Before Seth moved to his new home in Kitsap County, Washington, he checked with Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) to make sure the Internet provider offered service at the address.
That's a logical precaution before buying a house for someone who works remotely as a software developer. It might seem a little paranoid to people who live in densely packed cities where Internet service is a foregone conclusion. But, in more spread-out areas, it's possible for an Internet provider to serve the community, but not every street and home.
Seth -- who does not offer his last name, but has had his story verified by multiple media outlets, including The Consumerist -- made two calls to Comcast before making an offer on the house. Assured by the company that it did offer service at his address, the software developer made a deal to purchase the house.
That's when his customer service nightmare began.
A Comcastic disaster
After closing on his home, Seth -- who kept a detailed record of his broadband odyssey on his blog -- placed an order for Comcast's business service. That order was cancelled, but the company offered him its consumer Xfinity service and he made an appointment for installation.
The technician arrived as scheduled, but that's where things began to go wrong:
The first thing he expressed to us was surprise that we didn't already have a Comcast box on the side of the house. We searched the property, and in fact, there was no Comcast box anywhere. Now, there is a coax utility box, but it wasn't Comcast's. That originally confused both of us, but on further inspection, the utility box with coax running into it used to be hooked up to a satellite system on a pole near the house (with the dish now removed), so it wasn't CATV at all.
At this point, the tech told Seth that "we'd need to have coax run from the road to our house, which would probably also involve installing a new service pedestal along the way." The Comcast worker placed the order for that and filed what's known as a Drop Bury Request to bring in service.
Things were beginning to go south, but Seth still believed it would be resolved, albeit with a bit more hassle and time invested than initially expected.
About a week later, Seth received an unscheduled visit from a technician who, after doing some exploring, told him that a Drop Bury Request would not solve the problem because he was "too far away from the cable infrastructure."
That touched off a round of visits and phone calls between Seth and Comcast which grew increasingly more frustrating. From one rep to the next, there seemed to be little consistency in what the now-frustrated homeowner was hearing, and it began to seem possible that the company -- despite multiple assurances -- was not going to be able to resolve the problem.
From about five weeks in, Seth's troubles began to snowball. At first, Comcast wanted him to pay a portion of the estimated $56,000-$60,000 cost to connect his home. He wouldn't carry the whole cost but he never found out exactly what his bill would be -- one he was considering paying to be able to stay in his dream house -- because Comcast decided it would not do the work even if Seth paid for it.
I don't know where we go from here. I don't know if there's any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied. I don't throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They've fed me false information from the start, and it's hurt me very badly.
This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn't serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.
It's actually hard to tell here whether Comcast lied or whether it was simply incompetent, which is much more likely the case here. It's also worth noting that Seth also tried to get service from CenturyLink, which made similar promises about the address and was unable to deliver.
Comcast and Centurylink's non-response
The reporter who wrote The Consumerist article, Chris Morran, contacted both Comcast and CenturyLink but did not receive an answer.
"Even though Comcast was given weeks to research and comment on Seth's story, the company has yet to provide Consumerist with a statement or explanation of how it could not only fail to keep an accurate accounting of serviceable addresses, but why it continued to send tech after tech to do installs that couldn't be done," he wrote.
It's not a unique problem
While it's easy to pick on Comcast because it's the biggest cable company, stories like Seth's are not unique. In some cases, customers are told their address is served when it isn't at all. In other cases, they are promised certain speeds of service which are not actually available. ARS Technica, which also reported on Seth's case, detailed a number of transgressions committed by broadband providers including AT&T and Time Warner Cable.
Seth himself offered two tips for anyone who needs home Internet access for work before buying a home:
- Never trust Comcast Sales when they tell you that service is available. Verify if [sic] yourself, and if that means you need to spend two weeks studying up on CATV infrastructure so you know exactly how to spot trunk line, line extenders, taps, and HFC nodes, then do it.
- Know your rights. Always request a copy of your CATV franchise agreement and read it thoroughly. They're usually quite long, and full of legalese, but it's worth it.
In general, the broadband industry seems to have trouble keeping track of what addresses it serves. I get mail from Frontier on a regular basis offering to replace my Cox Internet and cable package with its service at a fairly fabulous price. My attempts to accept this offer, however, were rebuffed as the new provider in my area serves my Connecticut town, but not my condo complex.
This may be a small problem in numbers, but broadband providers must be held responsible and forced to serve entire communities, not just the areas where it's most cost-effective. In many cases, companies like Comcast are given exclusive franchises in a city or town and those deals must mandate 100% service.
At the very least, ISPs should be forced to keep accurate lists of where they do and do not offer service so consumers can make informed choices.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. His family home in New Hampshire was not served by any broadband provider for many years, though that has recently changed. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.