Comcast nightmare: Six months without Internet despite $5,000 payment

 Comcast nightmare: Six months without Internet despite $5,000 payment
Illustration of a house, with frayed fiber wires that don't extend far enough to connect the home to Internet service.
Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

When Edward Koll and his girlfriend, Jo Narkon, bought and moved into a new house in Draper, Virginia in late September 2020, they had every reason to think that Comcast Internet would be readily available.

They had done their due diligence before buying the house, plugging the address into the Comcast website to make sure it had cable Internet and contacting Comcast directly to make extra sure. Both the Comcast website’s availability checker and a Comcast sales rep confirmed to them that the house had service.

But Comcast had given the couple false information because of an error in its coverage map, and it didn’t tell the couple about this mistake until after they bought the house. That was over six months ago, and Koll and Narkon still don’t have home Internet service.

“It wasn’t until after we closed on the house that Comcast finally notified us that we were in a ‘dead zone,'” Koll told Ars when he first contacted us on February 12, 2021. “The ends of our street are hooked up, but the middle where we live does not have the service pedestal.”

This wasn’t the first time that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, has falsely told customers that service would be available.

Even though it was Comcast’s fault, the company demanded $5,000 up front to extend its network to Koll and Narkon’s house. The couple eventually paid up in late November after determining it was the only viable option. But while Comcast initially promised service within 90 days of receiving the $5,000 payment, it failed to complete the project in that time frame.

Comcast now says the project will finally be completed by April 15, over six weeks after the original 90-day estimate passed on March 2. The couple has been using mobile hotspots for Internet access the entire time they’ve lived in the house because of Comcast providing false availability information and then failing to complete the installation on time.

Comcast: “[We] did not live up to our standards”

Comcast seemed to take the problem more seriously after Ars contacted the company’s public relations department, eventually promising a $5,000 credit.

“Mr. Koll’s experience did not live up to our standards and we are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, therefore, we will be applying a credit to his account equal to $5,000,” Comcast told Ars on March 29, after a few weeks of back-and-forth communication.

“The shocking part of it was Comcast’s refusal to even own this,” Koll told Ars in a phone interview last week, after Comcast agreed to the $5,000 credit. “They just kind of brushed it off and we really did not get any traction on this until we reached out to you [at Ars].”

A Comcast rep called the couple yesterday to confirm that service will be installed on Thursday, April 15, sometime between 8am and 10am, Koll told us. Even after that call, Koll said he is “not convinced” the project is far enough along to be finished by then. But they’ve ordered Internet, TV, and phone service, and the couple is switching their cell phones over to Comcast’s mobile service. The total price is estimated at $249 a month, Koll said. At that price, the $5,000 credit will last about 20 months. Virginia is one of the states where Comcast reluctantly agreed to delay data-cap enforcement until 2022.

No option but to pay $5,000

Between emails, phone calls, and in-person visits, Koll said he had dozens of contacts with Comcast over the past six months to try to sort the mess out. “Comcast said, ‘yeah, our agents told you that service was available and they promised you that it was right there at your doorstep, but they were wrong,'” Koll said.

One installer arrived at the house and “said, ‘I need to go find out where your service line is,’ and then he disappeared. He never came back,” Koll told Ars. “And then we had two other installers and there was finally the third guy who said, ‘You don’t have a service pedestal close enough and you’re looking at a hefty bill just to have it installed.'”

After hearing Comcast’s demand for $5,000, Koll complained to the FCC but the agency “followed up with Comcast and accepted their explanation without comment,” Koll told Ars. Koll said he also contacted the offices of US Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) without any results.

Edward Koll at his home.
Edward Koll at his home.

Gigabit Internet “is available for your address”

Koll provided Ars a copy of the $5,000 invoice dated November 30 along with chat and email transcripts from conversations he had with Comcast.

In an online chat before they bought the house, Koll asked a Comcast rep to verify that gigabit Internet service and cable TV would be available. The rep told him that “the Gigabit Speeds Internet plan is available for your address” and that a 2-year contract would cost “$169.99/mo plus equipment, taxes, and fees.”

