Fed up with Comcast? How to avoid getting swindled by the cable company.
Cable and Internet monoliths like Comcast and Time Warner Cable can be inescapable for many consumers, but there are ways to get better treatment and avoid unfair billing.
Since January of this year, not a month has gone by where I haven't found myself engaged in a heated debate (read: screaming match) with a Comcast customer service agent.
I won't go too deep into the details lest this article devolve into a long, rambling rant against Comcast and everything they stand for. Suffice to say our internet speed was not up to par (we were paying for 25 Mbps and getting less than 1.5), and when they couldn't fix the problem over the phone, they sent a technician whose visit they assured us would be free of charge. The technician came, broke our WiFi completely, and left us to MacGyver our own solution. When we got the bill the following month, we were not surprised to find we'd been charged for the "free" visit, along with an extra fee for a rented modem--even though we have our own.
Every month since January, slightly different versions of this same scenario have popped up like clockwork, and we've only been able to get each erroneous charge reversed by spending hours on the phone being either transferred back and forth between departments or casually hung up on over and over by an automated phone system. Oh, and our internet is still painfully slow, so there's that.
At this point you're probably wondering, "Why on Earth is this girl still a Comcast customer?" And while I've cursed the heavens with this question every time my WiFi drops out or I get an unfair charge on my bill, I have no choice in the matter. I thought I could get out of my Comcast contract when I moved in April, but my old apartment and my new apartment, although miles apart, have one awful thing in common: they're both Comcast-only buildings. Before I moved, I called AT&T, RCN Cable, and a Chicago-based Fiber network called Everywhere Wireless, and none of them could service my building.
Why? Because the wiring and infrastructure needed to access the internet in and around my building was initially set up by Comcast, and although the FCC banned landlords from being able to make exclusive contracts with cable and internet companies way back in 2007, companies like Comcast get around this rule by getting there first. It's nearly impossible to add additional equipment to a building that's already been wired by one internet or cable provider. That's why you'll find certain apartment buildings or even blocks completely dominated by one company or another. In Chicago, where I live, your building is likely going to be either RCN or Comcast-ready, and Comcast is a lot more prevalent.
My complaints about Comcast's customer service aren't unfounded: the cable giant has always been well-known for how terribly they treat their customers (Remember last year's leaked cancellation call? Or the time they refused to shut off service in a house that had burned down?). While they're apparently working on some fixes to these problems, I'm not holding my breath. For those of you who don't want to be subjected to their current policies, here are your other options for cable and internet service:
Double check your options.
If you want to avoid a lot of customer service headaches, don't just sign up for Comcast without checking to see whether you can get another (likely cheaper) internet and cable service in your building. Plus, if you own a single family home, you're entitled to get your internet from wherever you please, so why settle for jacked-up prices and horrible service? Here are some other companies that provide high speed internet to look into, search and see if your address is covered by any before you make any decisions:
Because it operates through a dish and not internal wiring, satellite internet and cable can be set up even in buildings that Comcast (or Time Warner or RCN) have already wired. However, just because it'spossible to set up satellite services in your building, doesn't mean your landlord will allow it. Although it is technically illegal for landlords to make exclusive contracts with cable and internet companies, there are loopholes that render this law practically unenforceable.
In order to force tenants into using one company over another, some landlords will prohibit you from drilling any holes in the building OR using shared space (like a balcony or back entrance) to mount a dish. If you have a private balcony you should be able to zip tie the dish to the railing without harming your building's exterior, but I've heard stories about landlords who hike up rent a bit if their tenants decide to go with a different cable provider from the one they're in cahoots with. If you want to argue your case with your landlord, here are the FCC's guidelines on this legal grey area.
So let's say you check with your property manager and you're good to go on installing a satellite dish, how does this service compare with other cable and internet providers? Brad's Deals tech editor David Dritsas doesn't recommend satellite on the basis of speed and reliability: "Satellite-based internet is slower than cable or DSL and sometimes experiences more interruptions due to bad weather," said Dritsas. "It's used mostly in very rural areas where you can't get cable or DSL and have more open sky."
But if you don't mind slightly slower web browsing, here are a few satellite cable and internet companies to check out:
Get a mobile hotspot.
These can get a bit pricey, and are probably not your best bet if you do a lot of gaming or video streaming, but if your internet usage is sparse and general (think emailing, Facebooking, ing, reading articles etc), buying a mobile hotspot could be a decent alternative to a deal with the devil Comcast contract.
Mobile hotspots pick up wireless broadband--in other words, what your phone's data plan relies on. This is great if you like to work on the go, but it also costs a lot more per byte than DSL, cable or satellite internet access. You'll have to turn it on and off when you need it, and be frugal about how much time you spend online, but if this sounds OK to you, here are a few of the best mobile hotspots on the market today:
- AT&T Velocity -- $149.99 or $0.99 with a data plan from AT&T.
- Sprint Netgear Zing Mobile Hotspot -- $299.99 or $49.99 with a two-year service agreement from Sprint or Best Buy.
