Yet More Unending Telecom Hell

By James Kwak

When last we left our hero, he had just (with some difficulty) placed an order with Comcast because of Verizon’s many system and customer service failures. A friend of mine said that he couldn’t want to see the post I would write about Comcast, which he had found to be terrible as well. This post is probably coming sooner than even he expected.

So . . . a week after placing that order, I showed up at the installation time, and no one came. I asked my wife to call Comcast, and they told her that our order had almost vanished; after much digging they found some record of it (this is a new service order, so if they had our name and address at all, it could only have come from my order), but no further information. Again, just like with Verizon, the phone people said they have no visibility into the online system (is it really possible that the phone and online front ends go into two completely separate back-end systems? yes), and also said cheerfully that many online orders go into unfulfilled limbo.

So I placed a phone order this time. I was already so dispirited that I didn’t even bother explaining to the rep the specific products that I wanted, and just took the package he was trying to sell me. (I have a year to downgrade it before the price jumps.)

This time someone did show up to do the installation–but only for TV and Internet. Apparently the phone component had been canceled on their end (something the technician had no record of–all he can see is the job orders that come through to his phone) because no one had done a third-party verification to port the phone number from Verizon. Why hadn’t anyone done it? Because the sales rep I talked to on the phone forgot to do it. Now how could his computer system possibly let him book an order without completing a mandatory step? Because the software that these big, big companies use to run their operations–even the really important software, like the stuff they rely on to bring in revenues–doesn’t work.

(By the way, this supports the incompetence theory rather than the calculated indifference theory. Companies may underinvest in customer service systems because they just don’t care about customer service, especially in the telecom duopoly. But if their new customer acquisition systems don’t work, that must be pure incompetence.)

Now, there is still a little blame to pin on Verizon here. Comcast claims that if there is no third-party verification, their system should have made automated phone calls to tell me there was a problem. But in the interim, the phone service (Verizon) mysteriously stopped working, even though Verizon is still billing me for it. All Verizon had to do was do nothing and the phone would have kept on working, yet they couldn’t even do that.

Anyway, with luck this ordeal will be over within a week. For those looking for an economics lesson, it’s the same as last time, so I’ll just quote from my earlier post:

“Oligopolies are bad for customers. Switching from Verizon to Comcast wasn’t nearly as joyous as dumping Bank of America for a local community bank was, because I’m just trading one member of the duopoly for the other. In theory, duopolies are supposed to be somewhat better than monopolies. (Draw the demand and supply curves and you could figure it out, although it’s been over a decade since I did.) But in practice they’re usually not, because it doesn’t take a lot of signaling for two companies to agree to charge the monopoly price. The same goes for customer service; they can both suck, but as long as neither is significantly worse than the other, there’s no reason for either to change, since their churn rates are more or less the same.

“Since the 1980s, we’ve had cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, satellite . . . and no significant increase in telecom competition. What’s wrong with this picture?”

PS After Sunday’s post about cutting back on blogging to take school a little more seriously, I got a lot of well-wishing emails as if I were quitting blogging. While I appreciate all of the warm thoughts, this is probably a smaller change than many people think. Even last year before my summer internship I was probably posting only about five-six times per week, and this semester I’m shooting for about three times per week. So I probably didn’t even need to write Sunday’s post. But I wanted to give some explanation for anyone who might have been hoping for a return to last year’s frequency.

32 responses to “Yet More Unending Telecom Hell

  1. My experience with telecom has been so bad I gave up cable/satellite and home phone and just have DSL. And I never change anything about the subscription because it’s such a horror show to try. I miss cable, but not enough to deal with the telecom companies. Think how much money they could be making off me if they sucked less.

  2. You’re dealing with the two biggest and most difficult firms in the consumer telecomm business–firms with genuinely good technology, but also with appalling customer service. If there were competition at comparable prices, Verizon and Comcast would have to either improve or loose much business.

    Have you considered leasing internet from a reputable local ISP which handles the telco relationship, leasing telephone wireline service directly (or just doing without) and installing a dish for video? You may spend more for internet, but will probably save money overall, and you don’t have to do direct business with toothless whales who are convinced that you are krill.

  3. As a consumer, I hate feeling like I don’t have a choice. This may be a little radical but how about dumping the phone and internet all at once? Depending on where you live, you may be able to have your cell phone, data plan, and wi-fi all in one. My coworkers are raving about this and dumping their home internet/phone plans (mainly because they all hate Verizon and Comcast):

    http://now.sprint.com/firsts/evo4g/

  4. I’m lucky — I have a small business here that provides excellent DSL service in Silicon Valley at a reasonable price. I even get a /29 for a small extra fee, which is good for me to access my servers remotely.