The rep told Koll to order service five to eight business days in advance in case cable needed to be run to the house, making it sound like it would be an easy process and not a six-month ordeal. But the Comcast rep was wrong because Comcast’s system was providing false information. Koll placed an order for Comcast service over the phone on August 25, and the couple closed on the house on September 24, moving in the same day. Even when accepting the order, Comcast didn’t realize that it hadn’t extended its network close enough to the house to provide service.

Comcast boasts about its gigabit network in a slide from a press kit.
Comcast boasts about its gigabit network in a slide from a press kit.
Comcast

On November 1, 2020, Koll replied to an email from a Comcast rep in the executive customer relations department, and pointed out that Comcast’s service map showed his address as having service. Koll’s email also pointed out that he had placed an order for service on August 25 “and at the same time put a deposit into the account so that service would be installed on or before closing on this house.”

“Given the multiple assurances from Comcast for service and the lengthy delays we have already endured, I anticipate a quick resolution to this matter,” Koll wrote in that email.

But there was no quick or cheap resolution. “We reluctantly agreed to pay $5,000 in November to have the service pedestal installed despite Comcast’s earlier promises regarding existing service availability,” Koll told Ars, months later.

“We really need help”

Koll first contacted us after reading one of our articles about a 90-year-old AT&T customer, Aaron Epstein, who bought an ad in the Wall Street Journal to complain about AT&T’s slow Internet service. At the time, Koll wasn’t sure that Comcast would install service at all.

“We really need help, similar to Mr. Epstein,” Koll told Ars in his first email to us. “We need to get the service we were promised installed. We would like to have the $5,000 back, but at this point are willing to accept that as a credit towards future bills. Comcast has offered two free months, which does not come close to the amount we have paid.”

Although Comcast later agreed to a credit equal to the full amount they paid, the company did not tell us why it won’t refund the $5,000 instead of providing it as a bill credit. That essentially means they had to pay $5,000 in advance for about 20 months of service, an initial expense that new Comcast customers normally would not have to pay.

Comcast fixes map, months too late

In late March, Comcast finally updated its coverage map and online availability checker to correctly show Koll’s address as unserved. So why did Comcast’s website and a Comcast sales rep falsely tell Koll that service was already available at the home?

“This is not a common occurrence and we have to look into these instances on a case-by-case basis,” Comcast said. “For this specific address, it was included in a database from a company we acquired many years ago. Our local teams are planning a further review of that regional database.”

Cable companies have failed for years to develop more accurate service maps. The cable industry’s biggest lobby group fought against requirements to submit address-level data to the Federal Communications Commission, telling the FCC in 2017 that it’s too difficult and expensive to figure out exactly where they can and can’t offer service.

The FCC finally ordered ISPs to submit geospatial maps of where they provide service in 2019, but then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not finish setting up the new system before leaving office in January 2021. Upon taking over from Pai, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel learned “that we had a lot of work to do and hadn’t yet begun many of the steps required to actually build a collection system,” she wrote.

Comcast: “It’s on us and we are very sorry”

Comcast has to work with the local power company to extend service to the house, but Comcast admitted that it didn’t start that process as quickly as it should have. Comcast told Ars that installers who went to the home and found that they could not install cable service did not communicate that fact to the construction team. The lack of communication “caused initial delays. It’s on us and for that we are very sorry,” Comcast said.

Comcast told us on March 29:

Once the right teams were engaged, we began the process to extend service to Mr. Koll’s home. Before we can start construction, we need to obtain a permit to attach our lines to the utility pole near his home. We estimated 90 days for the process, but sometimes, like in this case, it may take the pole owners more time to get the poles ready before issuing the permit. We have been in touch with the pole owner [American Electric Power] and they expect to complete their work this week. Once that is complete, we can begin our construction, which we expect to be complete on or before April 15.

