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Comcast Refused to Allow St. Paul Man to Cancel Cable Service After His Home Burned to the Ground

Phillip Dampier April 13, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 4 Comments
Ware's home was destroyed, but his cable service lived on. (Image: Pioneer Press)

Ware’s home was destroyed, but his cable service lived on. (Image: Pioneer Press)

A St. Paul, Minn. man lost his home and everything in it after a wind-driven fire destroyed two North End homes on April 1.

As Jimmy Ware (66) tried to put his life back together, his daughter argued with Comcast to turn off cable service at her father’s address.

It took more than ten days and many phone calls to get the cable company to finally turn Ware’s service off, but not until it had managed to irritate his daughter, who wanted to spend her time helping her father find a new home and get back on his feet without the benefit of fire insurance, which Ware lacked.

Jessica Schmidt ran into a Comcast bureaucratic roadblock with the first phone call. Comcast insisted on getting Ware’s account number, which disappeared along with everything else in the fire. Because Schmidt was not listed as an authorized point of contact in Comcast’s records, she made a three-way call with her father to bring him into the conversation. The Comcast representative asked for the last four digits of his Social Security number, but even that didn’t satisfy, and Comcast refused to stop billing Ware for service.

“I’ve said to Comcast, ‘Here’s your choice, disconnect the service or send someone out to fix the cable, because it’s not working,’ ” Schmidt said in a story reported by the Pioneer Press. “The (Comcast) guy said, ‘That doesn’t make sense, because the house burned down.’ I said, ‘Exactly, shut the service off.’ ”

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Four or five calls later, Schmidt heard back from Comcast’s corporate office who finally agreed to cancel service, backdated to April 1st. They also promised Ware would not be bothered a second time from collection efforts to pay for the cable equipment burned in the fire that would normally cost hundreds.

Comcast explained it initially refused to cancel Ware’s cable service for his protection.

“We understand that this is a difficult time for Mr. Ware and apologize for the inconvenience,” wrote Comcast spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert in a statement. “Comcast has safeguards in place to protect the privacy of our customers, including not allowing unauthorized users to make changes to a customer’s account. We do provide the option for customers to designate others, such as family members, to make authorized account changes and verifying an account can normally be done either over the phone or in person with a driver’s license.”

Ware’s neighbors had a better experience skipping Comcast’s customer service hotline and visiting a local Comcast cable store instead. With a family member present, the Comcast representative was able to locate the customer’s account details and canceled service without issue.

N.Y. Broadband Improvement Fund to Public Broadband Networks: Don’t Call Us, We’ll Never Call You

A $500 million New York State broadband improvement fund is effectively off-limits for would-be community-owned broadband networks trying to deliver broadband service in areas for-profit providers have deemed unprofitable.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambitious plan to revolutionize Internet access for New Yorkers depends almost exclusively on for-profit providers and the state’s largest cable operator, Time Warner Cable – the company that has so far received the largest share of state funds earmarked for better broadband.

Cuomo wants all of New York wired for 100Mbps service no later than 2018. His goal is ambitious because the overwhelming majority of upstate New York barely now receives a maximum of 50Mbps from Time Warner Cable, the only significant cable operator in the region.

The broadband map from N.Y. State shows 100Mbps service is available to most New Yorkers from Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, and a handful of municipal/co-op operators. Time Warner Cable only provides a maximum of 50Mbps service across upstate New York.

The broadband map from N.Y. State shows 100Mbps service is available only from Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, and a handful of municipal/co-op operators. Time Warner Cable only provides a maximum of 50Mbps service across upstate New York. Cablevision and FiOS compete on Long Island, Time Warner Cable Maxx competes with Verizon in New York City, and most of upstate New York is served by Verizon or Frontier DSL competing with Time Warner Cable.

Six months after the program was announced, Capital magazine reports the “New NY Broadband” plan is languishing with no defined guidelines, rules, or any clear sense about how the program will be implemented and the money spent.

Salway

Salway

In fact, one of the only clear statements coming from David Salway, a former telecommunications consultant who now administers the program, is that local governments should not bother applying because he doesn’t want them competing with Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Frontier. It’s private enterprise only:

“The primary focus of our program is that we’re not going to be in the building business,” Salway said. He emphasized that municipal governments won’t be specifically precluded from receiving funds under the program, but said that the state is “wary” of “the government building and competing with the private sector. We see this as a provider partnership process where an incumbent provider or maybe a new entrant comes in.”

Local government leaders can read between the lines and most will not bother applying for funding if Salway’s vision guides the grant-making process. Instead, Salway wants to funnel money that effectively belongs to New York taxpayers into the pockets of for-profit providers like Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, Time Warner Cable and other providers that have consistently refused to expand their networks into rural areas on their own dime. The money earmarked for broadband is part of a $6 billion legal settlement the New York Attorney General’s office negotiated with Wall Street and commercial banks that helped plunge the country into The Great Recession.

