thinking.
She immediately suspected the culprit. To install cable modem service, a Comcast technician said he had to drill a hole in the wall behind her refrigerator. Before leaving town, the mother of three said, she asked him not to unplug the appliance. But the smell of rotting pork loins and flank steak told her that her message didn't get through.
About 1,300 complaints were filed against Comcast last year, according to Montgomery County's cable office, about a quarter of them involving Internet service. They allege missed appointments, rude employees, long waits before operators answer the phone, and lengthy periods of Internet downtime. But many customers say they have no other options for high-speed Internet service.
Internet service provided by cable television companies is unregulated on the federal, state and local level. The County Council is considering a measure that would establish financial penalties for poor service, similar to the standards in place for cable television. Experts say the measure would be one of the first of its kind in the country.
"What we're talking about here are basic customer service issues," said council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County).
Comcast defends its customer service and opposes the measure. "It is completely unnecessary to pass these regulations that require us to do what we already do," said Comcast spokesman Brian K. Edwards. "Comcast is extremely interested in taking care of all our customers."
Edwards said the county's complaint numbers are misleading. Comcast's Montgomery County customer service operation recorded only 215 cable modem complaints in 2003, Edwards said, a 23 percent decrease from the previous year. He also said the high number of complaints were attributable to damage from Hurricane Isabel.
Praisner and council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) spoke in support of the proposal yesterday, joined by several disgruntled customers. They urged the council not to support seven proposed amendments to the measure which they say would weaken consumer protections.
Roach said her experience with Comcast began two days before her vacation, when she ordered cable Internet service. By the end of the day, she said, her house was a disaster area and she still had no service. One Comcast employee tracked mud across her white carpet, another stood clicking his tongue at the mess the first had made, and a third drilled a hole through a wall despite her protests, she said.
For the next five months, Roach tried -- unsuccessfully, she said -- to obtain compensation. A week before she planned to take Comcast to court, Roach said the company apologized and sent her a check for $998.50.
Greg March, 57, of Potomac said his Comcast cable modem service has been down for a month. His wife, an anesthesiologist, wants to check her schedule from home via e-mail, but instead must drive to work.
"The lights on the modem go up and down like a slot machine," he said. "But you need four lights for a connection, and we've only been getting one or two."
Praisner and Andrews yesterday assailed County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who has said he can accept the proposed amendments to the regulations, even though he rejected similar changes earlier.
"Now, in the eleventh hour, the county executive's office has flip-flopped," Praisner said.
Spokesman David Weaver said Duncan is committed to protecting consumers, and emphasized that Duncan submitted the original regulations to the council.