Opinion: Waiting for FiOS, and waiting and waiting...

You'd think broadband providers would want new customers

With the U.S. economy in a recession, and low broadband sign-ups during the past two quarters, you'd think broadband providers would be eager for new customers.

In my case, it seems like not so much.

On one side there's my current provider, Comcast, which has a weird billing system that lets it shut off service without any real warning. On the other side is Verizon, which seems to be doing everything it can to avoid providing fiber-based FiOS service to my house -- even though it's available in my neighborhood.

The story starts like this: About three months ago, I called Verizon to ask about its FiOS broadband and television service.

This wasn't an out-of-the-blue request. Verizon has been promising FiOS in my area for a couple of years, and in April or so, I observed a Verizon technician stringing wires on our street. He assured me the wires were for FiOS service.

In recent months, Verizon has been trumpeting FiOS in mail sent to our address and in advertisements in two local weekly newspapers. With the ads promising we could save up to $40 a month from our monthly cable, broadband and phone bills, I called Verizon.

I told the Verizon representative I wanted FiOS. "It's not available to your address," she said.

I had an ace up my sleeve. "But you're sending me mail offering it," I said. "And ... my next-door neighbor has it."

Yes, in addition to having stood and watched the Verizon technician string the fiber cables across my street, I had also seen that my neighbors in the very next house have FiOS.

The Verizon sales rep wasn't buying it. "But sir, it says right here that FiOS isn't available to you," she said.

After I debated her for a couple of minutes, she transferred me to a FiOS technician. I talked to a nice woman there who confirmed that their database didn't include our address, but she promised to have the Verizon engineers manually enter my address into the database.

I also asked the FiOS woman a question about running a second VoIP line into my house. She said she'd have the expert in that area get back to me by the next day.

As I said, that was about three months ago. No one from Verizon has called me back, either about the VoIP question or about whether FiOS is now available.

I moved on to other things. Then, about a month ago, my cable broadband service shut down in the middle of a day I was working from home -- no Internet, no phone service; remember, we have VoIP service that depends on a working broadband connection.

There was no warning from Comcast, other than a late-payment notice a few days earlier.

This wasn't a new thing. Downtime on Comcast's broadband service isn't particularly rare. So I unplugged my modem and router and waited for the service to reconnect. I tried that three or four times before I decided this wasn't a normal outage.

I plugged in my Verizon wireless broadband card and got a connection. I went to Comcast and tried the online chat help option. After a few minutes, the Comcast representative joined my chat room.

I explained that my Internet was out, but my cable TV service was working just fine. He checked my account. "Oh," he said. "Your payment is past due."

"My wife paid the bills last week," I explained. "You should have the payment by now."

Now, my wife and I aren't always the most prompt about paying bills. We tend to pay bills once a month, and Comcast demands payment about two weeks after sending out the bill. So the bill was, in fact, overdue, although you'd think they'd give us a little slack after being customers for three years.

The Comcast rep checked our account. "Oh yes, I see your payment. It's pending."

"OK," I said. "Can you turn my service back on?"

"No, I can't do it until the payment actually posts. You should have service by tomorrow or the next day."

"What?!?!? You won't turn my service back on until the payment clears? What kind of customer service is that?"

After going round and round with the Comcast rep for a few minutes, I gave an ultimatum: "If you don't turn my service back on immediately, I'm dumping Comcast."

He refused.

I logged out and waited for a half-hour, then tried to call Comcast. A new customer service rep tried to get into my account to turn on my service, only to find the first rep had not logged out of my account. The second rep couldn't get in.

Finally, close to two hours later, I talked to a third Comcast rep, and she was able to turn on my service within the next hour.

Meanwhile, I had spent the better part of the afternoon limping along with no home or office phone, using my mobile card's broadband-lite service to attempt to work. And I'd wasted at least an hour dealing with Comcast instead of actually working.

I vowed to call Verizon back. Again, the first customer service rep insisted FiOS wasn't available. I had a new ace up my sleeve: "I went to your Web site and entered my neighbor's address to see if FiOS was available, and the Web site said it was. And the utility pole my neighbor uses for FiOS straddles our property line!"

Yes, house number 904 on our block has FiOS service, according to Verizon's own database. But my house, 906, doesn't have FiOS available.

She finally transferred me to a FiOS technician. The woman there checked the database. No, FiOS wasn't available. She again promised to have my address manually entered into the database before my Verizon mobile service dropped the call.

All this has happened as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, the three largest broadband providers in the U.S., posted the lowest numbers of new customer sign-ups in many quarters during the second quarter of 2008. The numbers rebounded in the third quarter, but they were generally still lower than sign-ups in recent years.

This also comes as the large broadband providers insist there's plenty of competition in the broadband industry. In my case, I have two companies that can provide me broadband, and that doesn't seem to be enough competition to ensure decent customer service.

After my second call to Verizon, nothing happened. Finally, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, I called Verizon a third time. This time, a nice woman heard my story, checked the database, and promised to have the issue of my missing address fixed within 72 hours.

That was two weeks ago. I'm still waiting for Verizon to call me back.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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