Only months after moving into his new home in Washington state, Consumerist reader Seth is already looking to sell his house. He didn’t lose his job or discover that the property is haunted. No, Seth can’t stay much longer because no one can provide broadband service to his address; even though Comcast and CenturyLink both misled him into thinking he’d be connected to their networks and in spite of the fact that his county runs a high-speed fiberoptic network that goes very near to his property.
Like an increasing number of Americans, Seth works from home, meaning that it’s vital that he have a reliable high-speed Internet connection at all times. That’s why before he even put an offer on the house in Kitsap County, WA, he contacted Comcast to confirm that he could get service to his potential new address.
According to Seth, who has kept a detailed timeline of events, one Comcast sales rep even said that a previous resident at this address had been a Comcast customer. Seth says he tried to get it in writing that the house was serviceable, but Comcast said they simply do not do that.
Then, on Jan. 31, a Comcast tech came out to perform what should have been a quick installation, only to find that there was no cable infrastructure leading to Seth’s property. Thus began a months-long saga of pointless appointments before Seth ultimately hit a dead end last week.
What follows is the story of Seth’s quest to get broadband from someone, anyone, so he doesn’t have to sell his beautiful new home. According to BroadbandMaps.gov, Seth has 10 options for broadband access at his new address, including a municipal network. But does he really? If Comcast refuses to provide service, can Seth choose another viable provider? Surely one of these 10 listed options will work for him, right? The answer may surprise you.
THE REVOLVING DOOR OF TECH VISITS
#1 (Jan. 31): Tech shows up for scheduled appointment. Says there is no line to the house. Leaves.
#2 (First week of Feb.): Tech shows up without appointment. Says there is no line to the house. Leaves.
#3 (Feb. 9): Tech shows up for scheduled appointment. Say there is no line to the house. Leaves.
#4 (Third week of Feb.): Tech shows up without appointment. Says there is no line to the house. Leaves.
On Jan 31, as soon as the Comcast tech arrived at Seth’s house, he noticed a problem — no Comcast box on the outside of the house or anywhere near it. He gave Seth the bad news that the only way he’d get service was if Comcast ran cable from the road to his building.
“He called to set that up for us, and told us he was going to do something called a ‘Drop Bury Request’ to bring in service,” writes Seth. “He filed a ticket and went on his way.”
But that request seemed to vanish into the ether. Seth made repeated follow-up calls to Comcast but — in spite of having a ticket number, and in spite of being made promises that people would call or e-mail him back — no one seemed to have any idea what was going on with his account.
After nearly a week of trying, he finally got through to someone who scheduled for another tech to come out on Feb. 9.
Oddly, a Comcast installer showed up unexpectedly days before that scheduled appointment.
“He just appeared out of nowhere and asked us where our cable box was,” writes Seth. “We explained that we didn’t have one, but that we did have a Drop Bury Request in place. He looked perplexed. He told us that there was no way a Drop Bury Request could possibly get us hooked up, we were too far away from the cable infrastructure. We asked him to contact someone at Comcast to get things resolved, and he left.”
Then on Feb. 9 another tech showed up — at least this one was on schedule — but just like his predecessors, this guy had not been given the memo that the house was not yet connected to the Comcast network. He was just there to hook up a modem and some cable boxes.
Several days later — and again without an appointment — yet another Comcast tech showed up to do an install that simply couldn’t be done.
At some point in the middle of all these pointless appointments, Seth found himself mired in a different Comcast bureaucracy — “Engineering.”
First Seth was told that everything was going fine and that Comcast was in the process of pulling construction permits.
Then, a site surveyor showed up to check out the distance from the house to the nearest Comcast node.
“He mumbled something about how it was going to be a very expensive job, then left,” writes Seth.
On Feb. 20 things got worse. A Comcast rep informed Seth that, despite the visit from the site surveyor, there was nothing in the account notes about an “Engineering” request and that Seth’s original service order had “timed out” because it had been so long since he’d first placed his order with Comcast.
But there was some good news. The rep said Comcast could do a “temporary drop” the next day to get service started ahead of actual construction.
That good news turned bad. Seth answered the door the next morning to hear a Comcast tech telling him, “I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think you have cable!”
The situation became even more confused later that day when yet another Comcast sales rep claimed that the work had been successfully completed that morning and Seth now had service and the ticket had been closed.
Once again, Seth had to place yet another order for service; his second in two days and his third in a month.
And, yes, the “Engineering” request had evaporated from Comcast’s system at some point, meaning an entirely new ticket needed to be opened.
It gets worse.