- Verizon MiFi 6620L Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot -- $0.01 (with contract)-$209.99 atAmazon
- T-Mobile 4G LTW Hotspot Z915 -- $0 with a 24 month T-Mobile contract or $109.92 at T-Mobile
It's also worth noting that most smartphones already have a "wireless hotspot" mode which makes it possible for you to use the mobile data from your phone plan on other, WiFi-enabled devices. Keep in mind this technology is still relatively new, and this is--again--not a great option for video streaming or gaming, and even causal browsing can quickly push you over your monthly data allowance.
Move somewhere with free (or cheap) public WiFi.
Many places across the country offer a city-wide WiFi connection that's either free or accessible for a small (relative to what other cable companies are charging) monthly fee. Others offer hotspots in public places, and a few lucky cities have access to Google Fiber, which offers speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps--a far cry from my measly 25. While it's hard to find a definitive list of ALL the U.S. cities that offer municipal WiFi (Wikipedia's is OK, but it's a bit out of date), here are a few cities you could move to that offer nearly universally lauded WiFi programs:
- Amherst, MA -- Free public WiFi throughout the downtown area.
- Austin, TX -- Google Fiber test city.
- Kansas City, MO -- Google Fiber test city.
- Minneapolis, MN -- Public WiFi plans for purchase, and access to free WiFi in various city hotspots.
- Provo, UT -- Google Fiber test city.
- Raleigh, NC -- Free public WiFi outside in downtown.
- Seattle, WA -- WiFi hotspots abound downtown, in public libraries and parks across the city.
Unfortunately, big cable is the only option for a lot of people.
Like me, for example. My building is Comcast-only, I don't have a private balcony for a dish, I don't live in a city with a public WiFi system, and my job requires me to be online (with a strong WiFi signal) more often than I could afford with a mobile hotspot. If I want WiFi in my apartment, Comcast is my only option. So here are a few tricks I've learned for negotiating my monthly bill and generally making the process of dealing with them *slightly* more manageable:
Threaten to cancel (or actually cancel) your service.
Around this time last year, our bill surged from $40/month to $75 without warning, and in a fit of anger, I called and cancelled my account. The plan was to have my then-roommate sign up for a cheaper introductory package, but before she could do that, I got a call from Comcast offering to give me exactly what we were looking for if I'd reactivate my account. I agreed and we were spared the hassle of sending back our cable box and picking up a new one.
Since Comcast usually saves the best deals for new customers in their first 12 months, if you live with someone else who's willing to put their name on the bill, canceling your account and re-opening it under your roommate or significant other's name is a good way to beat the system. Plus, a lot of times, just calling to cancel is enough to make them cave and give you a good deal. In fact, Brad did this a few years ago and ended up saving his family $312.
Buy your own modem.
Comcast charges $10/month to rent one of their modems. So I bought my own on Amazon for about $40 instead. This decision has saved me roughly $220 over the past two years, and my modem is better than the one I used to rent.
That being said, if you do buy your own, I recommend keeping a close eye on your bill: I've been randomly charged the $10/month modem fee more than once, and have had to spend a good chunk of time on the phone arguing to get it taken off my bill each time.
Modems to consider:
- Zoom 5341 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem -- $68.01 on Amazon
- ARRIS/Motorola SurfBoard Cable Modem -- $69.99 ($49.96 used) on Amazon
- Cisco-Linksys Cable Modem -- $45.47 on Amazon
Record every phone call you have with an agent.
I know this seems crazy, and it's sad I've had to resort to doing it, but it's been extremely useful in getting some of my more ridiculous charges reversed. For example, every time I've had a technician come to my house, I've been assured on the phone that the visit would be free of charge. That literally NEVER happens. Before I started recording my phone calls, I often got talked into paying for those visits because it was easier than arguing for an hour. But with a recording in hand, there's no way for them to deny that it was their mistake, not mine.
I record my calls by putting my phone on speaker and using the Voice Notes app on my boyfriend's iPhone, and if he's not around, I do it with my iPad or my old Tascam recorder. You can also download recording apps like Easy Voice Recorder to your computer, and record your calls that way. Keep in mind that when you're recording from speakerphone, the sound won't be crystal clear, but it'll get the job done.
This might seem like a lot or work, but you'll thank me when the time comes. And come it will.
The online chat feature is the fastest way to talk to a real human.
One of my biggest problems with Comcast's customer service is that every time I try to call and talk to someone, I always end up getting hung up on by their automated phone system before I can be connected to a human. I am not exaggerating when I say this happens to me EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. There's nothing more maddening than hearing that soft "click" of disconnection after spending 10 minutes pressing all the right buttons and listening to tacky hold music interspersed with ads for pay-per-view boxing matches I will never, ever order.
So I've started going straight to their online chat whenever I have a problem (well, a problem that doesn't involve a service interruption, obviously, as I can't chat online without internet access). I'm usually connected with someone who can help within a few seconds, and as a writer, it's a lot easier for me to argue my case through the keyboard than over the phone. Plus, I don't have to bust out my tape recorder to save the conversation for future reference--a big win in my book.
So there you have it. While it seems I'm doomed to a life of high bills, slow WiFi and constant arguments for the foreseeable future, I hope you can avoid a similar fate.
This article first appeared in Brad's Deals.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this post included a Netgear Internet modem that was not compatible with Comcast's service. It has been replaced with a modem that is compatible.
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