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Broadband advocates across the political spectrum are slamming the broadband program for different reasons. Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance predicts providers will deliver bait and switch broadband on the taxpayer’s dime and send the proceeds out of the area.

“When you subsidize the private sector, you don’t really know what kind of services they’re going to provide in the future,” Mitchell said. “There’s a fair number that basically rip off consumers,” and they “basically extract resources from the community they serve.”

Mitchell

Mitchell

“The only clear beneficiaries of this program will be cable and Internet providers, who will have a new state subsidy to expand their footprints into areas in which their competitors have demonstrated an inability to operate profitably,” said Ken Girardin of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, in a scathing review of the New NY plan.

So far, Verizon has shown no interest in the program. It’s eventual intent is to decommission rural landline service and push existing customers to wireless service, so applying for wired broadband expansion funding isn’t a priority. The most likely applicants include Windstream, which serves a small percentage of rural New York telephone exchanges, Frontier Communications, which dominates Rochester and parts of the Finger Lakes region, and Time Warner Cable, which used earlier funding to connect two rural communities to its cable service. But all three companies are waiting for the program and its grant terms to be better defined.

With incumbent cable and phone companies reluctant to take part, there are several wired and wireless broadband initiatives in rural areas around New York starved of resources to expand their networks. The “white space” wireless broadband project in Thurman, for example, will be seeking funding to expand its wireless high-speed network into other parts of the community. Other initiatives could allow existing middle mile fiber networks in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes region to explore building out “last mile” service to homes and businesses that now receive only DSL or no Internet access at all.

Salway promises he’ll consider funding networks that deliver the best broadband speeds for the lowest relative price in similarly sized communities. But all the money in the world won’t help if an existing phone or cable company shows no interest in serving unprofitable rural areas even after the state defrays the initial cost of placing the infrastructure to provide the service.

Mitchell believes local communities are best positioned to know what their residents want and many support publicly funded fiber technology rollouts. He points to Longmont, Col., a community that fought off propaganda mailers and a $300,000 marketing effort by CenturyLink and Comcast to defeat public fiber broadband in the city. The residents voted in favor of building their own network to move beyond the “good enough for you” broadband coming from the phone and cable company.

“The Longmonts of the country can decide to wait until these private sector companies decide its in their interest to finally build these fiber networks out, or they can say, ‘You know, we’re always going to be behind the greater technological curve of the nation,’ and do it themselves,” Tom Roiniotis, Longmont’s general manager, told Capital.

Philadelphia Mayor’s Office Hiding Likely-Embarrassing Comcast Performance Survey Results to Protect Company

surveyPhiladelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has gone all out for Comcast, headquartered in the city he oversees. Not only has Nutter organized 51 mayors to sign a joint letter supporting Comcast’s $45 billion bid to take control of Time Warner Cable, he is also helping protect the cable company from embarrassing revelations about its performance in the city.

Philadelphia media and public interest groups are now increasing pressure on the mayor’s office to publicly release the results of an important survey the city conducted as part of its franchise renewal process. Almost two years ago, a random sample of 800 area Comcast customers and non-customers were surveyed by the city to get feedback about Comcast’s performance.

Suspiciously, the full results of the taxpayer-funded survey have been withheld from the public, although the city handed a complete copy of their findings to Comcast so the company can prepare to defend itself.

Once every 15 years Comcast must ask city officials for permission to continue providing cable television service. If the majority of residents surveyed excoriate the cable company and beg the city to grant the franchise to someone else, that could prove a serious embarrassment to Mayor Nutter’s campaign to promote Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“We cannot be on hold any longer,” said councilman Bobby Henon, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat. “We’re cutting short the time to publicly talk about the needs” before the franchises expire later this year, reports the Inquirer.

While the mayor’s office has had no trouble sharing everything they can with Comcast, other groups entitled to the information have only gotten scraps of it or denied access altogether.

The Consumerist found, for example, Philadelphia Community Access Media, responsible for public access programming in the city, has only been shown survey responses directly related to its operations.

Other groups, including West Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project, have been shut out completely and refused access to the survey results or the franchise needs assessment.

Michael_NutterThe mayor’s office has remained elusive explaining why a survey conducted using taxpayer dollars has been kept away from taxpayers.

“All I can say is that it’s still in process. We hope to get it out shortly, though I can’t put a specific date on it,” Mark McDonald, the mayor’s spokesman, told the Inquirer.

