Problem with your phone? We'll call you...

Years ago, I was somewhat amused when we had a problem with our internet, and when I called Comcast service, the automated message suggested reporting the problem on their website.

Last week, when our internet went out and took the Comcast VOIP service with it, we had to call Comcast customer service from our cell phone and set up service. The customer service rep asked if there was a phone number by which we could be contacted (since our home phone was out), and we gave them the cell number.

Today, I finally got around to checking the messages on Comcast voice mail that came in while our service was out. The message left was from Comcast customer service, telling us we had an appointment set up.

insert eye roll here


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.


My $6000 mistake

After my 2004 Prius was totaled, I had one prevaling thought when it came to transportation: I needed to replace the car. As such, I went looking for another Prius, loaded, with the JBL sound system, bluetooth, and GPS navigation. My wife strongly encouraged me to look for a later model, as it would be better covered by warranties and have less of a chance of something going wrong. Because rising gas prices have been driving up the demand for hybrids, and because the recent tsunami in Japan was hindering supply, my choices were rather limited. I found a couple dealers with Priuses, and it came down to a 2005 base model and a 2009 loaded touring edition. The '05, without any options, felt too much like "just a car"; while the loaded '09 offered all the bells and whistles I was used to, plus had newer components which made for a better warranty and piece of mind.

The cost, however, was really tough to swallow. After the check from my insurance company, I ended up owing over $13k, which I financed with the intention of pulling money from various accounts and paying off as soon as possible.

After a couple weeks of driving, however, I noticed the strong new car scent had given way to a strong cigarette smell. Not a smoker myself, the smell was beyond irritating — and the fact that I take my kids to school in the morning made me more concerned about the environment I was using for transportation. This and the out-of-pocket expense weighed heavily on me for the following weeks.

When fabric cleaners and deodorizers failed to improve things, I came to the conclusion that I had made a terrible mistake.

I knew I would take a small bath on the cost of the car compared to its trade-in value, so I began the search for an inexpensive and economical car (and, to satisfy my wife's concerns about warranties, a relatively late-model with a good warranty). My search led me to a used 2010 Chevy Cobalt previously used as a rental car, which I couldn't beat for the mileage/year/economy at that price.

It's a good car, drives well, is comfortable, and, very imporantly, does not have a cigarette smell. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of the Prius, but those are features I didn't really need — my phone can serve as a GPS well enough (and one that's continually up-to-date), and plugging the phone's headphone jack into the stereo's auxillary input (which I do out of habit anyway, as I listen to podcasts or audiobooks almost exclusively) is a more-than-acceptable substitute for a wireless handsfree bluetooth connection. Plus, the Cobalt has features that even the 2009 Prius didn't: a tire pressure and oil life monitor, daytime running lights, automatic headlights (seriously, for all the bells and whistles, how can the Prius not have automatic headlights?), and doors that automatically lock when the car is in gear. Plus, the Cobalt does not attempt to control everything through a single LCD touchscreen. (It seems cool, but it ends up being far more distracting and annoying when you have to switch screen modes just to adjust the temperature or see what radio station is playing — which might be why the 2010 model Prius went back to discrete radio and climate control panels.)

The car cost me just about the exact price of my late Prius, but after figuring in the loss on trade-in, taxes, and two dealer delivery charges, I estimate I lost somewhere in the ballpark of $6000 on the deal. But it was a huge weight off of my mind to be able to pull that money together, write a single check, and buy the car outright without any financing whatsoever.

The cost all comes down to a simple mistake. When I went to get a replacement car, I focused on replacing my old car with a near-equal match. If I had instead focused on what I need instead of what I want, I could have avoided the extra cost — or taken that extra money and considered more expensive but more economical or featured cars.

Do I miss my old Prius? Absolutely. It was my fun car, and I enjoyed it for the nearly seven years I was privileged to drive it. I'm glad I was able to get my fun car. But what I didn't initially accept was, it was time to move on. Now that I've accepted that, I feel much better about my old car's replacement, and I can move ahead.


The Day Comcast's Data Cap Policy Killed My Internet for 1 Year

I've long complained about internet data caps. While I haven't yet exceeded Comcast's 250GB cap, I noticed a blog post retweeted across Twitter with a real-life anecdote of one person's experience getting cut off from Comcast internet service for doing just that. link

In his case, service was likely* due to an increase in uploading large files to cloud services that are becoming more and more popular. My own usage is still primarily downloading data (above 95% of my monthly use is downloading); but as we have new Windows 7 smartphones that automatically upload pictures to the Skydrive service, and the upcoming Mango update promises to do the same with HD videos as well, I can see uploading rates increasing for me as well.

*"Likely", because Comcast does not provide details about data usage, even to show how much is up- vs. downloading.

I do find it odd that, instead of charging for overages and milking more money out of their customers, they are throwing customers away. I imagine there are users who would much rather pay extra than being cut off completely. And yet, they are effectively reducing their customer base, which will only shrink more as more people go over the cap by daring to use all these internet services other companies are so keen in innovating, which will only happen more often when Comcast refuses to increase the cap proportionally to how many services are available, the increase in bandwidth existing services use (i.e. more HD video available for streaming), and the increasing speed Comcast itself is providing to get to their arbitrary cap faster.