Posts Tagged ‘Comcast’

xFinity: “The Future of Awesome” Is Looking A Bit Less Confusing…

In a previous post, I detailed the horror show I ran into trying to upgrade my old cable modem/router and migrating from a shopworn TiVo HD to two of Comcast’s new (Samsung) xFinity set-top boxes.

Those adventures took place w-a-y back in May and early June, and I won’t recap how everything turned into a three-ring circus. Instead, I will talk about the fact that since early June, I’ve lost (at one time or another) my Internet, TV channels, phone, and EVERYTHING. Yep, no signals at all.

There have been about six of these outages in all, and the one which cut off all service resulted in my waiting from 1 to 4 on a Friday afternoon for a tech who never showed up (apparently he went to the wrong address!). Ditto the following Monday, even though our service came back on its own.

Comcast has an “escalation” email address, we_can_help@comcast.net, that seems to get you through to the right people when you’ve hit a wall. I had suspected that our service problems were more due to things happening outside the house, possibly at the street drop where our underground cable connects up.

After all, the cable was installed nearly 30 years ago, when the house was built. And even “non-contaminating” coaxial cables eventually go bad and let in moisture, shorting out along the way. So my repeated calls to Comcast customer service stressed that a tech should check the outside wiring.

After getting nowhere with this approach, and experiencing another drop-out of signals (as witnessed with my spectrum analyzer), I sent yet another “fix the damn connection!” email to Comcast. I finally got a call from the executive office confirming that a tech would be here today (although no one had previously called to tell me that, or ask when I’d be around).

The executive “escalation group” had also done some checking into service records and discovered (lo and behold) that other customers in my neighborhood had also experienced service outages. (More ammunition for my argument.) So it sounded like I was finally making headway.

A three-truck service call is definitely an

A three-truck service call is definitely an “escalation.” But it was about time!

The tech called and said he could be over in a jiffy – much earlier than expected. Great! Soon, one truck, then two trucks, then THREE trucks pulled up my street and parked. Wow, they really called out the cavalry!

In short order, the two techs and a supervisor opened the street drop, found a bad cable (it pulled right out of its connector) buried near the house, and ran a new waterproof coaxial cable to the street. They also installed a new junction box and ground wire, and ran a new cable into the basement where everything. The street splitter “rang out” okay.

Now, to the basement. The lead tech advised me that the “new” Arris 2.4 GHz DOCSIS 3.0 wireless modem/router I had installed back in late May (ironically, at Comcast’s suggestion) was actually an “older’ model. And that he had a newer, dual-band Cisco wireless router in the truck, and did I want to swap it out?

The

The “drop” with a rat’s nest of cables and taps. It was determined that an entirely new cable to the house was need. (Wow, what a surprise!)

 

The tech fastens the house cable while a supervisor installs a termination box and ground wire.

The tech fastens the house cable while a supervisor installs a termination box and ground wire.

Well, of course! In no time at all, the “older” new router was removed and replaced. After some phone calls to the head end to activate everything, I now had a dual band, 2.4 / 5 GHz modem with 802.11ac channel bonding capability. Given that I had recently gotten several teaser emails from Comcast, advising me that my Internet speeds had been upgraded to 75 Mb/s, I was quite happy to finally see that extra speed when all was said and done.

The good news is; both techs and the Comcast supervisor were “on the ball.” They hung around to make sure the modem and all phone lines were working, and also that I had reconfigured the wireless network names and new passwords correctly. (The Cisco modem has a quirky habit of re-booting every time you make even the slightest change to its settings.) It’s nice to work with people who listen to you, understand the problem, and work quickly to diagnose and repair as needed.

So – now, I finally have the new cable drop to the house I asked for multiple times. And even though I am working on my third wireless modem/router in three months, it is great to have the extra speed through the 5 GHz wireless connection (better than 50 Mb/s sustained). And I’m hoping that the service outages I’ve been plagued with are finally a thing of the past. (Knock on polypropylene.)

