NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, April 13th, 2015

NPI to Comcast: Stop spamming us with unsolicited offers for service we don’t want

Editor’s note: The following is an open letter to Comcast CEO, President, and Chairman Brian Roberts from the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Dear Brian:

I am writing to ask that Comcast cease and desist from sending us further “limited-time savings vouchers” or other solicitations for Comcast Business service.

Since last summer, we have received dozens of nearly identical, mass-produced unsigned and unsolicited letters urging us to “sign up for fast Internet, then add phone & TV for $34.90 more per month.”

For reasons we cannot fathom, many of these letters have been showing up in pairs, with only slight variations in the address. This is wasteful and pointless.

Unwanted letters from Comcast

The two dozen letters received by NPI from Comcast Business, which showed up in the span of a season, mostly in pairs. The letters just keep on coming.

We can only conclude that you’ve been mining public records in order to generate mailing lists of prospective customers, and then not bothering to filter for duplicate names and addresses prior to printing up your solicitations. That would certainly explain why we often have received promotional offers two at a time.

But it gets worse.

See, Brian, the Thinkspace community, which we at the Northwest Progressive Institute call home, has Comcast Business service.

Every company and nonprofit with a presence in the building is thus already a customer of yours, whether they like it or not.

Shouldn’t your marketing and sales departments know this? Shouldn’t they be able to see that 8201 164th Avenue in Redmond is already served by Comcast?

Were it up to me and my team, we’d choose the competition for everything: Internet, television, and phone. Of all of the major megacorporations whose business practices and public policy positions we intensely dislike, Comcast is at the top of the list, along with Wall Street banks like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase and oil companies like BP and ExxonMobil.

Here’s why we have no interest in being a Comcast customer.

Comcast service is unreliable and not a good value

Your company has become infamous for charging very high prices for very poor service. This has been true in my own experience. Before ditching Comcast at home, I had to put up with all sorts of problems, from slow channel changes to repeated errors when trying to watch movies or shows on demand.

My experience isn’t unique. Even people who have decided to keep their Comcast service, like Frank Catalano, have grumbled about it.

Last week, across the lake in Seattle, Comcast experienced a major outage, which resulted in many businesses having to shut down operations for the day and send home employees. The outage wasn’t Comcast’s fault, but its handling of the incident left a lot of Seattleites angry and frustrated.

Ridiculously, Comcast is requiring that impacted customers call in to receive a refund, instead of automatically crediting them.

In its Comcast Confessions series, The Verge spoke with over a hundred Comcast employees and contractors in an attempt to understand why Comcast service is so lousy. The Verge’s Adrianne Jeffries reported: “We heard the same stories over and over again: customer service has been replaced by an obsession with sales, technicians are understaffed, tech support is poorly trained, and the telecommunications behemoth is hobbled by internal fragmentation. ”

No wonder, then, that along with Time Warner Cable, which you are presently attempting to acquire (an acquisition that a friend of ours likened to “traffic and cancer joining forces”) you scored dead last in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index’s 2014 Telecommunications and Information Report, a respected survey that asks tens of thousands of Americans to rate their satisfaction with products and services they use in their everyday lives. And it’s not the first time, either.

Comcast is bad at fixing billing mistakes

Woe to any customer who finds a problem on their Comcast bill and tries to get it corrected. Not long ago, Ars Technica published an article telling the incredibly disturbing story of Conal O’Rourke, a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant who found himself fired from PwC after trying to get Comcast to fix mistakes on his bill.

Among the initial billing mistakes that O’Rourke tried to get corrected after becoming a Comcast customer in February of 2013:

  • His name was incorrectly spelled
  • He was being charged for three additional HD outlets he didn’t have
  • He was charged for cable set-top boxes he never activated

O’Rourke got nowhere over the phone, despite calling in repeatedly. So he went in to the local Comcast store in his neighborhood of San Jose. An assistant store manager promised him Comcast would take of him.

But his problems only got worse. Over the next few months, his Comcast Internet service repeatedly quit working. Comcast promised to send technicians out to fix the problems, but didn’t. And then, one day, O’Rourke got home to discover several boxes containing over $1,800 worth of equipment he hadn’t ordered.

Fed up, O’Rourke did what most reasonable people in his shoes would do: He went up the corporate food chain, hoping to talk to someone with the power to fix his problems. But, after a conversation with Comcast’s controller Lawrence Salva, he found himself in more trouble than ever.