    I’m about to drop cable overall — Comcast has raised their extended basic package to $70/month, and since I watch less than an hour of television per day, $2.33 per hour of commercial filled television is too much.

    If you’re in Silicon Valley and want a recommendation for the DSL, let me know… I’ll check back this evening.

  5. They are all terrible. I will never, NEVER, use Comcast again under any circumstances. This has worked well for me for the past 5 years or more, but now I have found that AT&T (now atop my husband’s never-use-again list) and every other large supplier is just as bad.

    Currently using dish for video, no house phone and awaiting installation from small local ISP for internet.

  6. These are the same rackets the enemy is trying to tell us can be voluntary stewards of the Internet without formal net neutrality enshrinement.

    And the FCC keeps trying to duck its responsibility.

    If you think it can help, comment.

    http://www.fcc.gov/contacts.html

    They’ve already had two rounds of comments where the results were overwhelmingly pro-rule. But they still keep trying to duck us. (This time the new comment period is supposed to be to discuss the scam concepts of the Google-Verizon Pact. But we’ve already been through all this. We’ve already rejected those scams.)

    Yet another piece of Obama treachery, adding to the long, long, hideous list.

  7. Sprint. Good contracts, good phones, thin coverage, poor customer service. (Source: Consumer Reports.) Not a winning alternative, unless the areas where the phone will be used are restricted or using wifi with a Sprint smart phone is an acceptable usage model. Clear, the Sprint-owned wireless internet firm, is not-so-bad, but their coverage is also very thin. Reportedly, T-Mobile is in negotiation to buy (or buy into) Sprint, which could change the picture.

  8. James,

    Welcome to my little corner of the inferno Over a decade ago, I had a line installed with GTE (now Verizon) and all was well, calling plan, etc. Then a change in our assigned area code and suddenly I had two accounts — one in area code 727 (correct) and one in area code 254 (Waco, Texas). Now I’m sure Waco is a nice place with great people, but then I’ve never been there. Still, Verizon manages to bill me at my correct address for this incorrect account. Despite an aggregate of perhaps two hours conversation with their accounts office, I still “owe” them $42 for the account in question which we each agree was the result of a keystroke error on their end. Each time, they spend a while checking their system and tell me the problem is solved. From time to time, I receive collection notices and warnings that I could face consequences for non-payment. I don’t know whether my FICO score has felt this yet, though I doubt it. You would think man has the ability to fix machines. I’m thinking of having the collection notice framed.

  9. I would add AT&T to this list. They are not only incompetent but arrogant, and the IT systems appear to be functionally unconnected

  10. Gloating in France

    Just dropped cable, and don’t miss it a bit because we have 20 channels of free digital with few commercials over the air, which is more than enough. If I want a more recent film, I download it via 45 Mbps (tested) fibre optic internet. Also enjoy free phoning to 80 countries. All this (except the VOD) costs just 20 Euros per month. Good old socialist competition with five companies competing for DSL and two for cable.

  11. Anyone with a general knowledge of recent history could, unfortunately, have told you how this would play out.

    Telephone company has a virtual monopoly on telephony service. Wants to protect its turf, but knows it will have to pretend that its monopoly is actually a monopsony or even economists won’t be fooled.

    A quick analysis shows that the next step will have to be competing on service. So who does the telephone company want to have as “competition”? An organization with worse customer service than the telephone company.

    Enter: compete with cable television companies.

  12. I was told I would have DSL by mid-June, but so far, NADA. My landline carrier is CenturyLink, who bought out Embarq, who bought Sprint’s land lines here in this part of NC (speaking of no competition, each landline company back in the day got a dedicated territory). After a letter to the State Attorney General’s office, I thought I’d gotten some traction, but alas, it was a tease. I just fired off another email telling the truly sweet young lady whose been working with me, that if I don’t have a confirmed date of installation, the deal’s off and they can cancel my land line, too. (They said because of my location, I had to keep my land line in order to get DSL). I will go to Verizon and buy a smart phone I can use as a mobile hot spot at home. My experience with Verizon hasn’t been perfect, but it hasn’t been the nightmare others have had. And it surely hasn’t been as bad as with CenturyLink.

  13. If only these were government agencies, huh?

  14. With one half of USA population spying on the other half thanks to Patriot Act (why can’t we have a Patriot Act burn-it ceremony on 911?)

    and “austerity” projected into infinity (AI) oh wait, isn’t AI still being used for “artificial intelligence”?

    The plan is to have only ONE “internet” infrastructure maintained – theirs.

    Kwak, “Again, just like with Verizon, the phone people said they have no visibility into the online system (is it really possible that the phone and online front ends go into two completely separate back-end systems? yes), and also said cheerfully that many online orders go into unfulfilled limbo.”

