Friday, June 15, 2007

Comcast "Customer Security Assistance:" ComTastic!

Comcast to me: "No More Broadband For YOU!"

So, two days ago my home internet service stopped. Not unusual in this day and age, I suppose. I go to the Home Nerve Center - uh, the shelf with crap on it next to my furnace in the basement - and I take a look at the modem lights: the send and receive lights were blinking in a monotonous, 1-blink-per-second pattern. Hmmmm. No service.

Being the whip-smart, CTO type that I am, I pull out my portable communications equipment - uh, my cell phone - and put in call to Comcast customer support. I go through the usual voice mail maze until I reach a charming human being named Kimberly. She asks for my phone number (important plot point here) and calls up my account...then comes the bone-chilling silence, followed by "Sir, there is a note here that your account has been flagged by CSA!"

"What, " I ask, "is CSA?"

...the silence is deafening, and I think I hear the Darth Vader theme in the background as poor Kimberly finally croaks out:

"Sir, CSA is....Customer Security Assurance!"

Thinking that I don't really need to be assured about the state of my security, I respond: "Nope, never heard of them." In a voice usually reserved for old italian women kneeling at a catholic alter, Kimberly responds:

"Sir, you have to call over to the CSA. There is nothing more I can do here..." (I can almost feel her tiptoe away from the phone as she forwards my call.)

As I am waiting for the new, cheery person at CSA to pick up the phone, I log into Google (hahah - of COURSE I have more than one way of accessing the internet. Jeez) and type in "Comcast Customer Security Assurance." You know what I get? Almost nothing. Yup. Try it yourself, its a fun experiment. They have no web presence, and very little presence at all out side the company. Just this one oblique reference on Broadband Forums about an email to a user saying they were unceremoniously shutting his email accounts down. Hmm. Not good.


Me: "Hi. I was told to call here by your customer support group. They said that..."

... I was cut off by a voice that was more alien than human.

AlienVoice: "What is your phone number?"
Me: (give them my phone number)
AlienVoice: "I have nothing under that number."
Me: "Well, that's my number."
AV: "Nothing."
Me: "Well, that's the number I just gave customer support, and they found my account."
AV: "That is not possible." (I swear I am not making this up. Not even for dramatic effect. Honest.)
Me: "Uh....does CSA have a direct phone number?"
AV: "No. You reach us through customer support." (Really, I am not making this up.)
Me: "Um, you see the problem here, don't you?"
AV: "You gave them a different number."
Me: "I only have one."
AV: (Clearly irritated having to speak to the human) "Name?"
Me: (I give my name as the alien instructed)
AV: "Ah, here you are. You did not give me your correct number."
Me: "What?"
AV: "You are in our Global Database as ... " and she gives me a number from 5 years ago. (Really, she really called it their Global Database.)
Me: "That's an old phone number."
AV: "It is your responsibility to inform us of your change in number."
Me: "I did. You have it."
AV: "You are in our Global Database under the number I gave you."
Me: "Customer service found me using my current number."
AV: "That is not possible. We access the same Global Database." (Please, honestly. I am not making this up.)
Me: "That's not my problem."

...ok, this wasn't getting anywhere...

Me: "Ok, why did you terminate my service."
AV: (Reading from a written statement) "Your high bandwidth consumption was flagged for violation of the Comcast Terms of Service, and your service was suspended. Upon acknowledge of this statement, your service will get restated. However, continued violations will result in a 12 month suspension of service. Do you understand and acknowledge this statement?" (Yes, I wrote it down.)
Me: "What violation? How much bandwidth was I using?"
AV: "Your high bandwidth consumption was flagged for violation of the Comcast Terms of Service, and your service was suspended. Upon acknowledge of this statement, your service will get restated. However, continued violations will result in a 12 month suspension of service. Do you understand and acknowledge this statement?"
Me: (Sighing) "Yes."
AV: "Your service will be available before the end of the day."