At this point, Seth had been promised that someone would call him within 24 hours about this new “Engineering” request, and, you guessed it, no one did.
And when Seth finally got sick of waiting and called Comcast, a sales rep claimed that the latest “Engineering” request had been closed as an “invalid ticket.”
Then a few days later — as if to rub it in his face — Comcast actually called Seth to ask him why he’d cancelled his installation appointment.
“They started to upsell me on all the great things I’d be missing out on if I didn’t reschedule!” says Seth. “I just hung up.”
Like most pay-TV/broadband providers, Comcast has virtually no competition in many of the areas it serves. And that’s certainly true for Seth’s neighborhood.
But wait, what about CenturyLink?
The CenturyLink website shows that Seth’s address is serviced and that he can get broadband speeds of up to 10Mbps (not terribly fast, but sufficient for many purposes):
After that very first Comcast tech told Seth there was no cable infrastructure to his house, he contacted CenturyLink. The company promised to get him hooked up right away.
But then the next day he got a call informing him that his area was in “Permanent Exhaust” and that CenturyLink wouldn’t be adding new customers. Of course, that didn’t stop CenturyLink from billing Seth more than $100 for service he never received and will never be able to receive. Seth then had to convince someone with CenturyLink’s billing department to zero out the account that should have never been opened.
“Seth’s issue had been ignored, then handed to someone who wouldn’t even be in the office for another 10 days”
We contacted CenturyLink back in February when we first heard about Seth’s story. We asked why: a) Seth’s address was showing up as being served and b) why the company was unable to service that address and also refusing to build out in Seth’s area.
Last Friday, after weeks of e-mail promises from a CenturyLink corporate media rep who repeatedly claimed to be “looking into” the matter, I received the following update that is too ridiculous to keep to myself:
“I have taken a new position with CenturyLink in the last week. I have forwarded your inquires onto M****, my former manager. M**** or one of her staff members will continue to research and follow up with you.”
I don’t usually include this sort of e-mail in my stories, but it shows the level of care with which CenturyLink handled this issue. After more than three weeks of being promised a response, I was being passed on to a new person.
And then to drive that point home, when I wrote to this new contact about the urgency of getting some sort of response, I received an auto-reply stating that M***** was out of the office through March 27.
Seth’s issue had been ignored and then handed to someone who wouldn’t even be in the office for another ten days.
Finally, after pointing out the insanity of waiting three weeks for the results of CL’s thorough research, I was given a one-sentence statement from yet another media contact: “We researched the issue and found that there was an error in our system, which we are updating.”
That was two days ago, and yet as of right now the CenturyLink website still says Seth’s address can get broadband service.
Where’s All That Competition Comcast Talks About?
Image courtesy of Chris WIlson
In spite of all evidence to the contrary (and then some), Comcast insists [PDF] that “the broadband marketplace is more competitive than ever.”
And that might sound reasonable when you look at this chart from BroadbandMaps.gov showing available broadband services in Seth’s ZIP code:
But when you actually look at the names on this list, you’ll see that the truth is much different.
We’ve already ruled out CenturyLink, as they are unwilling to build out their network even though their own website says it’s available.
Next, most of the providers on this list are wireless cellular companies. While your LTE service might be just as fast as your in-home broadband, the per-gigabyte cost of wireless is outrageously more expensive than cable or DSL service. Seth is currently using a mobile wireless hotspot to connect to the Internet at home, but the costs and limitations are not tenable in the long-run.
Satellite broadband is getting faster and more affordable, but it’s still significantly more expensive for someone who would be using the Internet both day and night for home and business.
Additionally, Seth’s work requires that he have a VPN connection. Unfortunately, the latency on satellite broadband is so high that most residential-level service providers won’t guarantee that customers can access VPNs. So satellite might get TV and some Internet into Seth’s home, but not into his home office. Thus, strike ViaSat from the above list.
What’s that StarTouch Broadband company? Good question. StarTouch uses microwave technology to transmit high-speed data service to parts of Washington state. This may have been the perfect solution for Seth — no need to run cables out to Comcast node; no waiting for CenturyLink to get around to providing service to his area — except StarTouch doesn’t actually cover his neighborhood.
A rep for the company confirmed to Consumerist that the data on BroadbandMaps.gov is inaccurate and their service does not reach this part of Kitsap County. When Seth called, a rep told him that his area used to be serviced but that someone recently constructed a tall building that effectively blocks the StarTouch signals from reaching him.
Then there’s XO, which provides connectivity solutions for business. We confirmed with an XO sales rep that the company could, in theory, provide T1 broadband service (through CenturyLink). However, it would require that either Seth’s employer purchase the service or that Seth have a business license of his own.
