TECH

Comcast Complaints Detail Nightmarish Customer Experience

04/10/2014 07:31 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Andrew Stone is fed up with Comcast. For months, the 27-year-old web designer has begged the cable and Internet company to fix the slow and spotty broadband connection to his Murfreesboro, Tenn., home.

He has resorted to using his iPhone as a hotspot or visiting a local cafe in order to work. He estimates he's lost between $500 and $1,000 in business because of time spent dealing with Internet outages.

"I don't know where to turn," he said.

Comcast is in the midst of a campaign to convince Congress and regulators that its $45 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable poses no threat to competition, and that the deal will actually benefit current customers of both companies. On Wednesday, David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the deal will allow the company to ramp up its offerings and boost Internet speed for millions of customers.

But some current Comcast customers are skeptical of the deal. In interviews, in reviews posted in online forums and in a sampling of some of the 50,000 complaints made to the Federal Trade Commission, people described their experience dealing with the company as frustrating and even nightmarish. Current customers who talked to The Huffington Post said they didn't think the merger would improve their situation.

"It's just like the merger of the airlines," said Dave Davis, a 58-year-old Comcast Customer who also lives in Murfreesboro, told HuffPost. "We're not going to get better prices. And we're probably not going to get better service."

"When any individual or any company ingests too much too fast, that's not good for the digestive system."

Consumer advocates have echoed these concerns, saying that adding 12 million customers in one swallow will almost certainly lead to an uptick in service complaints, at least in the short term.

"When any individual or any company ingests too much too fast, that's not good for the digestive system," said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who's now a special advisor to Common Cause, a consumer advocacy group that opposes the deal.

A bad experience with a cable company is as about as exotic as an automatic dishwasher. Either you've experienced that toxic mix of impotent rage and frustration that comes with endlessly delayed service appointments and unexplained cable outages -- or you use rabbit ears and have dial-up.

That, at least, is how much of the public views the cable industry. On Wednesday, Cohen acknowledged that this perception is rooted in reality. "It bothers us that we have so much trouble delivering a really high-quality service level to our customers on a consistent basis," he told the Senate committee. "It is not something we are ignoring."

Comcast has spent billions of dollars to improve its networks and make them more reliable, Cohen said. The company has also invested in training for technicians and call center employees, he said.

In a statement, Comcast said it is making progress in addressing customer concerns, but knows it has work to do.

Comcast has as many as 400 million phone and in-person interactions with customers each year, according to the company. There's no way to tell how many of these contacts end in frustration for the customer. But the anecdotal evidence that Comcast routinely disappoints the people who pay for its service is overwhelming.

Consumer review websites and, of course, Twitter, are chock-a-block with scathing, expletive-laden tirades leveled against the company.

"You are seriously everything that is wrong with the world," a Seattle woman with the handle Kate J. wrote in October on the review site Yelp. "I am 100% sure you are run by Satan himself. I feel confident that you are responsible for cancer, homelessness, war, suicide, 9/11, and every darkness in the world."

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A Yelp review of Comcast.

On Tuesday, the Consumerist, a publication of Consumer Reports, declared Comcast "the worst company in America."

In interviews this week, current Comcast customers said they were enmeshed in various ongoing disputes that they can't seem to resolve.

Eric Santelices, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he spent more than two hours on the phone Monday trying to resolve a problem that cropped up the night before. His 16-year-old son had tuned in to watch "Game of Thrones," the popular HBO fantasy series, but couldn't get a picture.

He called Comcast five times and was hung up on twice, he said. He described it as "transfer hell."

HuffPost's sampling of consumer complaints filed with the FTC offered additional insights into some Comcast customers' struggles.

"My wife has a chemotherapy computer that requires Internet and phone service, they turned off all our services," a Comcast customer in Muncie, Ind,. wrote in December. "I have called for almost three months, and requested a supervisor, still NO Help."

In November 2012, a customer in Marietta, Ga., complained that a Comcast service technician had failed to reconnect a telephone connection after a service call. "I had a medical problem and activated my med alert," the customer wrote. "Nothing happened. ... Fortunately my wife came home and took care of me. ... I spent almost four hours on the phone before I was able to speak to anyone that even understood my problem."

In January, a customer in Pittsburgh wrote to complain about a fire that had engulfed the back of a flat-screen television. "I called 911 and I put the fire out with table salt," the customer wrote. "I looked over the cable box again to discover that the wire that went into the box was a bit burned as well, which in turn led to that same wire connecting to my TV to ignite. Called Comcast later that morning ... rep said do not touch anything leave all as is so they can investigate. It's been 10 days."

comcast

A complaint from one Comcast customer to the FTC. "One evening while observing a robbery at the business across from our home, we attempted to call 911, our phone was off, the next day the Comcast people told us 'Not to rely on Comcast as our primary phone service,'" the agitated customer wrote.

In the past, Comcast has sought to minimize customer complaints. In an interview with Marketplace in November, CEO Brian Roberts indicated that complaints originate from "one-tenth of 1 percent" of the 400 million yearly customer interactions.

Though a small sample size, the Federal Trade Commission complaints provide insight into what kinds of issues consumers feel warrant further action. People complained about homes damaged by Comcast technicians, overcharging for services never ordered, and, of course, technicians that showed up long after a scheduled time -- or not at all.

In March 2012, a Comcast customer in Miramar, Fla., complained that a technician showed up at 9:15 p.m., more than two hours late. "[We had] to wake up a child to move out of room to service equipment."

In an indication of the growing importance of broadband to consumers, 43 percent of the FTC reports that included a narrative -- a summary of the problem -- complaining about Internet connectivity or pricing.

A combined Comcast and Time Warner will control more than 40 percent of all broadband access in the U.S. In many communities where the companies operate -- including large swaths of New York and Seattle, as well as smaller communities like Murfreesboro -- customers have no other alternative if they want high-speed Internet.

In 2010, a customer in Pleasant Hill, Calif., wrote to the FTC to complain about a discrepancy in pricing. The customer had discovered that his bill for a broadband connection was $20 more each month than the price Comcast advertised for the service online. When he called to complain, a representative told him the lower price was only for customers who purchased additional services.

"This is a prime example of a huge powerhouse corporation taking advantage of their customers," the man wrote.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Michael Copps as a former FTC commissioner. He is a former FCC commissioner.

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