Salva’s office found out that O’Rourke worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers – which consults for Comcast. O’Rourke’s lawyer alleges that Salva’s office proceeded to contact a partner at PwC, telling the partner that O’Rourke “had invoked his employment with PwC in an attempt to somehow obtain leverage in his negotiations with Comcast.”

(That’s from a letter sent by Comcast by O’Rourke’s lawyer).

In February of 2014, O’Rourke was subjected to an internal ethics investigation. Less than two weeks later, he was fired from PwC. He is now seeking compensation and an apology from Comcast (Comcast offered an apology through its corporate blog, which O’Rourke and his lawyers found lacking.) O’Rourke told Ars that his research indicated his experience was unfortunately not that unusual:

I think they’re totally egregious… I think they’re the most unethical, dishonest bunch that I’ve ever encountered. I would like to see them investigated for repeated overbilling. It is a very common occurrence.

In July 2014, O’Rourke sent a letter to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal detailing his experience and discussing Comcast’s business practices.

Comcast doesn’t deliver what it promises

Comcast makes all sorts of claims in its marketing and directly to prospective and active customers that it does not fulfill.

Consider the experience of Seth Morabito, a Consumerist reader and technologist. Last year, Seth bought a nice home in Kitsap County (which is not far from Washington’s major urban centers) after having been assured twice by Comcast representatives that it could and would be connected to Comcast’s network.

Sadly, when Seth tried to get his home wired, he ran into nothing but trouble. Ultimately, he was told his dream home could not be connected:

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if there’s any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied.

I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly. This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn’t serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.

I don’t know exactly how much money I’m going to lose when I sell, but it’s going to be substantial.

Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses.

Seth is hardly the only one who has been let down by Comcast.

Comcast is hard to break up with

As AOL vice president Ryan Block documented in a widely disseminated audio clip posted to SoundCloud, Comcast does not make it easy for customers who are dissatisfied to sever their relationship with Comcast. Many Americans have unhappily discovered that Comcast considers itself akin to the Hotel California: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave (with props to The Eagles).

The Blocks are not the only ones who have been treated this way, contrary to your claims that “the way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.” As Businessweek reported in a July 18th article titled, “That Comcast Customer Service Rep Wasn’t Going Rogue“:

It turns out the rep wasn’t going rogue, according to Lauren Bruce, a former Comcast customer account executive. “Unless a customer was moving, we were encouraged to use retention techniques,” says Bruce, who started working at Insight Communications in Lafayette, Ind., in 2005. The company was later acquired by Comcast.

“If someone is saying, ‘screw my service, I hate you,’ you would say, ‘Hey, do you want phone too?’” recalls Bruce, who left Comcast in 2009. She declines to say where she is currently working.

Bruce says that Comcast employees were not asked to follow a script, but were trained to respond in a given way in certain scenarios. For example, if someone states that they are dissatisfied with service, the customer service representative must first ask why they are dissatisfied before proceeding with the request. The goal is always to retain customers or convince them to buy a higher-priced service.

Employees working in your customer retention department are clearly operating under directives from the top – in other words, instructions from you.

Comcast opposes net neutrality

At NPI, we value digital freedom highly. It’s something that matters a great deal to us. Before NPI existed physically or legally, it existed as an idea on the Web. Like other netroots organizations and tech startups, NPI’s roots are virtual.

If the Internet hadn’t been invented, NPI would never have come into being. The same goes for the rest of the netroots community. We are fierce believers in net neutrality – the idea that Internet service providers such as Comcast should be required to treat all traffic equally – and we  strongly support net neutrality’s transformation from principle to well-enforced law.

Comcast regrettably has a history of opposing net neutrality and, along with Verizon Communications, actively engaging in litigation to overturn Federal Communications Commission rules designed to prevent Comcast and other ISPs from turning the Internet into a second incarnation of cable television.

In 2007, Comcast was caught throttling BitTorrent traffic using packet forging in violation of net neutrality principles.

The Federal Communications Commission subsequently ordered Comcast to alter its network management practices in a landmark 2008 order. Comcast proceeded to fight the order in court, arguing that the FCC had overstepped its authority.

We regard Comcast as a serious threat to Internet freedom.

Comcast often blocks legitimate email to its subscribers

Last summer, we noticed that after sending out a new issue of our e-newsletter, The Evergreen Connection, we were getting an unusually high number of bounces back. After some investigation, we discovered that Comcast had blacklisted the SMTP server we use to send email, meaning that delivery of our newsletter to our supporters with @comcast.net email addresses was being blocked.