...while this was going on, I was looking up the Comcast terms of service. This, I believe, was the offending paragraph:

You further agree to comply with all Comcast network, bandwidth, and data storage and usage limitations. You shall ensure that your bandwidth consumption using the Service does not exceed the limitations that are now in effect or may be established in the future. If your use of the Service results in the consumption of bandwidth in excess of the applicable limitations, that is a violation of this Policy. In such cases, Comcast may, in its sole discretion, terminate or suspend your Service account or request that you subscribe to a version of the Service with higher bandwidth usage limitations if you wish to continue to use the Service at higher bandwidth consumption levels.

Me: "What was my bandwidth violation?"
AV: "We recorded 880Gig in May."

...Hmmmm...that was a lot..about 28 Gigs a day. I download quite a bit, but that didn't sound right.

Me: "That does sound like a lot."
AV: (Ah, the human understands!) "Yes! Yes, it is! It places you in the top 1% of all Comcast users."
Me: "I've never been in the top 1% of stuff before!"
AV: Silence
Me: "That was a joke."
AV: Silence
Me: "Can you tell me what the consumption was?"
AV: "No, we do not monitor activity." (Uh huh.)
Me: "Well, you should have alerted me earlier."
AV: "Your phone number..."
Me: "...was not in the Global Database, yes yes."
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "Which was your fault."
AV: Silence
Me: "Any ideas?"
AV: "Do you use an application called TV Tonic?" (Pretty good guess for a company that is not monitoring activity.)
Me: "Why yes I do - it fetches my video podcasts."
AV: "There is a bug in the recent release: if TV Tonic fails the download of a podcast, it retries the unfailed section over and over until it can complete. If it never does, it never stops." (Pretty good "guess" on her part.)
Me: "Ok, easily fixable. Did you notify TV Tonic of this bug?"
AV: "That is not our policy." it gets interesting. I jump into CTO mode and put on my "Scary Voice." (tm)

Me: "What is your name?"
AV: "We are not required to give out our names."
Me: "I'd like to speak to your supervisor."
AV: "Our supervisors do not take calls for issues such as these." (wtf?)
Me: "I'll find out who they are and contact them myself."
AV: "Good luck."(Seriously, she said "Good luck.")

...during this little exchange, I looked up the Comcast terms of service.

Me: "So, the violation. 880 Gigs/Month in May, you say?"
AV: "Yes. That's a lot."
Me: "Yes, it is. What does the terms of service say?"
AV: "Excuse me?" (It's the first crack in her voice I have heard during this exchange.)
Me: "What terms did I violate?"
AV: (She reads the policy paragraph I quoted above.)
Me: "Yes, but - what is the actual threshold I crossed?"
AV: "There is no hard and fast number. We compute a useage number daily and look for violators in the top 1%." ("Violators?")
Me: "So its an auto-computed number - a sliding window calculated every day?"
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "And you turn off the top 1% of the 'violators' every month?"
AV: "First we try to contact them, as we did with you but..."
Me: "...yes, I remember."
AV: "But we do read them the warning I read to you, and if it happens again, we terminate their service for 12 months."
Me: "I see, so you either warn or terminate 1% of your customers ever month?"
AV: "Only if they violate the terms of service."
Me: "Your terms of service is capricious and arbitrary. It actually makes no statement that a user can act upon to avoid violation. It simply gives you license to terminate a customer based on an arbitrary set of requirements that you invent behind closed doors." (Really. I said that.)
...long pause....
.....very very long pause....
AV: "We do read them the warning I read to you, and if it happens again, we terminate their service for 12 months."
Me: "Do you give the user a way of policing themselves?"
AV: "Excuse me?"
Me: "Do you provide software, or point a user towards software, that allows them to meter their bandwidth usage to prevent overages?"
AV: "No. We do not provide third party support."
Me: "How much bandwidth am I paying for?"
...pause...with clicking....
AV: "You are on the 6M down plan."
Me: "According to my bandwidth meter, I have never achieved more than 4.8M down."
AV: "The 6Meg is a maximum. We do not guarantee that number."
Me: "Debatable."
AV: "Excuse me?"
Me: "It is debatable that you do not guarantee that number, but that's beside the point. How much of the 4.8M down am I entitled to?"
AV: (Uncertain where I am going with this.) "All of it, of course."
....quick calculator action...
Me: "Ok, so - I should be able to have complete, unfettered access to about 1.2TB a month, if I use all of the bandwidth and I did the math right."
...long pause....
AV: "Sir, you violated your terms of service."
Me: "Which actually says nothing about total numbers, or even percentage usage. In fact, I would never know if I was violating your terms of sevice unless I was contacted by you directly, which you couldn't do because you couldn't find my phone number in your Global Database."
AV: "That is correct."
Me: "You don't see a flaw in any of that?"
AV: "No sir."
...this time, I paused....
Me: "You restored my service."
AV: "Yes."
Me: "So, that's it then?"
AV: "Yes. Have a good day."
Me: "Yup."