With that done and behind me, I’m now waiting for the “awesomeness” to set in…

Xfinity: The Future Of Confusion (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Tried To get Along With Comcast)

It all started innocently enough a couple of weeks ago, when I started experiencing issues with Internet connectivity. And it turned into a circus of confusion.

First, some background: I’ve had Comcast service at my home address for close to 18 years now, and there have definitely been some ups and downs in my relationship with the company over the years.

At one time, I taught some classes on HDTV to installers and even salespeople at Comcast University. That was back in the day when HDTV was still largely a black art to everyone, and I had a good relationship with a lot of the technical people and even some engineers at “the Big C.” Those were the halcyon days of plasma TVs, big set-top boxes, rear-projection TVs with CableCARDs, and rudimentary Internet service. (Sorry, no voice over IP back then!)

Today, aside from an annual presentation to the local chapter of the Society of Cable and Telecommunication Engineers (SCTE), I don’t have any real contact with Comcast anymore. So if I am experiencing some strange service issues, there aren’t any shortcuts I can take to get to a knowledgeable technical support person.

HOW THE TROUBLE STARTED

Back to my problem: After trying to figure out why my modem seemed to be dropping connections, I placed a call to Comcast customer service. And got caught in automated voice hell. It took some time, but I finally got through to a live agent who informed me that my modem was “outdated” and that I should upgrade to a newer DOCSIS 3.0 model. Fair enough. She also said that an installer could come by and check everything (neglecting to tell me that there would be a $40 service charge for doing so). So I agreed to that, too.

The next day, said installer showed up with a new modem and went about getting it wired into place. He also took it upon himself to replace a two-way splitter I had installed near where the drop comes into my house (one leg goes to the modem, and the other to a 15 dB inline amplifier for driving multiple cable outlets). And then he proceeded to replace all of the associated connectors, saying that the splitter and connectors I had used were inadequate.

Now, I’m not a dummy, and I’m one of a handful of Comcast customers who has and knows how to use a spectrum analyzer. So, I connected said analyzer to one of the cable feeds from my amplifier and saw a nice, flat response for all QAM signals up to 800 MHz – above which no signals were present, even though the tech told me that Comcast uses that spectrum, too.

I showed this to the tech and assured him that all cable boxes would get plenty of signal (at least 40 dB S/N at each input) and that there was no noise in my system. Off he went on his merry way, and our Internet connection was one again perking along nicely.

This is what the Comcast QAM carrier levels looked like before their technician installed a new splitter and connectors in my basement. And this is what the same signals looked like AFTER the splitter/connector replacement.

This is what the Comcast QAM carrier levels looked like before their technician installed a new splitter and connectors in my basement. And this is what the same signals looked like AFTER the splitter/connector replacement.

INTO THE ABYSS

So here’s where it starts to get weird. The next day, another brand-new modem shows up from UPS with a self-install kit. On top of that, I get several emails saying that I had updated my account and that I was also eligible for a “free” Xfinity upgrade. And of course, I clicked “yes.” Hey, it was free, right?

My current cable setup in my family room consisted of a vintage-2006 TiVo HD with a dual M CableCARD. Yes, it was a bit of a fossil, but it still worked like a champ. And for my upstairs bedroom, I had a Motorola RNG-110 set-top box. Simple, but effective.

When the Xfinity “free” upgrade kit showed up a couple of days later, I opened it to find two identical Samsung RNG150 Xfinity set-top boxes, along with self-install instructions. Okay, I can do this. So I took the boxes to my basement lab, where all of my test equipment resides. I pulled out my old Panasonic 42-inch plasma TV, hooked up a couple of HDMI cables, and attached a feed to the cable system.

The first box booted up, went through some machinations, and then displayed an error message. I was advised to pull the power plug, wait 10 seconds, and reconnect and try to initialize again. Sure enough; about 3 minutes later, I got the same message. And rebooted. And got the same message. And rebooted again.

After four tries, I put the first box aside and repeated the exercise with the second box. Same results! So I installed a two-way splitter on the line and hooked up my older RNG110 box to see if it was also having problems. Nope! Worked like a champ at the same time the Samsung boxes were failing.

