I was in Philadelphia recently visiting a friend, and we had the opportunity to eat lunch downtown. On the way to the restaurant, we took a detour to one of the city's newest attractions: the amazing Comcast Center.
As it turns out, the towering skyscraper that is the Comcast Center, resembling a square donut at the top, is actually quite a marvel. The light wood-paneled lobby is not wood-paneled at all, but something more like LED-paneled. And it's not just a few LEDs, either—probably more on the order of millions. One moment you think you're examining slabs of pine, and the next there are small human figures scrambling up and down the walls, or giant collages of vividly-colored photographs flying before your eyes. The display is impressive enough to make you think that you might be hallucinating—which also makes you think that on top of the cost of building the skyscraper in the first place, it must have been rather expensive to create.
There's a certain amount of irony in that thought: that Comcast, a utility company, spent a lot of money. Utility companies usually don't have very much to spend, as they are often considered borderline non-profit organizations. (This tends to be especially true when the economy does poorly and customers delay paying their bills.) Not only that, but based on the performance of its actual cable television and internet services, you would think that Comcast qualified for some sort of government assistance program for failing businesses. Indeed, if Comcast had spent the millions of dollars on its cable network that it did on lobby decorations, I might not even have to write this essay.
But alas, I do.
My cable internet service has not worked properly since about February 2, 2009, a day I remember because on that day, it failed to work at all. (Granted, I'm fortunate to live in a country where cable service is even an option, but given that it is an option, and that I work hard to pay for it, I expect a certain level of service in return.) Comcast decided to upgrade its network to a new cable standard called DOCSIS 3.0, presumably to increase the speed of the connections it could offer, but the upgrade didn't go very smoothly. Ever since, my service has been spotty.
Sometimes my Comcast connection is slow, and not just a little bit slow, either. From Palo Alto, CA to Google's web site, a typical ping response time (measuring the time it takes for a TCP/IP packet to make the round trip from point A to point B) might be 12 milliseconds. Yet with my "Comcastic" internet connection, ping times can average 1,200 milliseconds, or 100 times slower than a respectable DSL or working cable internet connection. Not to mention that all too frequently, the packets I'm sending out simply don't come back.
There have been four Comcast technicians who have visited my house so far. The first, Victor, was able to quickly discern that the problem was on Comcast's network, since he could tell that there were problems on the line by hooking up his JDS Uniphase testing equipment while standing on a ladder near the utility pole in front of my house. He promised me that a network technician would call me the next day. No one did.
The second technician, Eric, was less certain and had a clear anger management problem. When I told him that the first technician had already diagnosed a network problem, and that the customer service representative on the phone was able to verify that there were connection problems, he resisted.
"You should replace your modem. These Motorola modems, they don't always support DOCSIS 3."
"No one told me I had to buy a new modem to support DOCSIS 3," I told him.
"You don't, but you know, sometimes we just replace the customer's equipment and it works."
"There's nothing wrong with my modem," I told him. "The first technician already diagnosed the problem at the pole outside. The modem doesn't even factor in."
Repair Technician Eric left without actually repairing anything, upset that I refused to let him replace my modem. Later that day, he called after speaking with Roger, the elusive Network Technician who had apparently visited my home twice without letting me know.
"He said he did come out there actually twice, once in the morning and once um, in the afternoon, and he also said that If there was a problem at the tap, that more customers would be callin' in regarding the same issue and we don't have any other complaints regarding that from any other of your neighbors that are surrounding you..."
"Well then how do you explain the fact that you had network loss at the pole?"
"He came out here after that is what I'm saying," he said. "He came out there when Vic created the ticket for you. He came out there."
"Right. And I'm saying that I'm still having the same problem," I said. "Regardless of whether my neighbors are, I don't know, but I'm having the problem."
"Right," Eric persisted. "So the next steps would be that we could swap out the modem and try a different modem and see if the problem, if it persists."
As it was already March 26, almost two months after I had initially started having problems, I had long since had enough, but I attempted to stay calm.
"But as I told you, Victor was having problems at the pole outside, where my modem was not involved."
"Right! Right!" Eric said. "And Roger, the network technician, came out there is what I'm tellin' you!"
"Right. But apparently whatever he did did not fix the problem."
"But how do you know... You're not even giving it a chance to be your modem!" Eric exclaimed angrily. "You're.. You wanna point your finger at us! And I'm tryin' to troubleshoot it!"
Somewhat shocked at the suggestion that I should throw logical deduction out the window in favor of chance, I tried to explain myself as clearly as possible.
"I don't have to give it a 'chance' to be my modem, because the problem is outside. Because that's what your diagnostics show!"
"Well he came out there an' fixed the problem! You not.. I'm sorry sir, I don't know what you want me to tell you."
The next time I called Comcast to schedule a visit from a technician, I requested that the technician be someone other than Eric. As a result, I got Jeremy, who suggested after re-grounding my already new outside cable wiring, that I replace my modem.
"These Motorolas are some of the most reliable modems that we've got out there," he said. "But we should swap it out."
"I actually checked," I told him. "My neighbor is having the same problem. They have an open wireless network, they're a Comcast customer, and their connection is terrible. There are constant network timeouts and slow ping times. Also, my TV was having problems last night, turning black and white, turning off, freezing, showing pixellated images... My TV doesn't use the cable modem." Jeremy shrugged.
"You're using your modem to get your neighbor's wireless," he pointed out. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
"No I'm not, that's the whole point!" I said. "When I use their modem, I still have the same problem! So it couldn't be my modem!" I wrote down the neighbor's Comcast IP address and gave it to him so that he could figure out which house was affected and solve the problem.
"My supervisor says to replace your modem," he told me, oblivious to the solution I had just offered him. Frustrated at having had to waste my afternoon waiting for him to first show up, and then re-hash the same inane arguments I had already heard, I gave in. Yet he didn't seem to do much except sit in his truck once he had the go-ahead.
"What's going on?" I asked after waiting about ten minutes.
"Oh, normally I can swap out a modem on my laptop, but to waive the fees for you I have to wait on hold." Fifteen minutes later, he replaced my modem.
"What about the 'Customer Appreciation' fee waiver the billing department told me to ask you about?" I asked him.
"Oh, you'd have to talk to billing about that," he said. Shortly thereafter, Jeremy left.
The next night and the following morning, I had the same problem. The internet connection was incredibly slow, and ping times to Google, Inc. in neighboring Mountain View averaged over 1,000 milliseconds.
When I went to (very slowly) check my Comcast bill on-line, I could hardly believe my eyes. I had been charged $19.99 for a "Service Call Charge," and despite the fact that I had previously owned my modem, I had also been charged $3.00 for a "CHSI Internet Mdm Lse."
For all of these reasons, it's interesting to me that Comcast has a really fancy, high-tech lobby at its new skyscraper in Philadelphia. It's also interesting to me that Brian L. Roberts, Comcast's 49-year-old CEO, "earned" $10.41 million in salary last year excluding stock options.
My advice? Unless you want to be stuck with a Comcastic internet connection like mine, you should try DSL. AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson's 2008 compensation package only included $1.4 million in cash, so perhaps his company has some more money to spend on running a communications network that actually works.