Another Perspective

Feed Comcast to the Lions

Most of its D.C. area clients would cheer.

By 3.11.08

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"I am a great friend of public amusements, for they keep people from vice." -- Samuel Johnson

It's been said that America has a lot in common with ancient Rome, but one key difference is that we no longer feed religious minorities to lions. Instead, we have cable television and the Internet to pacify the masses. Who needs gladiators when you've got American Gladiators?

So you'd think that the ongoing efforts of our nation's public institutions and private corporations to keep people's bloodlust sated would be geared toward making these services as easy to access as possible. Sadly, in Washington, D.C., where I recently moved, the opposite seems to be the case.

Why? In a word: Comcast.

Comcast is allegedly a cable and Internet service provider, but recent attempts to deal with their customer representatives suggest otherwise. My first call to the company went smoothly, probably because they were selling and I was buying. A technician was scheduled to show up at my new apartment and install the apparatus. I was given a date and a three-hour window in which he was supposed to arrive.

At 2 p.m., the end of the time window I'd been given, I called customer service and was calmly reassured that someone would be by. No more than half an hour. An hour and a half later, desperate for a wi-fi signal, or even just a rerun of Stargate SG-1, I called again. "Just 45 minutes!" I was told. I was certain I'd stepped into one a Star Trek-style time-space distortion field.

Close to 6 p.m., nearly two hours later, the technician finally showed up, and things went downhill from there. In my apartment, he moved slowly and with obvious uncertainty, as if installing coaxial cables -- ostensibly his job -- was the equivalent of doing upper-level calculus.

At one point, when asked a question, he simply froze for several minutes, staring straight ahead and saying nothing, like a street mime playing a statue, except twice as annoying. It was the only time I'd seen a human being experience a total system crash. Unfortunately, technicians do not come equipped with restart buttons.

For more than an hour, he fumbled with cables and called dispatchers. Eventually, he informed me that I would not have Internet service, and that a senior technician would have to come on site to fix a problem with Comcast's TV-on-request service, OnDemand. Someone from the company would call the following day, he explained, and all would be set right, which, after a day stuck at the house waiting for him to show up, seemed unlikely.

AND INDEED it was. Over the next several days, I spent numerous hours on the phone talking to with a cast of customer service reps who seemed to be under the impression that "service" means "cluelessness" or "flatly wrong information."

Many of them promised to call me back with more information; not one ever did. I was told at one point that HBO OnDemand was no longer offered, despite the fact that, at the same time, Comcast's own website listed 8 of their top 10 OnDemand programs as HBO shows. (Perhaps it should be called OnAWhim?)

Attempts to schedule an appointment were met with the line, "We'll call you back." I count it as a victory that I was only hung up on once. Except for the technician who finally arrived to fix things, it was unquestionably the worst customer service I have ever received in my life.

During my time of cablelessness, I ranted to friends, many of whom told me horror stories of their own -- including the person who'd moved into the same neighborhood the month before and still lacked service. The kicker? He, she, or it works for a telecom association.

In fact, for otherwise reasonable residents of our nation's capital, the name Comcast sends them into fits of apoplectic rage. Witness the church-going old lady who took a hammer to her service rep's keyboard. People in Washington tend to think of the company in an almost mythological fashion -- an angry, violent beast that swoops in to kill time and goad its victims, but cannot be defeated, only dealt with.

But perhaps Comcast is not all to blame. Maybe it is, as my liberal friends would say, a victim of circumstance. After all, why should any company bother improving its service when its competition is limited by city bureaucracy? For a service provider to operate in the District, it must first be granted a permit to do so by the city's Office of Cable Television (that's right, there's an Office of Cable Television) -- a lengthy, complicated process which must eventually be approved by both the DC Council and the Mayor.

With two companies and satellite television available, it's not quite a state-granted monopoly, though many locations are served by only one provider. However, the regulatory barriers to entry for any potential competitors remain so high that Comcast can essentially do as it pleases -- including staff its phone banks and technician positions with the most frustrating people in the history of world.

Insulated by bureaucracy, it can treat its customers as a captive audience. It would be too much to directly compare the actions of either a municipal regulatory or a cable company to Communism, but, like so many D.C. residents, I feel there is a great evil at play here all the same.

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