In the meantime, my TiVo HD stopped working and brought up a message saying that it could no longer recognize the Western Digital expansion HDD I had connected to store more programs. And that it would not work at all unless that drive (which was still connected and powered up) was reconnected. Yikes! (And my wife says that at the same time, the TiVo master remote stopped working and she couldn’t turn the TV off.)

So I disconnected TiVo and rebooted it. That took some time, but eventually it did come back online. And I went back to my self-install exercise in my basement lab.

After trying a third time to get one of the two Samsung boxes to initialize, I gave up and went back upstairs to find that the TiVo HD had crashed again, displaying the same error message. Time to call tech support! (And get caught in automated voice response hell again.)

The Samsung RNG150 box (lower left) trying to make a connection to Comcast while the older Motorola RNG-110 box (lower right) is chirping along just fine.

The Samsung RNG150 box (lower left) trying to make a connection to Comcast while the older Motorola RNG-110 box (lower right) is chirping along just fine. (The caption should actually read, “Starting Up – This may take a few days and phone calls.”)

“IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO PRESS TWO NOW, PRESS TWO”

After being punted around to various departments the next day, I found someone who advised me to remove completely the TiVo system and my older RNG110 set-top box before attempting to initialize. Hey, why not – I’d already wasted several hours and an evening trying to get all of this stuff to work, right?

Finally, the two Samsung boxes initialized. Except that they were not receiving all of the channels for the package I subscribe to: Only free, off-air channels were coming through, along with those home shopping channel abominations. One again; back to the phone.

This round of calls put me through six different agents (including dedicated Xfinity tech support) and no one had a real answer as to why I wasn’t getting the channels I paid for, even though I could stream all of those same channels to my Samsung Galaxy tablet. A real head-scratcher!

Finally, the sixth agent told me that he would reload the required channels, one by one, into each box, and he advised me in the interests of my mental health to take some time off and get away from the TV and phone for the next half-hour while he was doing so. I decided to stop by the nearest Comcast Xfinity “store” to return my old box and M card, as it was a nice day for a drive.

The “store” turned out to be a rather dingy-looking local office and dispatch center, with a tiny waiting room, a counter, and three customer service agents. After dropping off the old equipment, I discovered that neither of the Samsung Xfinity cable boxes I had received had DVRs in them. Whoops! I had already disconnected my old TiVo DVR.

So one of the agents promptly brought out a brand-new “All Room DVR” to take care of that situation. More importantly, he apparently noticed something on my account that was the culprit behind my inability to watch channels I had paid for, and fixed it just like that. Hooray!

MORE WEIRDNESS

But that wasn’t the end of my problems. I logged into my online Xfinity account to check my statement, where I was notified that I had yet to activate my Internet service. (Some irony in that, eh?) Not only that, I now had a $40 charge for installation of the new modem – something I could have done myself, if I had been informed that (a) it would cost $40 and (b) that a new modem had been shipped to me for self-install anyway.

Finally, I received an email update today that my current charges had increased by a hundred dollars! Apparently, about the time the new Xfinity boxes showed up, the “special” deal on my cable bundle (which I had long forgotten about) had run out and that my monthly charge would increase by $30. (You’d think that with the blizzard of emails I was getting from Comcast that they’d have sent one alerting me to the expiration date. It would have been nice…)

So, it was back to the local Comcast Xfinity office to return an extra cable box. According to the email I received this morning, I now had five cable boxes activated. I also asked why my bill had gone up so much. One of the line items in the online statement read (and I kid you not), “Customer Discount,  $30.92.” So I got charged more as a discount?

Apparently that’s how Comcast tells you your promotional price ran out. They hit you with a $30 charge and call it “customer discount.” Nice, guys. Even better: I logged into my online Comcast account and my Internet service is still “awaiting activation.” (I’m not sure how that logical paradox plays out…) And, the $40 charge for the service call, which the CSR at the Comcast Xfinity store assured me was reversed, is still on my statement…for now.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

So now, seven days later, I do have a working DOCSIS 3.0 modem with (supposedly) 25 Mb/s download speeds. I have a new splitter and shiny new connectors in my basement, none of which were necessary. I have a new Xfinity DVR that works (and streams HD video), and a satellite box in my bedroom. I am getting all of the channels I’m supposed to get, and my statement now shows that I have only two boxes – not five. (And I finally returned that superfluous modem.)