Surviving on mobile hotspots

To get by without cable Internet, the couple bought three extra cell phones to use solely as hotspots. When the data plan on one runs out, they turn on the next.

“We had to purchase three additional cell phones and go with Verizon’s largest data plan, which is 30GB a month [on each hotspot], and we’re using up all of that data,” Koll said. “It’s called very judicious use. We’re not streaming anything, we’re not even playing music. It’s been a difficult six months.”

The hotspots have 4G speeds. “Where we live, the connection is not that great,” Koll said. “We get two bars on a good day. It’s fairly reliable at two bars, but once you’ve hit your data cap on a given phone it drops it to 600kbps.”

Picture of a Comcast router/modem gateway from the company's website.
Picture of a Comcast router/modem gateway from the company’s website.
Comcast

Verizon offers landline telephone service in the area but it’s too far from the central office for DSL Internet, Koll said. Verizon offers fiber-to-the-home service in some other parts of Virginia.

“We went round and round with Verizon, looking for the most economical way to be able to operate for the last six months, and this was it,” Koll said.

Koll, 52, is a consultant and project manager. He works at home and needs a VPN for his job. Narkon was working in an office until the pandemic began and hasn’t gotten a work-at-home job in part because of the couple’s extremely limited Internet access, Koll said. “Two of us trying to work full-time off of a hotspot, it just wouldn’t work,” he said.

They had tried HughesNet satellite where they previously lived but the connection wasn’t good enough to maintain the VPN connection, and satellite “data caps were prohibitive,” Koll said. They didn’t have wired Internet access at their previous home, and they were looking forward to finally getting fast broadband at the new house.

“It wasn’t the driving factor, but a consideration in purchasing this home was dedicated Internet service that already existed or could easily be turned on,” Koll said.

Frustrating delays

Shortly after receiving the $5,000 payment, Comcast told Koll that the 90-day timeline could be extended by factors such as weather, permitting delays, and the pandemic, he said. Koll was surprised. “We’ve been dealing with COVID for a year,” he told Ars. “Most places have figured out the impact of COVID on their line of business, how to work around it.”

Koll exchanged emails over several months with a Comcast construction coordinator and a member of Comcast’s executive customer relations department. In early December, Comcast said the project would probably be done by mid-March, only a couple weeks past the 90-day time frame. But it later became clear that wouldn’t happen and Comcast was slow in providing a new estimated date of completion.

Koll had to repeatedly follow up because of delays in getting responses, including once when the construction coordinator misspelled Koll’s email address and another time when the executive department rep said an email “got stuck in my outbox.”

On January 14, Comcast told Koll that it was “waiting on permit approvals” and couldn’t yet provide a “better estimated completed time.” Koll asked Comcast for updates on the project status on February 4 and February 12 but got no response. Finally, on March 1—five days after Ars contacted Comcast’s public relations department about the case—he was told it would be completed by April 15.

“My apologies it looks like my response got stuck in my outbox the ETA is 4/15,” the March 1 email from the Comcast executive customer relations representative said.

“No concern for us as a customer”

Koll described his frustration with Comcast in our phone interview last week. “Even after we signed the contract with them and gave them the money to do the construction, there was really no concern for us as a customer,” he said.

Koll was disappointed that Comcast didn’t seem to take their plight seriously until Ars contacted the company.

“You reached out to Comcast and now all of a sudden, we’ve got traction from their PR department, from their construction department,” he said. “I actually got an in-person visit from [the Comcast construction manager] last week, giving me the rundown and the breakdown on everything that was going to happen and the order it was going to happen in.”

“I’m a project manager,” he also said. “The number one rule, especially when communicating with anybody, is making sure I’m setting the right expectations. Up until last week when the [Comcast] PR department contacted me, the expectations weren’t even being set, let alone met.”

Though it looks like everything is finally on track, Koll said that he and his girlfriend weren’t fully convinced they’ll get service by April 15. “I think we will both be surprised if it actually happens,” he said.