Come On, Comcast… You’ve Gotta Be Better Than This

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I’m writing this while watching the NFL Week 5 showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m watching it live, in the comfort of my own living room. That’s because, for the first time in years, I’ve made the decision to pay for cable TV. I’m not the first to try this experiment, but the experience has already reminded me why I didn’t want to pay for cable TV to begin with.**

The Background

I generally don’t watch TV, which is why I wasn’t paying for it. But I do need broadband Internet at home — my job pretty much depends on me being connected. But I was paying about $70 a month for not very good Internet — I think I was getting about 10 or maybe 15 Mbps. Now think about that for a second. In Kansas City, Google will be charging its users $70 for 1 Gbps fiber service. I was getting literally one-hundredth of that for the same price.

So when I received a call from Comcast customer service phone rep, asking if I wanted to upgrade my service, I said yes. The offer? Basic cable TV and 25 Mbps Internet at a promotional rate of $70, which goes up $10 per month after six months. For half a year I would be getting more for the same amount and then after that, I’d only be paying $10 more. Getting faster broadband was worth the extra money by itself — actually having live TV is just kind of a bonus.***

Lack of Transparency

Which brings me to my first problem with the cable industry. In the effort to endlessly slice and dice the market, with all the promotional offers and what-not, it seems like no one knows what they’re paying for or what they’re actually getting. Take a look at the Comcast bundles page whenever you get a chance and try to figure out which package you would want to sign up for. Try to figure out how much you’ll be paying once the promotional offers are over, and which channels you get and for how long. What’s more, all those offers differ by market, so the products and services I see will inevitably different than those available in other Comcast markets.

For Kansas City residents, that’s one of the most compelling things about the Google Fiber plan: One flat price, everyone gets the same pricing, and there’s no confusion about what they get: There’s the same Gigabit fiber speed for everyone at $70, the same TV package for those who opt to pay $50 more, and those who want premium channels like HBO pay a little bit more. Everyone gets the same equipment, unless they opt to pay for an additional box or whatever, but that’s not unusual.

There’s also the matter of “gotcha” promotions — like getting HBO or Showtime free for a couple months and then getting charged for it when the promotional period is over.

So what’s the solution here? A flatter pricing structure, fewer plans, fewer promotional offers that end after six or 12 months, more transparency.

Being Nickel And Dime’d To Death

Alongside the lack of pricing transparency, there’s also the issue of endless add-ons, upgrades, and equipment leases that Comcast users face. Time Warner Cable subscribers are all up in arms because the company just began leasing them the cable modems they used to get free, for $3.99. Guess what? I’m paying $7 for my Docsis 3.0 cable modem, and will likely just buy my own from Amazon over the next few days. It’ll end up paying for itself in six months to a year.

My set-top box is capable of displaying HD channels, but I don’t have HD. Why? That’ll be another $10 a month. Want HD and DVR? That’ll be $17 a month. Coming from a situation where I had 15 channels off an over-the-air antenna, I didn’t think I really needed to pay extra for those features. After all, I don’t actually watch TV all that often. But for someone who does, ordering high-speed broadband, HD, & DVR for one TV means spending $25 in monthly equipment costs alone.

Comcast also has a wide range of choices for allowing users to “Customize” their bundles, including adding things like Comcast’s Netflix wannabe, Streampix, for $4.99 a month. (I have been offered Streampix “free” as part of my promotional package, and wondering if I’m going to be charged $5 a month for a service I’m unlikely to use even before those six months are up.) And lots of On Demand channels — Disney Family Movies On Demand, WWE Classics On Demand, etc.

Cut the equipment leasing costs, Comcast. At least for the first TV in the home. Some things — like HD and DVR — are becoming table stakes. It makes no sense to charge subscribers for them.

The Customer Service Nightmare

And then there’s the customer service. Oh, the customer service. Complaining about cable company customer service is a total cliche, but it’s cliche because it’s true.

Here’s my experience: When I agreed to upgrade to get TV in addition to broadband Internet, I knew that I’d need a tech to come by to wire my tiny little apartment. So I set a time a few days later, between 8:00 AM and noon, for the tech to come by. When I told a few people, they laughed and said that means they’ll show up at 12:15. Ha ha, I thought.

That is, until it was 11:45 and there was no sign of anyone coming anytime soon. After talking to some Comcast folks, I found out that my appointment had been put in the schedule for 12:00 to 2:00. When he finally did arrive, the tech was courteous and professional and got my apartment wired up ok. And a follow-up call with customer service resulted in Comcast waiving the installation fee. But that still doesn’t change the fact that tasks like scheduling appointments shouldn’t consistently be an issue.

Caveat

I know that these issues are endemic in the industry, and this is a lot of piling on for Comcast, when different pay TV providers have the same issues. But Comcast is the biggest of those providers, and while it’s been really forward-thinking in pushing TV Everywhere and building apps for mobile and connected devices, it still suffers in the fundamental blocking and tackling skills that are required for keeping customers happy.

Then again, cable customers don’t expect to be happy. They fully expect these issues and this level of service. There’s still no reason for Comcast to play down to those expectations.

[Photo source]

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* From a pure economic standpoint, it absolutely makes sense for me to pay a few bucks for cable, instead of shelling out upwards of $50 a weekend to get really drunk and eat too much while cheering my team on amongst other fans. But not nearly as fun.

** Over the course of the Eagles game, I’ve seen no less than a dozen Comcast ads telling me that Xfinity is “the future of awesome.” Dude, just saying that on national TV doesn’t quite make it so!

*** The funny thing about upgrading my service in this fashion is that I’ve likely become a less profitable customer for Comcast than when I was just a pure broadband subscriber. As a pay TV customer, it now has to pay all of its content partners for channels that I don’t really watch. It’s making $10 more from me per month, but then turning around and paying all of that to cable networks. ESPN alone is going to get about half of the difference.