To get here, I’ve gone through almost a dozen different customer service reps on the phone and in person over a four-day period, including two tech support specialists – neither of whom could really help me much. As a result, I would advise Comcast customers to go to one of the Xfinity stores or service centers like I did, and deal with an “in the flesh” CSR – it’s a lot faster, and these folks were by far the most helpful of anyone I talked to. (Plus, and I hate to say it, they speak better English and were a lot sharper.)

In contrast, some of the phone CSRs seemed to stumble with relatively easy technical questions, and they wanted to spend more time reading from “the script” than letting me cut to the chase and try and solve the problem. It is amazing how much time you waste on the phone just navigating menus and trying to get past the automated “let me help you” voice. (Hint: Repeat the word “agent” several times to skip all of that nonsense!)

Aside from the cost of cable service today, I can understand why so many cord-cutters just reach their breaking point with cable companies and opt to stream 100% of their TV shows. Just connect a fast Internet port, fire up your Apple TV, Roku, or smart TV, and away you go. Even the new crop of off-air DTV receivers like Channel Master’s DVR+ and Mohu’s Channels is a lot easier to get up and running.

So we’ll stick with Xfinity for now as it does give us four DVRs instead of two, and is a definite improvement over the nearly 10-year-old TiVo HD in many ways. One catch, though: You can’t stream Netflix through any Comcast box, the reason for which I suppose should be obvious. So we’ll get our fix of “House of Cards” through either our Samsung smart TV, Samsung connected Blu-ray player, or stream directly to our tablets.

Isn’t television fun?

Trends: Ignore Them At Your Peril

On August 15, Leichtman Research Group of Durham, NH released its quarterly revenue and subscription numbers for U.S. cable TV providers. And there was a surprise to be found in the calculations.

For the first time ever, the number of broadband service subscribers for major cable TV service providers exceeded (barely) the number of cable TV channel subscribers. This happened during the 2nd quarter of 2014 and represents a milestone for pay TV services. (And yours truly predicted it would happen a year earlier, in a DD posted a few years back. Oh well, close enough for government work…)

The actual differential favoring broadband subscriptions was small, amounting to about 5,000 more broadband customers. The actual totals for cable TV systems (not including Wide Open West, an overbuilder) were 49,915,000 for broadband, and 49,910,000 for cable channel service. What’s more interesting is that thirteen largest pay TV providers in the US (about 95% of the market) lost about 300,000 net video subscribers in 2Q 2014, compared to a loss of about 350,000 video subscribers in 2Q 2013.

To offset that decline, the 17 largest pay TV providers added about 385,000 broadband customers during the same time period. Cable TV companies control the lion’s share of broadband service revenue and have a 59% market share vs. AT&T’s U-Verse and Verizon’s FiOS services. The latter companies stayed essentially flat in new subscribers as an almost equal number of customers dropped DSL service (627,000) compared to those who signed up for faster broadband (636,000).

For all cable and telcos that Leichtman surveyed, the total number of broadband subscribers was about 85 million. Of that total, industry giant Comcast claimed 21.27 million and #2 service provider Time Warner Cable accounted for 11.97 million. Among cable TV companies, those numbers represent 42% and 23% market shares, respectively. (Keep that in mind as you ponder the consequences of a potential Comcast – Time Warner merger.)

Now for some additional perspective: Netflix recently broke the 50 million worldwide subscriber mark, with 36 million of those subscribers located in the United States. That’s larger than any cable TV or telco subscriber base. In fact, it’s more than Comcast and Time Warner combined, and is indicative of the meteoric growth Netflix has experienced since it commenced a streaming service in 2007.

Combined with the shift toward consumption of digital media online vs. renting or buying optical discs (as outlined in my last Display Daily), it’s clear that broadband is becoming the more desirable service for many households. I’d also venture an educated guess that customers who subscribe only to broadband services tend to skew much younger (Millennials) while traditional cable TV channel subscribers skew older (Baby Boomers).

