Comcast is still trying desperately to stay in the high-speed game, but they just can’t quite seem to pull it off. Their fastest tiers are now 105M/10M and 50M/10M, but with more than a few caveats. Both are $100/mo, but the faster tier requires that you subscribe to at least one other service, and the price is only for 12 months. After that, it skyrockets to $130/mo for the next year and an unspecified price thereafter. So how do UTOPIA providers compare?
Yesterday morning, the Internet went into a total tizzy when Comcast users found themselves unable to access the infamous torrent site ThePirateBay. Almost immediately, the accusations of intentional blocking spread like wildfire despite Comcast’s insistence that they aren’t doing anything. This reveals a pretty telling truth: Comcast’s foray into filtering traffic has done permanent and incalculable damage to the brand, even years after admitting to the blocking and putting an end to it.
Is Comcast blocking anything? I doubt it. They took such a big PR black eye the first time that they’re unlikely to be dumb enough to try it again. That the stain persists years later, however, shows what a bad move it is to manipulate user traffic. Let that be a warning to all service providers of the lasting consequences of abusing users.
Comcast is apparently a bit of a slow learner. After getting publicly smacked about for tinkering with bitTorrent, they’ve really stepped in it now by messing with Netflix. The audience is much bigger than the guys running protocol analyzers on their connections; you’ve gone and upset regular folks too. (How do you see that one working out?) Unfortunately, this is playing out as badly as anyone can hope.
Comcast is unfortunately trying to realize the dream of Ed Whitacre by essentially double-dipping for data at a time when bandwidth is so cheap you can almost afford to give it away. Imagine if the phone company tried to charge you for making a call and the recipient on another phone network for receiving it. Can you imagine the uproar and outrage at attempting to bill someone that’s not even their customer? That’s what Comcast is essentially doing, trying to charge both sides of the transaction instead of providing you the service you already paid for.
The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article today about UTOPIA’s new business plan in which a Mr. Ron Rizzuto continually discounted it. The article cites that Mr. Rizzuto is a professor at the University of Denver; this is true. What is omitted, though, is much more telling. Mr. Rizzuto is a senior fellow at The Cable Center, an organization funded by the cable industry. Not only that, Comcast’s Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen, is a member of the organization’s board.
It’s not surprising that a cable industry shill would attempt to trash UTOPIA in the press. It’s not even surprising that he would attempt to portray himself as a dispassionate and disinterested third party. Both of these have been done time and time again, like when Heartland Institute’s Steven Titch did consulting work for Qwest and claimed it had no bearing on his harsh criticisms for iProvo and UTOPIA. If anything, I automatically expect some kind of conflict of interest to emerge from parties opposed to UTOPIA as so many of them will always act in their own financial best interests. (Utah Taxpayer’s Association, I’m looking at you.)
What is surprising, shameful, and downright embarrassing is that the Salt Lake Tribune didn’t spend the entire 2 minutes on Google required to find all of this out. Even if they did, they chose not to disclose it in their article. One of two things happened: they were either negligent in their journalistic duties or (and this is more likely) they are continuing to advance the position of the editorial board that UTOPIA cannot succeed. Whichever it is, I am deeply unimpressed.
If regulators sign off on it, the nation’s largest cable company will end up with a significant foothold in both the broadcast media and movie industries. Overnight, a content distributor becomes a content producer. Pre-merger, Comcast had little incentive to play along with the copyright cop ambitions of the RIAA and MPAA. This merger could change everything, driving Comcast into policing not just the distribution of its own wares but those of fellow studios.
Given how Time Warner Cable would regularly roll over for MPAA requests to disconnect service, both before and after being spun off from parent company Time Warner, this is a legitimate and pressing concern. The MPAA spends a lot of time trying to track down pirates and they often get the wrong person. The MPAA has also pushed hard for restricting what DVRs can record, locking down digital media to the point of near-uselessness, and wiping out net neutrality so that peer-to-peer programs can be blocked on a whim. None of these proposals are good for Comcast data or video customers and I do not think Comcast wants to unnecessarily restrict what customers can and cannot do with their connection.
That said, what will they do when Universal Pictures, a division of the merged company, has a competing interest? Which part of the company has their interests heard first? Will Comcast give Universal special access to routers and logs to track down pirates? Will they start using deep packet inspection? What can the falsely accused do about it?
This is why we should be very, very scared of the continued integration of media and telecommunications companies. The verticial monopoly of wholesale and retail telecom is bad enough, but when they control the content going over the pipe as well, it can get really ugly really fast.