    Imagine the frustration people are feeling with the new job hunt rules and the soon to be deployed “health insurance” games. Already they tell you that they are NOT accepting any other completed forms – you MUST go online.

  15. It is a Republican world – free market rules. Except in this country it is rarely a competitive market in any sector and of course the Repugs have no interest protecting the consumer. Funny thing even economists don’t seem to be able to create good markets. Witness the West Coast electricty deregulation where you could have opened your monthly electricty bill and found out you were officially bankrupt. Not to mention how bad the health insurance racket has been.

  16. I’m an AT&T technician and I’m constantly shocked at the lack of concern for customer service above the first line management – we are constantly being forced to work faster and not take pride in our work- 10 years ago we were rewarded for quality work, today we are punished for it – it is the same throughout all the major American telecoms

  17. Allen Papapetrou

    “Since the 1980s, we’ve had cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, satellite . . . and no significant increase in telecom competition. What’s wrong with this picture?”

    Throughout the history of capitalism the big dogs eat the smaller dogs. In the 1980′s the word “antitrust” again disappeared from the USA lexicon.

    The Goal of Capitalism is Profit. Increase Profit and Power increases until we have the best government money can buy.

    The internet age very quickly reveals that the resources of this planet belong to all of us. As the internet age of fiasco Patents has shown. Some enterprising capitalists use the “rules” to make Private what is Public.

    What is wrong with this picture? How about reframing Capitalism along Buddhist lines where compassion takes precedence over greed? When the Financial Industry provides a small group compensation which, in toto, is move than the GDP of 70 countries we know who is in charge. When corporate profit increases exponentially from the 1970s while employee wages remain flat we know what the problem is – Government is owned by the corporations. Simply this is Fascism – Corporatism.

    In the past the solution is revolution. As Ghandi showed, revolutions can occur with minimal violence. The Tea Party is just the first of an iteration until compassion exceeds parity with greed.

    Allen

  18. I’m glad that our hero of the story put more emphasis on oligopolies in this post than on software incompatibility, as this is the true crux of the problem.

    It seems the virtuous and valiant hero (similar to Jon Stephen Fink’s “Ray Green”) of our story is also perceptive and brainy as well.

  19. I’m sorry you’re in the telecom vortex. I’m in the hospital billing/auto insurance vortex. It’s been going on all year. It’s neverending, even when I think I’m getting close. Something goes wrong. Cleared checks have vanished into the ether. I have no idea how they do this shell game and get away with it, but they do.

  20. Corporate Profits as a Share of GDP, at 13%, remain near record high historic levels. This is a key “tell” that we have a badly structured economy, with insufficient competition among vendors in key industries.

    Data are available monthly in page 21 of the National Economic Trends report (St. Louis Fed).

    Note that corporate “profits” are actually government-arranged “rents” in many cases.

    In an economy with adequate competition, profit levels are much lower.

    http://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/net/page21.pdf

  21. The WSJ has set me straight on profits: The higher the profits, the better the service since customers would go to a competitor if they were dissatisfied. There is no such thing as a monopoly in a true free market system, which we would have if the goverenment would just get out of the way!

  22. My experience with Verizon in Jersey City for phone, cell, internet has been good, but I needed a tech to work with the Help Desk in India to set up DSL. The Indians are now well-trained, smart, and helpful, but they’re continents away. No billing problems.

    But I won’t touch Comcast; they seem frighteningly incompetent. I’ve requested service a number of times. My orders have never been clearly confirmed or fulfilled. They don’t know where to find the port for my apt. My building is supposedly wired. What if I ever want to adjust the service, question the charges, or disconnect? Forget it! Poor management and poor training of the staff. Comcast is an empire built on sand.

  23. Who is encouraging you to ignore customer satisfaction?

  24. Gloating in France, Whereabouts are you? I’m in Le Touquet (62) and my VoiP still doesn’t work on incoming calls (4 weeks now) and with just internet + phone (no TV) I pay a lot more than €20 for <8Mbps.

  25. The US communication industry does not know the meaning of “customer service.” When I wanted to install internet service from Comcast, I went online to request, and the told me to call their 1-800-ABYSS number. After having horribly slow DSL service, and Wildblue satellite that was not compatible with anything and slower than DSL, that left cable. Comcast said my house did not exist. I have an address, and have all the other services one has at his home, but Comcast said it did not exist. Seeing Comcast service trucks in the area, I several time pulled a technician aside and he viewed the house and said it existed, but I would still have to call 1-800-ABYSS. It took legal action in the Superior Court of California for Comcast to live up to its agreement with the County/City of San Francisco and give me service. They then saw the house..

