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My battle with the telecom industry

Over the last few years, I've gotten to be on a first-name basis with Keith Watkins. Keith is an investigator for the Office of Cable and Communications Services of Montgomery County and is in charge of fielding complaints from county residents like me about Comcast. If it weren't for Keith, I might have taken a sledge hammer to one of those little green Comcast boxes that dot my neighborhood.

Comcast, of course, is the cable giant which, in quite few areas of the country, enjoys a near-monopoly over residential cable and broadband Internet service. I got Comcast Internet installed about five years ago, and I can't remember a month going by when I haven't had trouble with it.

My saga began when I got my first bill. It included rental charges for a cable modem. The trouble was I hadn't rented one; I already owned a modem, which I had bought from the company's recommended list. When I tried to explain this to the Comcast customer-service person, I got nowhere. It was like we were speaking different languages, and perhaps we were. Frustrated, I called my county council representative who directed me to Keith's office. By the end of the day, Comcast had agreed to rewrite my bill.

It was a small victory. Since then, I have been battling outages, glitches, and shutdowns. Last summer, for instance, the Internet service started going out every week. By late fall, it was failing several times a week. I called Comcast, and they sent a repair person. But the repair person, I discovered, didn't come from Comcast. Presumably to cut costs and prevent unionization, Comcast had outsourced its repairs. Too bad for me.

This guy showed up late and didn't have the slightest idea what he was doing. I told him that I thought the problem was outside the house. He insisted it was my modem. It was the same Linksys modem I had bought on Comcast's recommendation, and it's on the shelf of most office superstores, but he had never heard of it. One of Comcast's Motorola modems, he promised, would have me fixed up in no time. He installed it and took off. Within a few hours the little green light that indicated that the modem was alive and well and receiving signals from the Comcast mothership flickered and went out.

That's when Comcast started ignoring me altogether. Internet service continued to be spotty, but when I called the company--no matter what time of day or night--I got a message that, due to a large call volume, they couldn't answer. According to the franchise agreement that Comcast signed with the county in 1998, it was supposed to answer 90 percent of the calls to its consumer lines within 30 seconds. They were also supposed to complete 95 percent of repairs within 24 hours. Good luck.

I contacted Keith again, and, after a day or two, someone from Comcast called to arrange another visit. This time two guys knocked on my door. They checked to see whether the cables in my house were attached (they were). They tried another cable modem (to no avail) and then gave up and departed, leaving the cable television out of commission. But I wasn't completely without reward. They also left behind a new, unused cable modem sitting in a box on the coffee table. (It's now in the bookcase.) I emailed Keith yet again, and, due to his prodding, Comcast finally admitted--six months after the start of my ordeal--that the problem wasn't in my house. It was in their switches. A few days later, my service was restored.

But the story doesn't end there. Last month, the company offered to upgrade my cable TV (more channels!) and Internet service (greater speed!) if I'd simply change my home phone service to Comcast. The price came to about one-third less than I'd been paying separately for the three services. "What could go wrong?" I told myself. With my rates going up, I took the "three-in-one" offer.

At first, it appeared that the subcontracted serviceman who installed my phone line had actually accomplished his mission: When I picked up the receiver, I heard a dial tone. But three days later, when I called home to tell my wife that I was on the way, I got no answer, even though I knew she was at home. It turned out that our new Comcast phone dialed out, but it didn't ring when you called in.

The subsequent back-and-forth with the company yielded little fruit. After a couple of days, when I called the phone from the outside, an automated voice told me cheerfully that, "This number is no longer in service." Even Keith's entreaties on my behalf had no effect. Finally, a Comcast representative called me to say that my service was now working. Those devilish switches again.

Was my experience atypical? I did a little research. In the third quarter of 2006, when I had complained to Keith about my service going out, the Montgomery County office received 822 complaints about service, 412 complaints about cable reception, and 257 complaints about billing problems. Considering that most people who have problems don't call county offices, that's a huge number.

And the same thing seems to be happening around the country. Google "Comcast" and "complaint," and you will come up with a plethora of websites devoted to problems that people are having with the company. There are even two pictures of Comcast workers asleep on the job--one in a customer's bed and the other on a couch. (Comcast insisted that one of the sleeping workers was a "contractor" rather than an "actual Comcast employee," but that's exactly the problem: Comcast outsources its repairs. And the results show in systematic indifference and incompetence.)

Why didn't I just switch companies, you might ask? For one thing, the competition isn't any better. When I got fed up with Comcast this winter, I contacted Verizon. Two guys came to install a high-tech fiber-optic broadband, phone, and cable system and dug up my yard, cutting through a gas line in the process. The fire department had to be called in, along with the power company. It was a mess. They also installed the fiber-optic box on the opposite side of the house from where the TV and computers were located, and then couldn't figure out how to run a cable from one side of the house to the other. (Comcast, to its credit, was able to do this much.) New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently filed a complaint about Verizon's "chronically poor repair service."

Sadly, too, poor service isn't isolated to the telecommunications industry. The same kind of problems can be found in American auto companies or in a computer company like Dell. I probably had more trouble trying to get Dell to repair the laptop I bought my wife than I did getting Comcast to fix my Internet service. For one thing, there was no Keith to call. Instead, you're left to fend for yourself on the phone with people in Bangladesh who often have little understanding of computers and are reading prepared answers to your questions.

American firms specialize in marketing. They are "comcastic" at dreaming up new promotions for their productions. They are also pretty good at design. And much of the new technology is interesting. Fiber optics is an improvement upon cable. But the companies put very little effort into making sure their products actually work, and, if they work, into their continuing to work. In this respect, Comcast isn't the awful exception, it's increasingly the rule among American companies. For the moment, my Internet is working, and perhaps it will continue to do so for another few weeks. But I'm sure Keith will be hearing from me again.