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Karl Giberson, Ph.D Headshot

Where Is My Free Market?

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I am sitting now in a pose familiar to millions of Americans: on hold trying to get a response from Comcast after dispatching the various automatons to reach a real person. Of course the first real person you talk to at Comcast -- a maternal type -- can't do anything. She is there to express sympathy and tell you that someone with more authority will be with you "shortly." So I am on hold while she searches for someone who can do something. At least that is what she said. I have this sinking feeling she is gathered now with co-workers, setting up a betting pool to see how long before I lose hope, cave in, and hang up.

After a few minutes of silence Comcast starts up some dreadful elevator music, apparently intended to keep me content. The music is terrible. Do they really think that listeners want to hear music through their tiny no-fidelity phone speakers? The music is so unpleasant I am wondering if its real purpose is to wear me down. I recall that the US Army blasted heavy metal music at Noriega to get him to surrender during the Iran-Contra affair, or at least accept a credit on his internet service.

After several painful minutes of this music "Jasmine" comes on the line to talk to me. She is quite friendly but won't give me her last name. I repeat my complaint. I think this makes 6 different people at Comcast who have heard this story about my demon-possessed modem. Perhaps there is a betting pool at the office on this as well -- how many times will this poor guy repeat his story before he gives up?

"I am not a happy customer," I tell Jasmine. "I have been paying a premium for high speed internet for years and receiving the much cheaper "economy" speed." (In technospeak, I have been paying for 22 Megabytyes per second and receiving less than 10% of that, which I suppose would be like renting a van that is supposed to hold 10 passengers and getting a Smart Car that seats one. The only difference is that high internet speeds look so similar to low speeds that low tech consumers like me can't tell the difference.)

A friend alerted me to my problem. He connected me to a website I did not know existed -- www.speedtest.net -- that provides a simple and quick measure of internet speed. And mine was 90% lower than what I was paying for. I called Comcast and they promptly sent out a knowledgeable friendly tech support guy who checked the modem Comcast had installed in my house years ago. "Your modem was set incorrectly on the "economy" setting" he told me, as snow from his boots melted all over my living room floor. "It should be fine now." I checked, and it was. Thank God for www.speedtest.net.

"I should get a refund for overpaying all these years shouldn't I?" I asked. "Yes" said the tech, barely able to contain his laughter, "but you might have to fight to get it."

I explain all this to Jasmine, who goes away to talk to someone and returns with the happy message that Comcast will give me a credit of $22 per month for the previous year. I object on the grounds that I have been overpaying for a decade -- not a year -- and am entitled to a bigger credit than that. (My current Comcast bill, which covers cable, internet and phone, is $221 per month, or $2652 per year, or $26,520 per decade -- I have a been a good customer over the years and am thinking that this should be worth something. In fact, for a company rapidly losing customers to the competition, it should be worth a lot.)

In response to my objection Jasmine tells me that Comcast considers it the customer's responsibility to alert them to problems like the internet speed. If a customer does not complain, she says, they assume everything is fine and the customer has no grounds for complaint. "If HBO stops working," she said, making an analogy, "the customer is supposed to contact us. If they don't then we assume everything thing is OK."

I object to this bogus analogy. "If HBO is not working, it is easy to tell, "I explain in exasperation. "The screen is blank. How is a customer supposed to know whether their internet speed is less than what they are paying for?" Comcast apparently assumes their customers are all geeks, downloading movies with stopwatches in their hand, and eagerly texting their friends about how many Megabytes per second they have.

This response is preposterous. Consumers like me use the internet mainly for email, reading news, Googling information and other less demanding activities. The difference between high and low speeds for some of these activities is simply not noticeable. Only with extended video downloads would the difference become noticeable, and then only if a consumer had a standard of comparison.

It turns out--no surprise-- that Jasmine is not authorized to give more than a year of credit for such problems. So she transfers me to an even higher authority.

After some more Noriega music I am connected to the "Executive Office," and speak with "Nancy," who says she will look into things and call me back the next day. I object, to no avail, that this is the 3rd promise for a "callback".

The next day I get my callback with the final resolution, which is no resolution at all. Apparently it is possible although "very rare" for a modem to change its setting on its own. Any time a customer does anything with their service--upgrade, change to a new package, shout "Verizon FIOS" too loudly--a signal is sent from Comcast to the consumer. This signal, said Sharon from the Executive Office, can actually change the modem setting from high to low speed. Apparently it can't change from low to high though. She did acknowledge that she had "hardly ever seen it." My guess is she had never seen it even once and merely heard a story about it happening once to a customer in Antarctica during an eclipse. But, because she had "no way to know" that this had not happened--it is, after all, not prohibited by the laws of physics--she had to assume that this very rare event had occurred recently and was the source of my problem. Otherwise, Comcast would have to credit me for what was probably, by her own admission, years and years of overpayment for a premium service I never received.

Unfortunately customers in much of the country are captive to this kind of heavy-handed treatment. Living without internet and cable is not a real option, and many consumers have just one provider--Verizon is not available to me but I have no reason to think they would be any different. And, with the product being a complex and intimidating technology, customers are forced to simply trust that the signals coming through their wires are what they are paying for.