Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Comcastrophe

February 2002

By Mike Gould

Before the Flood
Boy howdy, what a mess! Last month I covered the pre-switchover era of Comcast; I discussed the why and when, and gave helpful numbers to call and URLs to visit. Then I went on vacation and the situation hit the fan. I can't leave town for 5 days without things just falling apart around here...

For those of you living in lighthouses and stuck with dial-in modems, the above refers to the incredibly clumsy dance that cable modem provider Comcast just waltzed us broadband folks through. The resulting stubbed toes, skinned knees and pratfalls have been discussed to death in the media by everyone but me, so it's my turn. Here's my take on the fiasco:

(Caveat: the views that follow are those of the author and may not reflect the seasoned reasoning of the management of Business to Business magazine, their advertisers, the nice people at the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, or anybody else in the Greater Metropolitan Peoples' Republic of Ann Arbor area, their members, friends or relatives.)

Bringing it All Back Home
My personal experience started the week after I sent my last article to press, when I received my upgrade kit from Comcast. I dutifully ran the installation program, and the fun began. Without documentation, warnings, or a fare-thee-well, the installer decided to wipe my Internet Explorer favorites folder and reconfigure a number of my Internet settings. Fortunately, I had just completed my annual mega-backup and was able restore that which was wiped. But I was starting to get a Really Bad Feeling...

Being a computer consultant with a smattering of ignorance regarding Internet configurations, I was able to get back up and running in a couple of hours. I got off easy. There have been reports of people with totally inoperative systems as a result of the botched install.

Knocked Out Loaded
After my little go-round with the installer, I alerted the folks on an email list I belong to that caters to the online UM community. Alas, my warning came to late for some, and the digital airwaves were soon filled with wails of anguish, expletives deleted and a general gnashing of teeth. So high was the volume of discourse that a separate email list was born to handle the traffic. For those out there interested in keeping up with the dialog re Comcast behaviors, you can join the mailist, which is open to those outside the UM community. To join, go to:

http://listserver.itd.umich.edu/cgi-bin/lyris.pl?enter=broadband-sig&text_mode=&lang=english

World Gone Wrong
The long litanies of complaints have filled up enough space recently; I won't go into it much except to comment on the worst aspect: the lack of support for those cut off or floundering. One of my clients ran the installer and was without connectivity for 4 days. During this time she spent hours on the phone trying to get through to Comcast support. On the rare occasions she actually got to speak to someone, she received contradictory advice, none of which worked. When I finally got back to town, I spent 2 hours fixing things, eventually getting her back to her new mailbox, which contained none of the email that was supposed to have forwarded from her old one.

Comcast seems to have forgotten that the S in ISP stands for service. They have been unavailable, unknowledgeable about their own systems, and initially unwilling to admit there was a problem. (I haven't seen it yet, but I hear there is an ad on TV featuring a deeply repentant Comcast official apologizing for the events and promising better service. We'll see...). Since the switch-over, our connection speeds have gone down, our bills are about to go up and useful features such as UseNet newsgroups have disappeared altogether.

Planet Waves
And don't get me started about their less-than-helpful website. As a Web designer I was appalled at the sloppy coding, broken links, and generally amateurish construction. Web design is relatively inexpensive and sites are instantly update-able; a proper help site would have done a lot to mute the above complaints.

Street Legal
Folks, this is what happens when you are at the mercy of a monopoly. Recent articles in the Detroit Free Press and the Ann Arbor News have detailed the sorry lack of community oversight that exists regarding digital infrastructure. Without competition, Comcast is free to run roughshod over its subscribers and we are without recourse. For the moment.

One result of the above is an effort to establish community input into the process. Concerned citizens can attend City Cable Commission meetings, held the 4th Tuesday of every month at the Edison Center Bldg., 425 S. Main.

You can also email Harry Haasch at the Ann Arbor city office of Cable Communications at HHaasch@ci.ann-arbor.mi.us.

Keep in mind that the Cable Commission does not directly regulate the Internet side of cable service, but as they have the ear of Comcast, it's a place to start.

With Gov. Engler weighing in with his plan for an online Michigan, I foresee squabbles going on for quite some time. At issue is this: is high-speed Internet access important enough that government regulation becomes necessary to insure it for all? We regulate the onramps to I-94; should we regulate the onramps to the Internet as well?

Other, smaller communities have gone so far as to install their own infrastructure, wires and all. This would probably be impossible in a city the size of Ann Arbor. We are too deeply bemired in the current wiring, and running something this size would send city budgets off-scale. So we are stuck with Comcast until something better comes along. Alternatives exist in DSL and some new wireless companies, but DSL doesn't reach a lot of households and businesses, and wireless is just starting out and is expensive.

Slow Train Coming
Things will get worse before they get better. The rest of the orphaned @home folks that Comcast inherited are due to hit the wire at the end of February when their accounts are switched over. Look for a fresh round of complaints and further slowdowns in service.

What to do? Show up at city council meetings and voice your opinion. Vote with your feet; if you are within range of DSL, give that a try. Join the crowd and write Op-Ed pieces. Keep the pressure on Comcast until their level of support and service equals or betters what we knew from MediaOne.

Here is the URL for the announcement on the Comcast switchover - check it from time to time for updates: http://www.comcastonline.com/info.htm

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