Everyone Hates The Cable Company, But This One Isn’t Their Fault

A tale of Kafkaesque torture by Comcast Customer Service reveals that the person who really made the mistakes here was the homeowner.

tv-remote

Over the past week or so, I’ve seen several people online commenting about a story that appeared in Consumerist that tells the story of Seth, a guy who was allegedly screwed over by a cable company:

Only months after moving into his new home in Washington state, Consumerist reader Seth is already looking to sell his house. He didn’t lose his job or discover that the property is haunted. No, Seth can’t stay much longer because no one can provide broadband service to his address; even though Comcast and CenturyLink both misled him into thinking he’d be connected to their networksand in spite of the fact that his county runs a high-speed fiberoptic network that goes very near to his property.

Like an increasing number of Americans, Seth works from home, meaning that it’s vital that he have a reliable high-speed Internet connection at all times. That’s why before he even put an offer on the house in Kitsap County, WA, he contacted Comcast to confirm that he could get service to his potential new address.

According to Seth, who has kept a detailed timeline of events, one Comcast sales rep even said that a previous resident at this address had been a Comcast customer. Seth says he tried to get it in writing that the house was serviceable, but Comcast said they simply do not do that.

Then, on Jan. 31, a Comcast tech came out to perform what should have been a quick installation, only to find that there was no cable infrastructure leading to Seth’s property. Thus began a months-long saga of pointless appointments before Seth ultimately hit a dead end last week.

As it turned out, Seth’s new house was some 2,500 feet from the nearest Comcast hookup. There had apparently been no cables laid from that point to the house at any point prior to the time that he purchased the house and, as he went through a months long process of trying to get some kind of Internet access at his home, which is apparently essential since he works from home, he experienced what can only be called a Kafakaesque tale of bad customer service that makes any of your bad experiences with your cable company seem pleasant by comparison. He explored other options, including DSL and satellite based Internet access but, as it turns out, these were not practical solutions thanks in no small part to the location of his home in a basically rural part of the Pacific Northwest. Ultimately, Comcast was his only viable choice and he eventually found out that it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to do the work, and that Comcast wasn’t willing to foot the bill for what essentially would be a really long cable wire that would serve only one customer:

So with all other options off the table, Seth has had to wait for Comcast to get around to estimating the construction cost for connecting him to the network, and then for the company to decide whether it’s worth it.

Comcast put Seth around 2,500 feet from the nearest connection point, and gave him an initial unofficial estimate of around $20/foot, meaning he’d have to pay $50,000 just to get connected.

That seemed high to Seth, and several people we talked to (who don’t have the specifics of his situation but who are familiar with these sorts of projects) say this is more than most quotes.

Comcast later revised that estimate upward, to as much as $60,000, though Comcast — if it decided to do the work — would pick up some of the tab.

Seth even began looking into hiring his own contractor to do some of the more expensive work on his property in the hopes of bringing the cost down.

After about seven weeks of pointless install appointments, deleted orders, dead ends, and vague sky-high estimates, Comcast told him that it had decided to simply not do the extension. The company wouldn’t even listen to Seth’s offers to pay for a good chunk of the cost.

“I’m devastated,” he wrote at the time. “This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.”

“Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely,” continued Seth. “They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.”

As I’ve read the coverage of this story at various places online over the past several days, it’s been clear that most people have come to the conclusion that Comcast is the obvious bad actor here, but it strikes me that there is more to the story and that, even based on his own version of events, “Seth” clearly made mistakes of his own that have put him in this situation. As a preliminary matter, as one reads through Seth’s story, and the timeline that he’s published that purportedly details all of the contacts he’s had with Comcast and other companies regarding this matter, it becomes clear that Comcast’s customer service here was absolutely atrocious. After initially assuring him that hooking up his house for cable television and Internet access, the company then put this guy through a series of bizarre encounters, gave him contradictory information regarding what they company was technically able to do given the location of his house, and waited an intolerable amount of time before admitting to him that they would not be able to provide service to him unless he was willing to incur extraordinary costs to make it possible.