But even if that were possible, the cost would be exorbitant, starting at nearly $600/month with a three-year contract.
One service not listed above — because it’s not even available yet — is the fixed wireless product promised by AT&T if it’s allowed to merge with DirecTV. It may be exactly the kind of thing for someone in Seth’s situation, but we have no idea how quickly AT&T would roll it out post-merger, or which areas it will be available.
Unfortunately, Seth doesn’t have a year or two to wait.
What’s A PUD & Why Can’t It Sell Me Gigabit Broadband Service?
The only remaining option on that list is the gigabit fiber network operated by the Kitsap Public Utility District. That’s right, the county has high-speed broadband lines running not far from Seth’s house.
So why can’t he just get his service from the county?
Because Washington is one of the half-dozen states that forbids municipal broadband providers from selling service directly to consumers.
The state law in Washington limits the sale of muni broadband service to the wholesale level, meaning Kitsap PUD can only sell network access to resellers.
Back in February, right around the time we heard of Seth’s story, the FCC voted to approve two petitions from muni broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina who were looking to get out from under the thumb of state laws restricting the areas they could service.
That gives hope for city- and county-owned broadband providers around the country, but the FCC vote was not a blanket ruling that overturned all overly restrictive local broadband laws. Instead, each law would need to be challenged, meaning Kitsap PUD or some other similar wholesale provider in the state would need to petition the FCC.
PUD officials had no comment on whether they intend to file such a petition or if they’d publicly support one. After all, running a retail-level broadband service may be too expensive an undertaking for a county with only around 250,000 residents.
However, a source at the District did indicate that there is a need for competition and that the mere threat of a possible newcomer in the form of gigabit fiber service could only help consumers like Seth.
Even if the PUD did get the ability to sell directly to consumers, Seth would still need to pay for a build-out of the fiber network to his home. The one major difference is that this cost can be amortized over a significantly longer time period, meaning the consumer would face a lower up-front investment.
And Now The Sad Conclusion Of Seth’s Story…
So with all other options off the table, Seth has had to wait for Comcast to get around to estimating the construction cost for connecting him to the network, and then for the company to decide whether it’s worth it.
Comcast put Seth around 2,500 feet from the nearest connection point, and gave him an initial unofficial estimate of around $20/foot, meaning he’d have to pay $50,000 just to get connected.
That seemed high to Seth, and several people we talked to (who don’t have the specifics of his situation but who are familiar with these sorts of projects) say this is more than most quotes.
Comcast later revised that estimate upward, to as much as $60,000, though Comcast — if it decided to do the work — would pick up some of the tab.
Seth even began looking into hiring his own contractor to do some of the more expensive work on his property in the hopes of bringing the cost down.
After about seven weeks of pointless install appointments, deleted orders, dead ends, and vague sky-high estimates, Comcast told him that it had decided to simply not do the extension. The company wouldn’t even listen to Seth’s offers to pay for a good chunk of the cost.
“I’m devastated,” he wrote at the time. “This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.”
“Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely,” continued Seth. “They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.”
Seth says he stands to lose a significant chunk of money by selling his house so soon after moving in.
“Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses,” he explains.
Even though Comcast was given weeks to research and comment on Seth’s story, the company has yet to provide Consumerist with a statement or explanation of how it could not only fail to keep an accurate accounting of serviceable addresses, but why it continued to send tech after tech to do installs that couldn’t be done.
One person we spoke with at Comcast claims that Seth was provided an estimate for what his portion of the construction bill would be, but that he did not agree to pay the costs.
However, Seth tells Consumerist quite the opposite — that he never received anything in writing from Comcast regarding what he would be expected to pay.
“If there was an explicit offer for me to seriously consider paying them, I’d have expected at least that,” he says.
The last he heard from anyone was on March 23, when a regional supervisor mentioned the vague early number of $50,000 to $60,000, but that the supervisor’s message was “there’s nothing we could do for you.”
According to the latest Broadband Progress Report from the FCC, 4% of all Americans — and only 2% of people in Washington state — lack access to even the most basic non-mobile broadband service. But Seth’s story makes us wonder how many consumers are being counted as having access to these services when in fact the service providers refuse to make them available?
That’s why it’s in the best interest of Comcast, CenturyLink and others to assume an address is serviceable just because it falls within a certain ZIP code or municipal boundary — because it gives the illusion that they are providing service to more customers.
And that was fine when the cable companies only provided pay-TV, because you could still get satellite service or just rent a movie. But now that Internet access has become crucial to our work and home lives, broadband providers must be held accountable when they give customers misleading information.