Comcast vs Customers and itself!
Comcast seems to be working hard to make simple problems hard to solve. How else can they maintain their ability to choose what we can watch and when we can watch it?08-Aug-2005

Screen ImageIt seemed like a simple problem – my so-called High Definition Set Top Boxes wasn't getting the premium channels but my older so-called Digital Boxes do. In the last two days I've called customer support a few times. The original problem was simpler – I was just missing two of the HD channels – perhaps because of problems with the analog Coax transport. Of course the STBs don't provide diagnostic information so I can't help solve the problems.

Instead the solution to any problem is to roll a truck! It wastes their time and my time. But no matter, my time is worth $0 and a technician is a cheap commodity. The support people I've spoken to vary. Some find the problem interesting and puzzling but most go by their rule book of “just so” stories that make no sense. I'm told that maybe the signal is delayed at the head end. They might as well tell me that it's in the mail.

I do need to be careful and double check what I am told. I was told that my STB is a Motorola 5100 but it seems to really be a 6200. At least I was able to find the manual online.

What I find offensive is the notion that neither they nor I am allowed to speak to the engineers. Instead I must have them interpret technical terms (Geek Speak) and translate it into Droid (a language of metaphors and stories that cannot represent technical information). It is then translated into Checklist (a system that has no representation for new information). And then it seems to be thrown away. There seems to be an impenetrable barrier between the so-called technical support people and the sacred engineers.

This is the result of substituting training for education. Educated people are annoying and expensive. Trained people are well behaved and don't know what they don't know. At least in theory – in a tight job market some educated people slip through.

The solution to any problem is to roll a truck out with a technician in it who is supposed to be able to speak to counterparts and swap boxes and tweak thing till they work again. And I'm supposed to sit around and wait for them.

It's bad enough that I have to act as system integrator to get the various parts of Comcast to speak to each other. What's worse is that I am supposed to do it without being allowed to speak to anyone who has a clue or is even curious about why some of my boxes are rejecting premium channels and some are not.

I argue that this reflects a business modeled as a delivery system for services. The STB is just a dumb terminal at the end of long pipe. It has to be very inexpensive and the traditional design philosophy strives to avoid failure rather than coping with it. This becomes a problem when we have a rapidly changing technological landscape — no wonder the STB is so problematic. It's bad enough it doesn't give me, the consumer, information, it doesn't even report enough back to Comcast to allow it diagnose and solve these problems. Or maybe it does but the corporate structure keeps the information behind the intracorporate barriers.

The STB manual gives only limited information and even that is subject to corporate policies. The manual shows how to use the DVI connector but it's been disabled because Tellywood wants to tell me how to view the bits. When you start the STB it initially allows the DVI path to be used and adds the program information. It then disables it as you can see in this short video clip. The upper right hand shows the component image and the large image comes via the DVI connector [video goes here]. It takes work to deny me choices.

If we stop trying to impose the walled garden model on the hardware we would allow the customer to contribute to solving the problem. An Internet device takes failures in stride. The STB would be able to take advantage of the high speed bidirectional connection to provide information to me as a user and to Comcast as a provider. There are other advantages to using real digital technology. Even though my current STBs are called digital it's digital via analog channels and you need to worry about the signal levels to each device.

Rather than trying to preserve an obsolescent business model Comcast needs to come to terms with the dynamic marketplace afforded by connectivity.

Change is risky and as long as customers think they must accept the current restrictions Comcast and other providers will continue business as usual. It's currently very profitable. In the absence of obvious competition and the willingness of people to be treated as enfeebled children they will continue.

For the sake of their shareholders I hope they are preparing for major changes.

In the meantime I want to do what I can to make people aware that, at very least, they should recognize that the current “business as usual” is an outrage. At very least I should be able to solve my own problems.

In fact, that's what I'm already doing with Comcast but I can't do it directly. I have to put up with stories that insult my intelligence. Being told I have to wait for a truck to roll to my house just to find out what I've already been telling them is akin to being told that Santa Claus will solve my problems – I just need to be good and complacent and wait till Christmas.

So the installer came. He looked around and then phoned a technician who redownloaded the HD boxes and now everything works. I asked him why he was able to solve the problem and others weren't – simple, he's got better tech people to talk to. He reminded me that he's the one who installed my first HD box. I also had him read this essay – at least the part that didn't include his visit. I generally like talking to the installers and learning from them. He seems to have developed an effective social network. Too bad companies with a command and control mentality frustrate the accumulation and sharing of such knowledge.