Anyone who’s had to deal with customer service at a company like this will certainly be sympathetic to Seth’s plight, and of course everyone likes blaming their cable company for bad customer service, high prices, or any of the other phenomena that come with the de jure or de facto monopolies that these companies enjoy at the local level. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that, in the end, Seth’s plight isn’t really Comcast’s fault. It’s not made clear why the house was never physically hooked up to the company’s network, but it strikes me that this isn’t really Comcast’s fault. The fact that it would cost $50,000 to $60,000 to do the work necessary to connect the house to the network isn’t Comcast’s fault either. If Comcast is guilty of anything, it’s bad customer service and not making the reality clear to Seth sooner. However, even if they’d done so reality would still be reality and Seth would still be in the same situation he’s in today, and he’d have no legal recourse against anyone.

When I read this story, the fact that stood out to me were the ones that pointed the mistakes that Seth made before he even picked up the phone and called Comcast. For example, in his timeline, he starts out by noting that he had bought this home in Kitsap County, Washington “late last year.” While it’s not made clear in the timeline, one assumes that by this he means that he went to closing on the home at some point in December 2014, which would have meant that the contract to purchase the home was probably signed some time in the fall of 2014. In any case, Seth makes clear that, since Comcast was the near-exclusive Internet provider for the area,  ”finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.” Despite this fact, Seth apparently didn’t contact Comcast at all until late January after he had already moved into the home, thus sending him down the rabbit hole that has brought him to his current predicament. Seth’s problem is that, despite the fact that having Internet access to the home was supposedly a high priority, he apparently did not take any steps prior to moving into the home to ensure that this was possible.

Ideally, the issue of the home being attached to the Comcast network is something that should have been dealt with as part of the negotiations to buy the home to begin with. Seth should have insisted that the seller provide some certification, in writing, that the home was “cable ready.” It does appear that he did call Comcast before putting an offer on the home, but Comcast doesn’t have the same legal responsibilities to him that the seller of the home does and it was, to put it charitably, naive to rely solely on what someone tells you over the phone when you’re making a decision to purchase a home that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  If he had done something like this at that time, then he possibly would have learned what he knows now, and he would have known what it would cost to hook the house up to the network, information he could use to negotiate a reduction in the purchase price to reflect that cost. Alternatively, if he’d learned what he knows now prior to signing the contract, or prior to closing, then he could have walked away from the contract and found a home that would have met his needs. At the very least, if it had turned out that the seller had misrepresented the fact that the house was “cable ready,” and that they had done so in writing, then he would now have potential legal claims against the seller for misrepresentation. Based on the timeline, it doesn’t appear that Seth took any of these steps except for two perfunctory phone calls to Comcast prior to placing an offer. It’s also unclear from the timeline if Seth had either an attorney or a real estate agent advising him before he bought this home, but I’m going to guess that he didn’t, but if he did then he might even have potential malpractice claims against them depending on what he told them about the importance of Internet access to his decision to buy a home.

It’s easy with a story like this to feel sorry for the consumer and put all the blame on the big, evil, corporation. In this case, though, it’s rather apparent that we’re dealing with a homeowner who didn’t do what he should have done until it was too late. It’s a lesson, albeit an expensive one that Seth is likely to never forget.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Law and the Courts
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. Seth’s plight isn’t really Comcast’s fault.

    The company gave him an assurance it would be able to provide a particular service and then backed out, and that’s not their fault?

  2. Mu says:

    I’d be surprised if there isn’t a “must connect” clause in the Kitsap County – Comcast franchise agreement. Typically cable companies agree to that in exchange for exclusivity.

  3. Trumwill says:

    @Mu: My County has no such agreement. Can’t get Comcast at our new house.

  4. John Peabody says:

    @Stormy- a five-minute call to a low-wage worker on the phone is not a binding contract. See: any auto repair business!

  5. Davebo says:

    I’ve got to go with Stormy here.

    He called, more than once, prior to purchasing the home and was assured service would be available (assumably).

    Seth should have insisted that the seller provide some certification, in writing, that the home was “cable ready.”