I just got word that several witnesses have spotted Comcast salespeople stealing UTOPIA yard signs in Brigham City. Undoubtedly Comcast will try and distance themselves from the actions of their employees. Some of their contractors have already gone so far as to disconnect their competitors’ service to drive sales, so I suppose this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Capt. Video and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how service providers handle over-the-top providers such as Vonage. Service providers are in a sticky situation as many of these services may compete with their existing products. Vonage and Skype take away phone customers. Hulu and iTunes take away video customers. So what should a service provider do about it? I see only three options open to them.
Comcast has gotten a lot of praise for their Twitter customer service team and I don’t doubt it’s been responsible for their sharply increased rating on the American Consumer Satisfation Index (ACSI). I’ve used their team myself to resolve problems that support doesn’t or get quick answers to service questions. While I think they’re doing a valuable job, their function has been misidentified as customer service.
In my mind, customer service starts the minute you initiate contact to resolve an issue. You have an expectation that when you call in, you’re going to walk away with some kind of resolution. When you get conflicting answers from a CSR or don’t get your problem resolved by tech support, you’re not getting good customer service. By the time you’re venting on your blog, on a forum, or on your Twitter account, the damage is done: you got poor service.
When the Twitter-based customer service ninjas swoop in to try and get the problem fixed, they’re in full-on damage control mode. This isn’t to say they aren’t doing a great job of cleaning up messes; they are. But the core problem, that the customer service team failed to deliver, still hasn’t been fixed. I often don’t bother calling in with problems because I know I’m going to spend half an hour rebooting everything to have them blame my router, demand escalation, sit on hold another 15 minutes, and then face getting disconnected. It’s a lot easier to either complain online or seek out the Twitter folks to get things done.
This lesson is an important one for other service providers as a lot of former Comcast customers I’ve spoken with have sworn off ever going back because of customer service issues. Many Mstar customers have been in the same boat. Even though XMission’s DSL service is slower than Comcast and sometimes a bit more expensive, customers are fiercely loyal because the service is, by all accounts, awesome. It’s not because they’re using Twitter, it’s because they don’t have to in order to resolve customer issues.
The biggest black eye in Qwest’s attempt to bring their broadband offerings into the 21st century has been the abysmal 896Kbps upload speeds, even when using ADSL2+ and FTTN. According to some insider posts at DSLReports, that may change. According to the tipster, Qwest is looking at VDSL2 with plans to bump the upload speeds to 5Mbps with a new top tier pushing 40Mbps/20Mbps. Even so, it’s not enough to catch up to UTOPIA or even Comcast.
The real question is if Qwest can afford any kind of widespread deployment. Since the company couldn’t unload its long-haul operations for anywhere near the asking price, Qwest is where it always has been: too deep in debt, too cash poor, and hemmoraging landline customers to VoIP, cable, and wireless carriers. They halted the current ADSL2+ installs citing that the winter weather was preventing them from continuing the build, but we all know it’s cash flow issues. Like a lot of analysts, I think Qwest is going to continue to wither until they find a cash-rich investor looking for a fixer-upper.
And if Qwest is more-or-less at a standstill, what are the odds of Comcast dropping DOCSIS 3.0 tiers in Utah? Pretty slim unless you live in Provo or a UTOPIA city where fiber is prodding them forward. It’s no secret that Comcast has, to date, focused network upgrades most heavily on areas where Verizon’s FIOS is the king of speed. As half of the duopoly crumbles, you can expect more of the same from Comcast: ho-hum speeds, mediocre pricing, and lackluster customer service (their Twitter damage control unit customer service team notwithstanding).
The Deseret News reported that Utah has the highest rate of Internet use of any state, topping out at 74.8% of homes. In a “well duh” moment, they attribute it to the young population and large concentration of tech companies. What was missing, however, is the full picture on how we’re doing speed-wise.
And that, friends, is a mixed bag. According to the results from SpeedTest.net, Utah doesn’t even crack the top 10 for download speeds. We do, however, place second when it comes to upload speeds, no doubt due to symmetrical connections available on the various fiber networks in our state. When you narrow in on our state, the best download and upload speeds come from Lindon and Orem, both cities with UTOPIA fiber. Provo comes in fourth on both lists with Broadweave/iProvo. Incumbents don’t fare so well. Qwest doesn’t crack either top 10 list and Comcast only makes the download list.
We should be demanding not just that Internet access be widespread, but that it be high-quality as well. The incumbents’ inability to deliver next-generation bandwidth is leaving us far behind the rest of the pack.