We carefully follow best practices for sending email, so we were puzzled, but the server we use is shared with many other individuals and organizations.

We submitted a request to get off the blacklist and this was duly processed by Comcast, but we were never given an explanation as to why Comcast blacklisted the  server that we use in the first place. We suggest that Comcast learn to combat spam more intelligently and effectively so legitimate email can get through.

Others have also had similar problems with Comcast over the years. Here’s one example. Here’s another. And here’s still another.

Comcast is anti-union

Comcast has a history of saying one thing and doing another when it comes to respecting labor rights. In community after community, including here in the Pacific Northwest, Comcast has tried to break unions and prevent employees from forming unions, presumably so that it can enjoy more power over its employees and get away with paying them less and offering fewer benefits.

This has unfortunately been going for years; the NW Labor Press wrote about it 2004 and representatives of Reclaim the Media made it a focal point of their testimony on a proposed franchise agreement in Seattle the same year.

Comcast is poorly governed

Comcast has repeatedly been given low marks by watchdogs for its corporate governance practices.

In 2010, the Corporate Library, which has since merged with Governance Metrics to form GMI Ratings, graded Comcast an “F”, in part because you, Brian, serve not only as chief executive officer but also as president and chairman, and partly also because you’ve had directors who were your employees, making effective oversight of you and your executive team difficult, if not impossible.

GMI has also tagged Comcast with its “Very High Concern” rating in a more recent risk assessment due to excessive executive pay.

Of course, since you’re the CEO, president, and chairman of the company, and the board of Comcast rubber stamps your requests, you’re in charge of setting your own pay. And you certainly pay yourself a lot: In 2013, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that you make nearly $30 million a year. That’s more than seven hundred times what the typical American worker makes.

You’re easily one of the highest paid CEOs on the continent. What’s more, you’ve ensured you not only have control over the board and management of Comcast, but also the power to hire and fire the board: you own a hundred percent of Comcast’s class B common stock, which controls 33.3% of voting power.

Your leadership, or lack thereof, has sadly turned Comcast into a poster child for poor corporate governance.

Comcast wants to be a monopoly, everywhere

Comcast has a track record of being more concerned with expansion and consolidation than doing right by its customers and employees, or providing speedy broadband access to residences and businesses comparable to what other developed countries like Japan and South Korea have.

For over two decades, under you, Comcast has been engaged in a long empire-building campaign, gobbling up smaller cable providers and branching into new markets in your quest to become a monopoly. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Comcast purchased Maclean Hunter’s American division, the cable operations of E.W. Scripps Company, Greater Philadelphia Cablevision, and AT&T Broadband.

In 2004, Comcast unsuccessfully attempted to buy The Walt Disney Company for $54 billion, hoping to get its hands on Disney’s lucrative ESPN division.

NPI opposed this acquisition, which would have easily made Comcast the biggest media conglomerate in the world. Comcast’s offer was rebuffed by Disney’s board of directors and ultimately withdrawn.

Within the next three years, Comcast purchased MGM and United Artists in a partnership with Sony. Comcast also purchased cable providers Susquehanna Communications and Patriot Media, and participated in a major acquisition of Adelphia Cable with Time Warner Cable.

In 2009, Comcast announced its intention to acquire a majority stake in NBCUniversal. Despite the opposition of NPI and many other organizations, the acquisition was approved by the federal government, and it closed in 2011. Comcast subsequently bought out General Electric’s stake in NBCUniversal.

More recently, Comcast reached an agreement to buy Time Warner Cable in a $45.2 billion megadeal, announced last February. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the nation’s two largest cable providers, dwarfing their rivals.

NPI strongly opposes this merger and is asking the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission to block it on antitrust grounds. We’re not the only ones who oppose your attempt to buy TWC, I might add. According to a poll by Consumer Reports, so do most Americans.

In conclusion…

I hope I’ve succeeded in explaining why we are not interested in doing business with Comcast. Not only do you not share our values, principles, and policy directions, you are actively working against what we believe in.

To top it off, you’re disrespectful towards your workers, customers, and even individuals and firms who you don’t have an established relationship with. This snail mail spam we’re getting deluged with is a perfect example of that.

Please forward this message to a subordinate who can ensure we are permanently excluded from all future marketing and sales campaigns. We do not want to receive any more solicitations or promotional offers from Comcast.

Sincerely,

Andrew Villeneuve
Executive Director
Northwest Progressive Institute

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