    Leaving aside the truly laughable idea that he should have asked for such a thing from the seller, the term “cable ready” only implies that the home had coax run internally during it’s construction.

    It’s also unclear from the timeline if Seth had either an attorney or a real estate agent advising him before he bought this home, but I’m going to guess that he didn’t

    That guess is as baseless and nearly as silly as your whole “certified cable ready” document.

    Clearly your grasping at any straw available to make excuses for Comcast here. I could guess why but you’ve done enough guessing for one post already.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Doug–you’re thinking like a lawyer, not a PR person. Most people, when reading this, aren’t going to think “aha, did not put into contract while purchasing house.” They’re going to think “ain’t Comcast awful.”

    (If however the state has some timeline for “sell back this lemon of a house” and Seth did not meet it because of his interaction with Comcast and their assurances, I would think that he would have a cause of action for detrimental reliance.

    P.S. Not an attorney–yet. )

  7. Mikey says:

    I’m still trying to figure out exactly what due diligence this guy should have done prior to buying the house that he didn’t do. Maybe the old brain is just working a little slow today, but I can’t puzzle together any specific set of measures he absolutely should have taken but didn’t.

    I mean, I can see it being his responsibility if he chooses not to get a home inspection and bam! termites, but asking for and receiving repeated assurances from an ISP that your prospective property is, yes indeedy, serviced by them, seems as much as he should have had to do.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    Huh! BroadBand is so ubiquitous that someone buys a rural home on a peninsula in Puget Sound and ‘bounded by’ (the official County website says) the Olympic Wilderness and expects to work from home on his computer. I remember so well waiting for dial-up and that was in Annapolis MD. Wow. What a country!

  9. @John Peabody:

    Comcast can still be at fault for something they’re not legally responsible for.

  10. Moderate Mom says:

    Don’t most phone services provide internet services these days? Even before we had access to AT&T Uverse, we had internet service through our land line with AT&T. Does Seth not have access to a phone land line?

  11. David in KC says:

    @Moderate Mom: DSL has a distance requirement. I don’t know what it is now, but back in my regulatory days (early 2000s) 9000 feet or less was optimal, up to 17000 feet was doable (with degrading service the closer to 17,000 feet that you got) and over 17,000 feet you were SOL. And if there was any older technological “fixes” in the system to address other service issues, it wouldn’t work at all. I’m sure the distances have increased with improvements in technology, but there is always going to be a distance restriction on DSL, it’s just how the technology works.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    I have had some trouble with Comcast customer service in the past (the “technician” knew less about it than I did) but in this case I can’t blame them. There is a price you pay for living in the country. It is only logical that a company is not going to lay a 1/2 mile of cable or fiber to one house, it would take decades to get their investment back. Seth was a fool who didn’t do his homework. I also don’t understand why he can’t get satellite internet. More expensive and much slower than cable but should be available anywhere. Lack of DSL on the phone line I understand – you have to be close to the nearest switching facility..

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @David in KC: Indeed. The present apartment I’m using as a pied-a-terre for my business has absolutely lousy reception for any time of cellular phone and cannot use DSL because AT&T in their friggin’ wisdom, put the bloody repeater tower in the wrong place. Everywhere else in the neighborhood is covered–just this one little patch that has lousy reception.

    Makes me long for Japan.

  14. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    A decent (or even half-fast) building inspector should have been able to tell him that the house didn’t have a cable lead in if he had made that a issue (as he should have). Additionally, the last tme I purchased a house in Washington State (I have purchased three), a building inspection was required to close a sale unless the property was not going through an escrow process (i.e. a sale between two private parties–like on Craig’s List). Color me on Doug’s side.

    On the other hand, a house with Comcast service as the only option would be a deal breaker for me ;-).

  15. wr says:

    Hmm. Seems to me there used to be this same problem with electricity in rural areas. But then somehow private industry decided it was a national priority to make sure very citizen had access to this essential utility and they all pitched in to electrify the nation.

    Oh, wait. No they didn’t. That would have cost them money. So the American people, working through their elected representatives, did. And so rural folks were able to compete with urban people.

