Why is the internet not a utility?

I've been following the plight of Ozymandias and his issues with Comcast cutting off his service with great interest, since I've been concerned with their bandwidth caps since they announced them about three years ago. He has argued that, because of how important internet usage has become in this day and age, it should be considered a "utility" instead of a generic service. I don't disagree, and my own recent experiences helped bring this point home.

Recently, my mother had issues with her Comcast phone service, where she had not had a dial tone for a few days. Having a busy work schedule and some remodeling done on her house, she didn't get around to calling Comcast about it for some time. When she finally called Comcast to get it resolved, the tech on the phone determined the cable modem was working correctly, but it was reporting a phone off the hook somewhere in the house. Because she had no phone service, however, the tech said she would schedule a service call at the first opportunity — which, due to severe storms in the area, would be the next day; notable since that next day was a Sunday.

Note that this was not Comcast's fault. I happened to be over to help with some other items, and as I was there, I noticed that one of her contractors had inexplicably taken a network cord from a hub in the office and plugged it into a phone jack. Once I pulled that plug, dial tone was restored.

Over the past couple days, we've been having issues with our internet going up and down intermittently. Yesterday, it was bad enough that our phone service went with it, too. (It could easily have been going up and down all along as well, but this was the first we'd actually noticed it.) My wife called Comcast, and they said that because we weren't getting a dial tone, they would send a tech out that day — which they did.

The reason I find this interesting is, in both cases, Comcast sounded like they were more motivated to act not because the internet service was down (in my mother's case, her internet service was fine), but because there was no phone service. I did a very quick internet search, and although I couldn't find an official statement, I found several allusions to law that require a dial tone be available for everyone for 911 service at a minimum. If this is true, it would certainly explain their motivation in getting service restored.

But it does bring up a few interesting questions. First, if I had my VOIP phone service through some other provider, such that my phone service depended on my internet even though Comcast itself was not providing that phone service, would they be likewise motivated and/or obligated to get my internet service restored in the event of an outage? Although my cynical side believes no simply on the grounds that they're not responsible for that service, I think the fact that any competing VOIP provider's traffic is subject to the bandwidth cap whose penalty is a disconnection of service, is evidence that they would not, in fact, take a loss of non-Comcast VOIP as reason to expedite internet service repair.

Second, if you get your VOIP through Comcast, does this mean they can't eliminate your service completely if you go over their bandwidth cap? This one, I'm a little uncertain about. I don't know if it's possible to get Comcast phone without Comcast internet. Maybe you can, and maybe the 1 year ban on Comcast service only applies to the internet service and not phone (or TV for that matter). I don't know about this one.

Third, and most important I think: if telephone service is a utility, and its function is directly dependent on internet service (as is the case of VOIP), how is internet service not a utility? I suppose one could argue that service could still be provided by the copper wires still in place left by US West Qwest CenturyLink, but I'm not so sure; not only are those lines disconnected (as evidenced by my complete loss of dial tone when Comcast VOIP was down), but it wouldn't explain why Comcast seems so concerned when their dial tone is not being provided. By failing or refusing to provide the service that telephone depends on (when the internet is down, or Comcast cuts you off for so-called "excessive use"), Comcast effectively cuts off your access to a utility. It would seem that they should either be obligated to provide your service, or re-connect your copper lines to get at least emergency dial tone service restored as soon as possible.

Now, a hype and gripe about Comcast service. First, the gripe: when the tech came out to fix our service, the modem was getting an inconsistent signal, so he decided to replace the (leased) modem with a newer model. The new model, an SMC model SMCD3GNV, had some extra features, like a built-in router with four gigabit ethernet ports and a WiFi access point. While this might be convenient for some, it was not for me. I already had a Linux server acting as my home router, and I had my own WiFi access points configured for my home network. I did not want an extra level of NAT or another WiFi network, even if I never used it. Unfortunately, the ability to either disable NAT or turn off WiFi were not available in the modem's UI. Doing a little internet searching, I found that this was a common complaint. While I was able to set up a serviceable alternative by putting my server in the router's DMZ, I still was not happy with the double-NAT, and I definitely was not comfortable with the enabled WiFi.

Now, the hype. The Comcast tech, Justin, promised he would ask his more experienced techs about this the next morning and find a solution for me. In the meantime, my internet searches pointed to the fact that some of these "advanced" configurations could (only) be done by Comcast remotely, and contacting the Twitter account @ComcastCares can get the WiFi turned off. I also came across a recommendation to contact an admin on the Comcast forums. I did both. As I was composing my message to the forum admin, I got a reply from someone monitoring @ComcastCares, who, after getting my service phone number, promised to have a tech take care of it in the morning.

The next morning, I saw a reply from @ComcastCares saying they had turned the WiFi off. I then saw a slightly later reply from the forum admin, saying the WiFi had already been turned off, but he put the modem into bridging mode, and that I should be able to control everything from my own router again. Since I was already at work, I had to call my wife and walk her through the steps to reset networking on the Linux server, and as soon as she did and networking came back up, everything was back to normal.

I called Justin (who had left me his cell number) to let him know we were ok, and he thanked me for the call, as he had talked with techs in his office about the issue (and their frustrations at not being able to change these settings themselves), and was preparing to make another trip out to simply replace that modem with one that didn't try to do everything for me.

Kind of a crappy situation brought on by Comcast's own choice in modems and firmware with inaccessible configuration settings, but the three people involved were willing and able to work through it to get me what I wanted.

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