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 It took some time, but I finally got through to a live agent who informed me that my modem was “outdated” and that I should upgrade to a newer DOCSIS 3.0 model.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?