Comcast "Upgrades" Signal, Drives Loyal Customer To DirecTV

The cable television business model is, in essence, very simple. We consumers pay the cable company. They zap programming to our eyeballs, and we send them money. One longtime customer was happy to exchange about $60 every month for access to a little bit of TV. Then Comcast transitioned to a digital signal, and everything just went to hell.

Nominally, my cable bill is $59 a month. For this price, I faithfully mail checks to Comcast and they allow me to see a few local channels, a little CNN, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. No HBO, no HD, nothing really exciting. The price seems high, but I like to watch a little television and I like to avoid hassle.

Things went well for ten years. Then Comcast decided to force a digital “upgrade” upon all customers.

I was told that I would need a few digital converter boxes, and I ordered them online.

I was given a date by which to have them installed. Imagine my surprise when Comcast turned off the channels and all I could watch was C-Span prior to that date. C-Span is exciting, but not quite as exciting as Animal Planet. There may have been a couple of other dreadful channels available to me but the point is – the cable I was accustomed to watching (and still paying $59 for) was turned off.

So, I began connecting the 12″ by 24″ ancient-looking digital converter boxes. Only two worked. The one I saved for last – the one in the room I watch the most TV – was an electronic brick. Nothing would cause the cable box to activate. Online help was useless.

I called Comcast customer service two nights in a row and got nowhere. Eventually someone called me and said she would walk me through a troubleshooting process. Before I could touch a thing she said “wait, I can see from here that the problem is with the box, there’s nothing we can do.” Well, it was really, really charming to have my dinner interrupted so Comcast could tell me they were wasting our mutual time with a useless phone call. She suggested I visit the local office and pick up a new box if I did not want to wait a week to have one shipped to my house and abandoned on my porch. (Incidentally – this representative gave me two different last names for herself; if they’re going to invent a name for interacting with the public, consistency would be nice.)

When the weekend came (a week without cable – by my reckoning, I’ve wasted $15) I waited in a very long line. I exchanged the cable box I had for an even larger and uglier box. (If I had wanted to have to use boxes to access television, I would have gone to DirectTV or Dish years ago – and I still intend to.)

I took the box home and activated it according to the instructions on the packaging – and the activation failed. Of course! What was I thinking? A few activation attempts later (and with a switch from telephone-based activation to online activation), I finally had a few channels.

I had terrible functionality – changing channels required a several-second lag between pressing the remote control buttons and the picture onscreen actually changing. And, even better – when I turned off the TV, the video disappeared but the audio lingered for a few seconds. It was almost like having a haunted TV – it was cute for Halloween, but it became old.

So, at long last, I had video and audio on my primary TV with which to enjoy the few shows I have time to watch. To the extent that “enjoying TV” involves never changing channels, or waiting extremely patiently as the cable box tries to catch up to my channel-changing requests.

Happily ever after? In no way, means or shape. Comcast sent my bill with a $19.95 Change of Service Fee tacked on, as a token of their appreciation for my patience at dealing with the utterly crapulent service issues of the past month. An extra twenty bucks, which I assume I do owe them for the many evenings I spent curled up with a warm laptop, logged onto my account, parsing explanations of my problem into extremely small words for the benefit of their offshore customer service representatives. I mean, a movie in the theaters costs nearly half that, and you only get two hours of entertainment; I spent at least ten hours on The Great Digital Bait and Switch and my cost breaks down to an expense of only $2 per hour. Comcast cable – what a fantastic entertainment value!

I called customer service and asked why I was assessed a $20 fee, when I had made no request to them for a change in cable; they simply asked me to make changes to accommodate their system and I complied. I was told the fee was because a technician had been dispatched to upgrade me. I don’t remember having a visitor at my house at 9:00 that first night – surely I would have noticed. Then, I was told that the technician had to make a change on their system to allow me to receive digital services. Since I was being involuntarily upgraded, the very least Comcast could have done would have been to make this clear in advance that my bill was going to go up 33%. I mean, $65 (after taxes) for a little bit of cable TV went to $85 without warning. Isn’t that a little bit unpleasant?

Customer service told me the $20 fee was unchangeable. I asked to speak with a supervisor, and I was assured that I would receive a call back that night. Shocker – zero calls! Comcast, very exactly, did not keep their word. They simply said whatever was necessary to get me off of the line and to keep the volume at their call center down.

I’ve spent the past hour on DirectTV’s website, designing my ideal cable package. And it really is ideal – I can get whole-house DVR service, where I can record my shows in one place and watch them on any TV in the house. And my friends, all happy DirectTV subscribers, have been showing me how I can use my cell phone to send instructions to the DVR – that way, I can update my show-recording information when I’m away from home. And it’s going to cost me a lot less. It’s a shame it took a decade for me to realize what a mistake I was making with Comcast…

Oh, and “We_Can_help@comcast.com”? You really can’t and don’t. Not when your version of helping requires me to be at my house in front of my TV between the hours of 8 and 5, and my job requires me to be elsewhere. I can’t afford to miss work just to babysit the television.

Price hikes, fees for the price hikes, and phantom technicians: some upgrade. Baffling. If even the much-vaunted Twitter team can’t help, things are horribly, horribly wrong in Comcastlandia.

No Value in Comcast [atwhatpricetv] (Thanks, Josh!)