Last week Ryan Block, the former editor of Engadget, called Comcast to disconnect his cable and Internet service. His intention was to shift to Astound, a local provider in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The result defines what's wrong with Comcast, and underscores why the Federal Communications Commission and the Dept. of Justice should refuse to allow it to get any bigger.
Essentially, the Comcast representative, speaking from the cable giant's "retention department," refused to follow through unless Block told him why he wanted to cancel the service. You can hear the rep demanding an explanation with panic rising in his voice. He wheedles endlessly, treating Block as a nincompoop who can't understand that Comcast's service is so far superior to Astound's that only an idiot would consider switching.
At one point he says it's all about improving Comcast's service. "I'm trying to help my company be better," the rep tells Block. "That's my job.
"I can guarantee you right now, you're doing an incredibly good job at helping your company be worse," Block replies.
Block did the young man a favor by keeping his name confidential. Perhaps this is out of empathy. As John Herrmann of The Awl puts it, "If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual. The customer service rep is trapped in an impossible position, in which any cancellation, even one he can't control, will reflect poorly on his performance."
Comcast told Sam Gustin of Motherboard that it's "investigating this situation" and maintains that this isn't how its customer reps are supposed to behave.
But what the episode shows is the necessity of killing Comcast's pending deal to absorb Time Warner Cable, a combination of the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 cable/Internet providers that would make Comcast even less responsive to its customers' needs than it is now. The deal will be reviewed by the FCC and the Dept. of Justice. This call should be part of the evidence package placed before both agencies, and before Congress too.
Block told Gustin that his objection to Comcast stems from the company's government lobbying and its monopolistic behavior; since he has the "extraordinarily rare luxury" of being able to switch to an alternative provider without moving his home, he chose to take advantage of it.
Most Americans have only one option for cable service — whichever cable firm owns the monopoly in their neighborhood. If the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger goes through, America comes more under the thumb of a single cable operator, and its phone reps will be even more noxious than the one Ryan Block encountered.
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