Releasing the survey results, which most expect will severely criticize Comcast, could embarrass the mayor who organized a letter writing campaign for Comcast that included language like, “Comcast has established itself as an industry leader and exemplary community partner who invests in its local communities and works hand in hand with local governments on critical social challenges like the digital divide.”

More importantly, it could embarrass Comcast in its renewed effort to push for approval of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable. If the company’s hometown residents rate Comcast lower than a snake pit, that could reverberate with regulators on the state and federal level considering Comcast’s merger request.

Nutter’s office has never exactly held Comcast’s feet to the fire.

This winter Comcast went unopposed seeking total deregulation for its service in Philadelphia. The city filed no comments with the Federal Communications Commission expressing concern over Comcast’s efforts to claim Philadelphia had effective competition, a designation that removes all regulatory oversight over pricing and services. Comcast will now be able to boost television and equipment prices even higher, and they did this past January.

McDonald told the Inquirer a fight wasn’t worth it and Comcast would likely win regardless of the city’s involvement. Nutter’s office appears to be adopting a similar hands-off attitude on renewing Comcast’s franchise for another 15 years without asking for much or anything in return.

Most Philadelphia residents don’t feel Comcast is subject to effective competition, regardless of what the mayor’s office thinks. Verizon FiOS only covers a small part of greater Philadelphia, leaving most residents with just one choice for broadband: Comcast. Verizon DSL no longer meets the FCC’s minimum standards to qualify as broadband.

Man Who Says Comcast Got Him Fired From Job Now Seeking $5 Million In Damages for Invasion of Privacy

Comcast-LogoAfter Comcast customer Conal O’Rourke spent more than a year trying to get the cable company to stop overbilling him, Comcast allegedly got their revenge by having O’Rourke fired from his job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which just so happened to count Comcast as an important client.

O’Rourke sued Comcast after the company allegedly complained about O’Rourke’s persistence to his boss at the accounting firm. After months of discovery motions surrounding the lawsuit, O’Rourke’s legal team has amended their complaint to add a seventh cause of action — invasion of privacy — after Comcast’s damage control efforts exposed private conversations between O’Rourke and Comcast customer service representatives.

The Consumerist was the first to tell O’Rourke’s story, and it has now learned Comcast allegedly recorded and used O’Rourke’s private conversations with the cable company to further disparage O’Rourke to protect its own image. His attorneys are now asking for additional damages, up from the original $1 million to more than $5 million:

After Conal filed suit, Comcast released a statement to Consumerist and others, explaining that, “As part of this investigation, we have listened to recorded calls between Mr. O’Rourke and our customer service representatives and his treatment of them and his language is totally unspeakable.”

This statement and description of the customer service calls goes too far, says Conal in the revised lawsuit.

“The recorded customer service telephone calls between Mr. O’Rourke and Comcast are private, and are not the subjects of legitimate public concern,” reads the amended complaint. “Comcast’s public disclosure of the existence and nature of Mr. O’Rourke’s private calls to Comcast customer service – which disclosure falsely portrays Mr. O’Rourke as an individual lacking in decency, ethics and integrity – is offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.”

The lawsuit claims that “Comcast’s conduct towards Mr. O’Rourke was wanton, willful and intentional, and committed with malicious intent.”

Comcast apparently intends to drag the case out in court, potentially for years.

“That’s how long hard-fought federal lawsuits are taking in this district these days, and Comcast will be opposing it hard,” Conal’s lawyer Harmeet K. Dhillon told Ars Technica. “I can’t say on the record why it didn’t settle, but you can see from Comcast’s public statements that they want to be ‘vindicated.’”

Sorry, That Competing Online Video/Cord-Cutter Competitor is Dead in the Water When Usage Caps Arrive

Phillip "It isn't so dumb to own the pipes" Dampier

Phillip “It isn’t so dumb to own the pipes” Dampier

In 2006, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre thought his company was at a disadvantage being stuck with “dumb pipes” while Google, Yahoo! (remember them?) and Vonage couldn’t count their earnings fast enough. While AT&T sold consumers plain DSL service, content was king on Wall Street and Whitacre groused it was unfair for bandwidth hogs to use “the pipes for free.” That one statement was the equivalent of throwing a lit match on a hillside in Malibu Canyon and a predictable firestorm over Net Neutrality ensued.

Nine years later, Net Neutrality is now official FCC policy, although the sour grape-eating Republicans will continue to throw Congressional hissyfits along the way. While they rely on tissue-thin evidence to back their assertion the FCC secretly colluded with the Obama Administration to stick it to AT&T and demand its repeal, the future of Net Neutrality will more likely be decided in a courtroom a year or two from now.