  26. Gloating in France

    Center of Bordeaux on Numericable. I was paying total 35 Euros for triple play. Their first offer was 30 Euros for double play. when I threatened to quit and go to Auchan Box, they came down to 20 Euros.
    Never a problem with telephone since I bought a new Siemens. The old one was somehow sending incoming calls to the messagerie.
    You probably don’t have Numericable cable in Le Touquet, but you might try Alice adsl, which is offering a 20 Euro/mo package. I had good luck with them a while back.

  27. Back in the 1990s I moved from Massachusetts to South Carolina and my telecomm company sent me a final bill which I paid. Then, the next month, they sent me another final bill, which rankled me, since it seemed they had just added more fees on the back end. So I overpaid this final bill by a penny. And for six months they sent me a bill showing a one cent credit. Finally, to stop the madness, they sent me a check for the penny, which I, of course, did not cash and instead cherish to this day. It was my beautiful revenge, albeit small.

  28. Lucky, lucky me. My internet service is provided by a
    relatively small telephone company. It used to be called
    North Pittsburgh Telephone Co. but has now merged with
    another smallish company in St. Louis. Service has
    remained good and technical support is very competent.
    Historically, I had ISDN in 1996 and DSL a few
    years later, several years before Verizon, operating in an adjacent area provided any broadband. They just
    didn’t want to.
    I suppose it could be called an oligopoly since there
    is only one other competitor and that is the local
    cable company (not Comcast). But both are small companies serving small areas and seem to have to be responsive to customer needs.
    I know that the phone company spent at least $30,000
    on troubleshooting, repairs to the phone lines and eventual upgrades when I was the only broadband customer asking for it. I’m sure they did this not
    just for me as there were developing areas farther from
    their exchange building that were soon going to want
    service. But at least they were aware of something.

  29. Has anyone noticed the difference in telephone answering prompts when contacting their telecom provider? “Press 1 for new orders” “Residential customers please press 1″ “Commercial customers please press 2″

    One “solution” to Mr. Kwak’s Telecom Hell may be to purchase the business version of the service. The cost is higher but the customer service behind the product is usually better.

  30. psst….CenturyLink is in the process of buying Qwest, which is the major telecom in the western US (replaced US West, which replaced Mountain Bell).

    I’m an employee of Qwest and getting ready to get shafted. From the transition team lineup I’m fully expecting they are going to push even harder than we’ve already been pushed to move virtually 100% of IT functions over to India.

    And so goes the recovery from recession.

  31. In fact, Sprint has the best service available out here in this sparsely populated portion of the Pacific NW. Because of that, we’ve got a very good contract and excellent service. It looks spottier when we leave but that’s a price we’re willing to pay for now.

    As for Internet service, I dumped Verizon perhaps 17 years ago? I helped a local ISP get started, then watched as Verizon’s “technicians” – and that’s a very loose usage of the term here – wired HDSL lines upside down, not once but twice, when providing the ISP with leased T1 lines.

    They finished it off by strangling that ISP out of existence with a $400 dollar customer charge for a simple setup at their switch yard, and they tacked on a $30/month on top of the $40/month ISP fee. That was the end of that.

    So now I deal with a fellow who bypasses Verizon’s lines completely since he’s leased his own. He’s still learning but I can call him any time of the day and he doesn’t choke his bandwidth if you behave.

    He could get those lines because we long ago forced the carriers who come through this valley to the table. Fifteen years ago, when endless bundles of unlit fiber were being laid through here, the late and completely unlamented Worldcom wanted a right-of-way from the County planning commission bury even more of those bundles.

    A group of us who understood what was at stake showed up and we turned that planning commission hearing into a raucous testimonial for local broadband. We insisted on the right to a point-of-presence. If we could come up with the money for the equipment, we felt it only fair that the County be allowed to lease broadband in return for the right-of-way.

    That did not go over with Worldcom but a little political muscle was applied and they acceded. So now the ocean passing through here is tapped for our use. And it is an ocean, the same one that Google uses to lubricate their data center down the road.

    That’s because this is the lowest elevation route between the East, Denver, Salt Lake, and Seattle. Think about that in the context of who does business where and you can start to figure out what we’re swimming in. The local hospital, one of the best rural health providers in the country, had a DS-3 (45 mbps) within a year and a half for their telemedicine program, and the small university in town did the same eventually luring the State’s health sciences university to the campus.

    The moral of the story is simple. Force their hand at every chance and you’ll get what you want. But play by their rules and the day is theirs.

  32. When you order the service, do it by mail. Include one half of each of two ripped twenty dollar bills. This will ensure the back office talks to the front office and the front office contacts you.