While AT&T and Verizon have a smaller share of the pie, it’s still a large enough slice to motivate Comcast, Time warner et al to keep increasing their broadband speeds and not lose any competitive edge. I am a Comcast subscriber and while writing this article, checked my download speeds using CNET’s Internet Speed Test. The result? 20 Mb/s downstream at 5 PM, which is a considerable boost from what I had three years ago. Could the fact that Verizon ran optical fiber through my front yard a few years ago have anything to do with it?

What does all of this mean, long term? First off, the preference for faster broadband vs. a pile of pay TV channels that most people never watch will continue to re-shape the business model for cable TV companies. (The median number of channels watched in pay TV households currently stands at 17.) Continued price increases and increasing reliance on wireless (and not wired) phone service will prompt more customers to drop so-called “triple play” offerings and just go with broadband (and probably use services like Ooma for VoIP calling).

Secondly, the sheer size of Netflix and its expanding category of both rental movies and original series provide even more impetus for disgruntled pay TV subscribers to dump costly channel packages and stream everything from the Big Red Father. Both House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black are wildly popular – there’s no reason to assume Netflix won’t hit a few more home runs. (And their success is prompting HBO to finally discuss publicly a subscription streaming service independent of cable TV delivery.)

Finally; it may take more time than I prognosticated several years ago, but cable TV companies and telcos will slowly and inevitably morph into something that looks more like your local electric company, providing metered high-speed broadband connections and letting customers decide what they want to watch, and when. The DVR may even pay the ultimate price and fall by the wayside in favor of streaming from cloud servers as this comes to pass.

Even the biggest fires start with a tiny spark, and most people don’t even notice trends until they are well under way. Ignore them at your peril…

A La Carte TV: No Blue Plate Special?

As the winds of change push more and more consumers away from conventional pay TV packages and toward streaming, “over the top” video, an interesting report has just arrived from Needham and Co. analyst Laura Martin.

The report, detailed in the Los Angeles Times, says that moving to an “a la carte” model for delivery of TV programming would result in higher costs for consumers and possibly knock the foundation out from under media companies.

According to Martin, a la carte delivery of pay TV channels would cause at least 124 smaller channels to disappear altogether, taking with them 1.4 million jobs and at least $45B in advertising.

Martin has calculated that a typical entertainment cable channel costs about $280 million per year to operate and requires (with current retransmission and rights fees) about 165,000 viewers annually just to break even. As a result, only 50 or so channels would be likely to survive out of the nearly 200 channels of programming currently available across a multitude of pay TV outlets.

Martin also notes that the typical subscriber watches perhaps 20 channels at most out of an average selection of 180 channels. I think that number is high; anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues suggest the number is much lower and close to 10 – 15 channels.

The Needham study states that, in addition to the economic cost of a move to a la carte pay TV – pegged at $80B to $113B of “U.S. consumer value” – the costs to subscribe to existing channels would also increase, as they would inevitably lose subscribers as well.

I’ve previously detailed the growing calls for moving sports channels to their own tier, given the additional cost burden they add to the average monthly cable bill (about 10% to 12%). Not surprisingly, companies like Disney (ABC, ESPN), Fox, Comcast (NBC), and CBS oppose a move like this.

But the fact is; consumers are increasingly voting to switch off pay TV services and instead rely on the likes of Comcast and Time Warner to deliver broadband connectivity, and nothing more. This “cutting the cord” trend finally gained the recognition it deserved earlier this year when it was revealed that pay TV subscriptions went into decline for the first year ever.

Aereo, the disruptive “remote antenna” service that is rolling out nationwide and faces continued court challenges, charges about $10 to stream over-the-air broadcasts through the Internet to connected TVs, tablets, and phones, and is another approach to OTT delivery. Yesterday, the company petitioned the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals for a Writ of Certiorari – in essence, forcing the issue to the Supreme Court for review.