Back in 2006 AT&T primarily sold DSL service and was looking for cash to finance its then emerging U-verse platform. AT&T planned to follow cable’s lead, devoting most of the available bandwidth on its fiber to the neighborhood network to cable television programming. Broadband speeds were limited to just under 25Mbps — even less if a large household had multiple television sets in use.

But as the Great Recession arrived and wages stagnated, the cost of what used to be a “must-have” service for most Americans increasingly began to exceed the household budget and the day finally arrived when cable companies started losing more television customers than they were adding. Even worse, cable programming costs continue to spiral upwards and no major cable company can increase cable television rates fast enough to support the usual profit margin the industry counted on.

What Whitacre failed to realize nine years earlier is that broadband providers did not simply own “dumb pipes.” AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Charter and other providers actually occupy two gilded catbird seats, with AT&T and Verizon dominating the wireless Internet business and Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter dominating at-home viewing and wired broadband. Lawmakers who deregulated both industries predicted pitting AT&T against Comcast or Verizon against Time Warner Cable would create competition not seen since Coke vs. Pepsi. Consumers would benefit and world-class service would result.

Instead, Time Warner Cable now sells Verizon Wireless phone service. Verizon gave up on expanding its FiOS network and is selling off its DSL and FiOS business in pieces to focus on its best moneymaker, Verizon Wireless. Comcast in turn threw in the towel on any notion of offering competing cellular service and, in fact, sold its acquired wireless spectrum to Verizon.

PlayStation Vue's lineup

PlayStation Vue’s lineup

The best way to make money is to avoid price wars with your competitors and the evidence shows there is growing peace in America’s Telecom Valley. Comcast can now raise your broadband bill because, for most, Verizon FiOS isn’t an option. AT&T U-verse does not have to hurry speed upgrades to customers if Time Warner Cable delivers no better than 50/5Mbps service in large parts of its service area. Google Fiber remains a minor threat, only available in a handful of cities. AT&T distributed more copies of its press release touting U-verse Gigapower — its gigabit Internet offering — than there are customers qualified to sign up.

Notice that we’ve drifted away from talking about cable television programming. So has the industry, now increasingly dependent on broadband rate increases to make up the difference in revenue they used to take home from their television packages.

But now that the biggest players have a predictable source of revenue, allowing disruptors to further challenge earnings isn’t something your local cable and phone company will allow for long. At the moment, those most likely to cause problems are the growing number of “over the top” streaming video services that do not require a cable television subscription to watch. But they do need broadband — Whitacre’s “dumb pipes” — to reach subscribers. To manage that, services like Apple, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV and their customers must deal with the gatekeepers — AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and others.

What Whitacre thought was a disadvantage is now becoming the best thing in the world — manning a toll booth on the only two roads most Americans can use to access online content.

Today, Sony officially launched its Internet-TV service, “PlayStation Vue” in three cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) with a base price of $49.99/month. In includes more than 50 cable networks and in the three launch cities — local network affiliates. In Chicago and Philadelphia, where Comcast provides cable service, potential customers will need to pay $50 a month for Vue and another $64.95 a month for 50Mbps broadband — the least expensive broadband-only tier that is suitable for high quality viewing. Your combined bill for both services is $114.94 a month. Comcast charges $99.99 a month for its double play – 220 TV channels and 50Mbps broadband — almost $15 a month less for its package, and it includes around 150 more channels than Vue.

Comcast explans its new usage caps.

Comcast explains its new usage caps.

But Comcast also has another weapon it is testing is several of its markets — the resumption of usage caps and overlimit fees on its broadband service. Comcast customers in most test markets are given 300GB a month, after which they face overlimit fees of $10 for each additional increment of 50GB. While web browsing and e-mail fit more than comfortably within those caps, watching HD video may not. That leaves a potential Vue customer with a major dilemma. Should they pay $15 a month more for service than they can pay Comcast for a better package -and- chew away their usage allowance using it?

Comcast has yet to figure out how to install a coin collector on top of your television set, so you can watch as much Comcast cable television as you’d like. But watching streaming video could get very expensive if it exceeds a future Comcast usage allowance.

Smaller video packages from providers like Sling TV or the forthcoming Apple streaming service might make more sense, but will still be subject to Comcast’s usage caps if/when they are reintroduced around the country, while Comcast’s own television service will not.

This is why cable and phone companies hold enormous power over their potential competitors, even if Net Neutrality is fiercely enforced. Usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and both are permitted. The FCC has consistently refused to engage on the issue of broadband usage caps, leaving providers with a useful weapon to deter customers from dropping their television package in favor of an online alternative.

With most Americans having a choice of only one or two “dumb pipes” over which they can reach these services, being an owner of those pipes and getting to set the rates and conditions to use them is a very comfortable (and profitable) place to be.

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