    Of course today such a plan is considered Communism. Or Islam, whichever is easier to say. And private industry has covered their bets by paying off state governments to ban any public internet infrastructure.

    Go free market go!

  16. JWH says:

    Doug: Forgive me, it’s been a long time since my contract law and property law classes, but might there some kind of detrimental reliance or negligent misrepresentation claim here? (Again, been a long time since law school for me).

  17. Roger That says:

    a few of your points are addressed in the Q&A at the end.

    When I read this story, the fact that stood out to me were the ones that pointed the mistakes that Seth made before he even picked up the phone and called Comcast. For example, in his timeline, he starts out by noting that he had bought this home in Kitsap County, Washington “late last year.” While it’s not made clear in the timeline, one assumes that by this he means that he went to closing on the home at some point in December 2014, which would have meant that the contract to purchase the home was probably signed some time in the fall of 2014. In any case, Seth makes clear that, since Comcast was the near-exclusive Internet provider for the area, ”finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.” Despite this fact, Seth apparently didn’t contact Comcast at all until late January after he had already moved into the home, thus sending him down the rabbit hole that has brought him to his current predicament.

    Q: Why Didn’t you check this before you moved?
    A: Oh, but I did. Having broadband of some kind was an absolute requirement for our new home. Before we even made an offer, I placed two separate phone calls; one to Comcast Business, and one to Xfinity. Both sales agents told me that service was available at the address. The Comcast Business agent even told me that a previous resident had already had service. So I believed them.

    Seth should have insisted that the seller provide some certification, in writing, that the home was “cable ready.”

    Q: Why didn’t you get this serviceability status in writing?
    A: I tried. When I asked for serviceability in writing, I was told it just wasn’t something Comcast could do, that they have no process for it. We were simply assured, verbally, that there was service here. And, besides, they clearly did believe that I was serviceable, or they wouldn’t have sent six techs out to hook me up.

  18. Ken says:

    @grumpy realist: Doug–you’re thinking like a lawyer, not a PR person. Most people, when reading this, aren’t going to think “aha, did not put into contract while purchasing house.” They’re going to think “ain’t Comcast awful.”

    As a Comcast area consumer, and having recently purchased a house, I can say that the latter was certainly my first thought. But it was followed by the former in a matter of seconds. If there is some completely non-negotiable item that you must have in your new house, there is no excuse whatsoever for it not to be included in the contract, explicitly and specifically.

  19. Rick DeMent says:

    What is amazing to me that we live in, arguably, the greatest capitalistic country in the world and the “free market” can’t deliver broadband to every single address in the country. Sound like a job for inefficient government.

  20. Tyrell says:

    @Mu: These “exclusivity” agreements are generally one sided. They may have some sort of “rights” for consumers, but just try getting them to honor it. We fought a running battle with one of the large cable companies over a period of a few years. This concerned all of the “funny” charges and fees that would show up on our monthly bill. Fees and charges that some of which they didn’t even know what they were for. “Just pay it !!”
    Or try taking on a utility company when they slap a “deposit” on your bill because you got behind and had one late payment; the only time late over a period dating back to 1973. Never mind that I had paid a deposit years ago. I went through the state utilities commission but got no where. “Just pay it !!”
    So, these cable, telephone, utility. and other communication providers can do these things with little fear.
    “Just pay it !!”

  21. bill says:

    @Stormy Dragon: they did, but it was a 5 figure cost! so seth just isn’t as smart as he seems, it seems.
    it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who chooses to live in the boondocks yet expects the benefits of urban dwellers.

  22. Electroman says:

    @Ron Beasley: He can get satellite internet; however, he has determined that it might not work (my words, not his) and is too expensive (again, my words, not his). This is discussed (very briefly) in the original story.

  23. Let's Be Reasonable says:
  24. Grewgills says:

    @Let’s Be Reasonable:
    If the photos are accurate Seth definitely bears primary responsibility here.

  25. Mikey says:

    @Grewgills: Yeah, and if the captions are accurate, those pretty much answer my questions too. Wow.