If Aereo wins here – and it could – then the floodgates will surely open for other, competing OTT services that could cherry-pick channels and deliver them to the home in an attempt to lower monthly subscription costs. And even the cable companies are paying attention: Comcast announced in October a limited entry-level pay TV channel bundle that also includes fast Internet and HBO Go for about $60 – $70/month.

Even so, Netflix is still the largest pay TV service in the world, closing in on 30 million subscribers. And all you need to watch it is a fast Internet connection (if it’s fast enough, you might even be able to watch Netflix’ 4K movie service that is scheduled to roll out next year). In many markets, all you really need as a Roku or Apple TV box plus an antenna to get a nice selection of free and premium programming.

Granted, you won’t get as many sporting events, but studies have shown that only about 4% of pay TV subscribers watch sports channels on a regular basis to begin with. And many big-ticket events like NFL games, major league baseball, college football and basketball, and (of course) the Olympics are still available on broadcast TV channels.

While Martin’s study is interesting, it discounts the “free market” effect of consumers voting to save money and find other ways to access TV programming.  There are always winners and losers in a free market system, and the fact is; pay TV subscriptions continue to rise annually at rates above inflation. Consequently, consumers are making necessary economic decisions about the price paid versus the value received, which is why interest in OTT video is slowly growing.

Starting next year, Canada will require pay TV services to “unbundle” TV channel packages as a way to rein in expensive monthly bills. So we have the perfect test lab north of the border to see just how a la carte pay TV will work, or won’t work. Stay tuned!

Time To Stop Whistling Past The Graveyard?

According to a new report from Moffett Research, pay TV services in the United States lost 316,000 subscribers between June of 2012 and June of this year. According to a story in Variety, Craig Moffett was quoted as saying, “Cord cutting used to be an urban myth.  It isn’t anymore. The numbers aren’t huge, but they are statistically significant.”

According to the story, Leichtman Research Group determined that subscribers rolls declined by 80,000 Y-Y through the first quarter of 2013. While “cord cutters” have been talked about for several years, they’ve never been statistically important – until now.

Cable TV system operators took the biggest hit, dropping 591,000 video subscriptions in Q2 ’13. AT&T’s U-Verse and Verizon’s FiOS services added 371,000 subs in the same time period, while DirecTV and Dish saw a total of 162,000 customers bail out.

There are many possible reasons, but personal experience makes a strong case that pay TV services are just too expensive. I signed up for Comcast’s Triple Play a few years back when I shut down my Verizon landline service. After asking about the monthly price without any promotional discounts, I was looking at about $140/month for two phone lines, Internet, and two digital TV channel tiers.

In a few years, that had crept up to nearly $185 per month. In the meantime, Verizon came through and “nuked” our neighborhood while pulling optical fiber, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. But they did pick up a couple of my neighbors, and several times each month, I get mailers advertising rock-bottom “triple play” FiOS deals in the neighborhood of $90 per month.

It was a useful negotiating chip to have when I called Comcast in June and complained about being raked over the coals. The result? An immediate $40 rebate for the month of July and a $30 drop in my monthly bills.

I always have the option of saying “No!” to Comcast and dumping the channel packages. True, I’d lose access to Top Gear, Copper, Homeland, The Amerikans, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and other cable-only shows. But I could keep my broadband package and supplement it with over-the-air TV (my rooftop antenna system reliably picks up stations from Philadelphia and New York City). And I could stream these popular programs later in their runs, or buy them as digital downloads.

Apparently, that’s what more subscribers appear to be doing – forgoing costly channel packages for day-after streaming and season-after downloads of popular shows. The concept of ‘water cooler talk’ about hit shows seems to becoming an anachronism, as more people telecommute. And of course, younger generations of viewers, many of whom are saddled with college and other debt, are always looking for ways to save money, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming.

For several years now, we’ve heard from top pay TV executives that cord-cutting is a myth, or insignificant, and that younger viewers will return to traditional pay TV subscriptions when they form families and buy houses.

Well, it ain’t happening that way. Gen Ys are more comfortable streaming to tablets and computers, and value high-speed broadband more than “all you can eat” TV channel packages. The big pay TV providers have been whistling past the graveyard for some time now. Maybe they should start running…