Why I came crawling back to Comcast

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Five years ago I kicked out Comcast, cut the cable TV cord, and went to my local telco provider, FairPoint Communications, for high-speed Internet service. Now I'm giving Comcast a second chance.

I'm already starting to have second thoughts.

Things went downhill with Comcast a few years ago, right after we decided to drop cable TV. To discourage de-bundling of its cable TV, telephone and Internet service offerings, Comcast made sure that a-la-carte pricing was costly if you didn't include at least their entry level cable TV tier. The monthly price of purchasing just their high-speed Internet in my area was about $70 for a measly 6 Mbps connection versus about $100 for the triple play bundle. But costs gradually went up until I was paying about $20-$30 more per month. At the time FairPoint offered a 15 Mbps connection for about $30 a month, and I jumped at it.

Suddenly, not so good

I've had a good run. But FairPoint's prices gradually rose to $59.99 a month, and lately the quality of service hasn't been up to snuff. Over the last few months problems showed up in the form of poor video streaming performance and Vonage voice over IP telephone calls in my office that suddenly made it sound like I was talking under water. I chalked up the video issues to Wi-Fi glitches, and since my home Ooma VoIP phone system worked fine I assumed that the office VoIP problem must be with Vonage. After several calls to overseas tech support staff I finally ended up talking to a tier 3 tech, who told me that the problem wasn't on their end. He suspected a conflict with my Carbonite backups which, he said, was a known issue. But shutting off Carbonite seemed to have no effect.

The culprit ended up being my Internet service.

While all of this was going on I had occasionally checked speedtest.net to test my Internet bandwidth. I had found no problems. But when I tried running the test at regular intervals throughout the day I discovered that performance was jumping up and down like a yo-yo. At times the ping test results would jump from 30 ms to 500 ms, while download speeds would drop to less than 2 Mbps.

Customer service fail

Unfortunately, FairPoint didn't seem to have its act together when it came to fixing the issue. After spending time on the phone going back and forth with tech support staff, FairPoint finally diagnosed the problem as something on their end. They kicked a work order over the wall to the field service folks who, so they said, would call me within 48 hours. No, they couldn't tell me the status of the work order and no, I couldn't check the progress of my trouble ticket online. Heck, said a support desk staffer, even they didn't know whether or when work orders sent to the other group were resolved! After several days without a call back and one more call get an update on my trouble ticket (sorry, it looks like they're still backed up from the 4th of July holiday) I decided to see what Comcast had to offer.

What they were offering looked pretty darned good -- at first. For just under $55 a month ($39.95 during the initial promo price period) Comcast would supply a 25 Mbps service, the sales person said. So for $5 less I could get about 60% more bandwidth. What's more, the new cable modem included a slot for a backup battery that would keep my phones online for up to 8 hours during a power outage. Ironically, FairPoint, which does provide emergency backup power to its traditional telco twisted pair telephone network, didn't offer the same capability in its DSL routers.

The big switch

I placed the order a week ago Friday. Last Monday the Comcast truck arrived and the tech ran a new wire from the pole to my home office. On Tuesday a rather large box arrived with the new Cable modem, along with simple instructions. The self-install process didn't work, but I got through to a support tech right away. Although the telephone tech had a thick accent that was hard to understand, she did the job, initializing the thing in just a few minutes. I then jacked in my Wi-Fi router, Ooma box and Vonage vPortal and -- boom -- back in business. No more video caching delays with Amazon and Netflix on the Roku streaming boxes or the iPad, and Vonage sound quality was back to normal.

Last Wednesday, with the new service up and running, and after more than a week without a call back from FairPoint, I called customer service to cancel my DSL. I wasn't the only customer complaining about a lack of a call back, the woman on the other end of the line admitted. She terminated the service with a friendly apology, and I unplugged the DSL router and set it in the corner. And that was that. Until...

An unexpected twist

Today the first Comcast bill arrived. While the promo price of $39.99 is good for the first year, the regular price after that is $66.95 -- $12 more than the $54.95 I was quoted by phone. Did I misunderstand? Did the sales person make an error? Or -- heaven forbid -- did I just fall victim to a bait-and-switch tactic? The Comcast billing rep politely took my information, declined to make any adjustments and said I could cancel at any time -- a prospect that I must admit raised my anxiety level after just having listened to (Ryan Block's experience with a Comcast customer service rep last week). Bad timing, to be hearing this now. But surely that was an outlier?

In one sense I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. But Comcast's service quality has been good so far, the customer service and tech people have been available, helpful and polite, and the $39.95 per month pricing is good until next summer. So I've decided stick with Comcast. But I've placed a reminder on my calendar to shop again next June, before the price hike comes.

Are you listening, Fairpoint?

Update: This morning at 10:15 AM I finally received a call from a FairPoint tech about servicing my DSL. Apparently someone didn't cancel the work order after I called to terminate my service last week.

5:05 PM: A Fairpoint automated attendant calls and plays a recording telling me that Fairpoint has found and corrected th problem with my line.

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