In our business office, we've used Comcast's business-grade cable modem service for Internet access since 2007. In general we've been satisfied: the service is much faster than the DSL connection we had before, and the price was reasonable and exactly what we had agreed to in the contract nearly five years ago.
Over the past year, however, we've noticed the quality of our cable modem connection declining a little. Where it used to always be wicked-fast, we now see occasional slowdowns and overnight outages.
Then this month, a surprise: a new $7 fee in our bill for "equipment rental." $84/year is not going to make or break us, but as a general rule you should only pay bills for money you actually owe. Companies which break this rule tend not to stay in business.
So I dutifully called Comcast customer service to try to get to the bottom of this. It seemed a little strange that our five-year-old cable modem was suddenly worthy of a monthly fee when it hadn't been for so many years before. Here's more or less what happened:
- I called the phone number printed on the bill. It might be reasonable to expect that someone calling the phone number printed on the bill might have a billing question, but I had to spend about five minutes navigating the menu to find the option for billing problems.
- I then waited on hold for fifteen minutes. Normally one might expect that business customers calling with billing disputes are both high value and upset, but Comcast apparently feels the time of their customer service representative is more valuable than mine.
- Once I got to speak to someone, the representative told me the new charge was because of a "policy change" which had been disclosed in a prior bill. I dug up the old bill. There was one sentence in 8-point type on the back page of a bill from six months ago (I am not exaggerating this in the slightest). That's not disclosure, that's active concealment.
- The Comcast representative said he couldn't do anything about the charge, but he could transfer me to a "retention specialist" who might be able to do something. Keep in mind that by this point I had been on the phone for nearly half an hour.
- When I told the retention specialist I wasn't happy about having new fees randomly added to my bill, he first tried to argue that Comcast had the right to add the fees because of a contract on Comcast's website. Leaving aside the legal question of what makes a binding contract, getting into a "Yes I can/No you can't" argument with a longtime customer over less than a hundred bucks a year is not going to win any loyalty.
- Finally, after telling the retention specialist that I was absolutely not going to argue with him about whether Comcast's website constitutes a legally binding contract, and I just wanted the fee removed, he said he couldn't take the fee off. Instead, he could offer me a $10/month credit for 12 months.
In general I don't have a problem if Comcast wants to push through a modest price increase. They have never raised their price to us in almost five years, and on the whole they've provided good value. But if they want to raise their price, they should do it the right way: send us a prominent notice or an insert in our bill announcing the change. Trying to sneak in a new fee like this is just, well, sneaky. Instead of looking like a legitimate price increase it looks like a mistake, which I had to spend a fair amount of time tracking down. Then when it wasn't a mistake it just looked sleazy.
As it happens, there's a new carrier pulling fiber to our office building this summer. A week ago I wasn't really interested in switching from Comcast. Today I am.