...and, that was it. The unfettered script. No exaggerations.

After the call, of course, my service was, in fact, restored. Which let me back on the high speed network long enough to look up the terms of service for Speakeasy. It's more expensive, but 6M down, 768K up - same as Comcast, but because its point-to-point, that is a guaranteed number. In addition, there are no upper limits on usage. (I called to confirm.)

If Verizon FIOS was available in my area, I would have gone with that - but, Speakeasy will do just fine. Hell, I use their speed test anyway.


Dave said...

Hey, just got this link from the Buzz Out Loud podcast.

I can 100% verify the existance of this group. A few years ago I ran into them (not sure what they were called but I can tell from the voice in the transcript) and had a similar exchange.

I paid for Comcast's "three IP" service where you hook up a hub to your cable modem. Well, one day I came home and my service was down. Called in to support and had almost the same exchange.

Comcrap's problem that time was that its DHCP server fullfiled all 255 of my linux box's queued requests, essitinaly assigning my one machine an entire subnet. I argued that it was their stupidity for giving the same MAC address (network card for lay people) that many IPs. The conversation ended with the same result as here. "Is my service back on? Ok then."

Wait till you call in next time. When this happen to me my account was "flagged" and I bypassed first level support all together!

Srdjan said...

That is madness. I don't understand why consumers don't start leaving these big telcos and cable companies in the dust and go with better options, like Speakeasy. Ugh.

RocketMan said...

Thanks for the comments, folks - yup, its a very weird organization. I hope its not a tack that all ISPs will take.

Srdjan - to answer your question: convenience. Speakeasy is more expensive than Comcast for the same bandwidth, and harder to negotiate a setup. 90% of folks just want to go with cheap n' easy...which Comcast definitely is.

- Rob

Ryan said...

But does it not worry you that Speakeasy is now owned by Best Buy? Personally, it leaves me terrified, I'd rather go to the telco (SBC). I admit it's a close call.

Brooks said...

Thank you for posting this!

You posted it about a week before I was getting a broadband connection. I'd been leaning towards getting one from Comcast, because they seemed to have the best deals, and I didn't know much else about how to pick.

I'm now very happy with my Speakeasy connection.

Anonymous said...

Organizations like CSA are the governing power of ISP's. If it was ok for everyone to use up as much bandwidth as they wanted than the traffic would make all surrounding customers suffer. If you really want to run FTP servers and host stuff than i would have to suggest ordering a service that agrees with what you plan on doing with it. Dont bash them for having to be the "police" because without them there would be nothing but chaos.

brandon420 said...

but with todays programs, and HD movies, 250gb isnt much at all. i personally just got the call from csa while i was at work, so im just getting ready to call them back now.

"Me: "Ok, so - I should be able to have complete, unfettered access to about 1.2TB a month, if I use all of the bandwidth and I did the math right."

i lol'd so hard, im so going to say that tonight