Keeping technology user-friendly and simple: the latest failure example

-November 20, 2012

In preparing to cyber-pen this particular post, I've done a bit of pondering. Why, I wondered, do I so frequently focus on customer service failures? It's because, I've decided, the underlying hardware in any particular array of competitive offerings is highly commoditized nowadays. Take cable Internet modems, for example. Only a few semiconductor suppliers support the product category, and the branded systems are all based on the same few semiconductor supplier-developed reference designs. The differentiation comes from the software wrapped around the silicon, and from the customer service wrapped around the end product. Thereby leading to today's case study ...

Yesterday afternoon's (I'm writing this on a Sunday evening) visit to a local Comcast customer center to drop off a no-longer-needed cable modem and set-top box was pretty painless; nobody was in line, and I was in and out in less than five minutes. Still to be seen is whether or not my monthly bill will be accordingly adjusted. But even if it is, my earlier comment that "I'm content with Comcast" is no longer valid, based on my recent-past experiences with the company.

Since establishing service with Comcast in early October, I'd been using a $7/month rental Motorola SB5101 cable modem:

In desiring to get out from the incremental monthly fee, I took advantage of a still-in-progress (at least as I write this) offer from Cisco's Web site for a refurbished Linksys DPC3008 cable modem:

Unlike the SB5101, the DPC3008 is DOCSIS 3.0-compatible, although its added performance and other features aren't leveraged by my particular cable Internet service tier. However, the break-even versus-rental price after only seven months' worth of use caught my eye. And Comcast's support Web site bolstered Linksys' claim that the DPC3008 was service provider-blessed. So I took the plunge.

Friday morning, I noticed that the DPC3008 was on the UPS truck, scheduled for delivery later that same day. So I jumped on Comcast's customer support chat facility and inquired about cable modem activation options. I was told that I could active the new modem directly from chat, which seemed strange; wouldn't activation of the new modem cause immediate de-activation of the old modem, therefore an immediate severance of the chat (i.e. Internet) connection? "Don't worry," I was told, all would be well. All I could assume is that Comcast's system was designed to retain cognizance of the old modem's MAC address for a sufficient amount of time to enable me to complete the equipment swap.

Not that I had a credible alternative to Comcast's chat. As you may recall, I don't have a POTS telephone line. My Ooma VoIP service is, perhaps obviously, Comcast broadband-powered. So too are the femtocells that deliver me reliable AT&T and Verizon cellular service. So if broadband goes down, so too does not only my chat tether to Comcast but also any telephone conversation I might alternatively want to establish.

Immediately after the DPC3008 showed up on my front door, I resurrected the chat connection with Comcast. At first, all went well. I gave the representative the serial number and MAC address of my new modem. He assured me that I wouldn't lose Internet connectivity; the old modem would continue to work until after we'd confirmed proper operation of the new one. He then told me that he'd just entered the new modem credentials into my account, along with discontinuing the $7/month rental modem fee ... at that point, my broadband Internet connection went off-line.

Truth be told, in spite of what I'd been previously told both by him and his predecessor, I suspected that this was going to happen. So I swapped the Ethernet cable feeding my Apple router from the old to the new modem ... and the router didn't go back online. I accessed the router setup screen and manually requested a DHCP renewal ... with no positive effect. Power-cycling the modem (several times) didn't work. Nor did power-cycling the router.

At this point, I went out on my freezing cold and dark upstairs deck in search of some sort of faint-but-sustainable femtocell-less cellular phone connection to Comcast (recall that my office is downstairs). I succeeded in getting Comcast on the phone, not that the representative was much help ... all he could offer was an assurance that the new cable modem's credentials had been correctly entered in my account by his predecessor, along with the suggestion to power-cycle the cable modem and router in sequence. At that point, I proffered the idea to (at least temporarily resurrect) the old cable modem, which I knew worked. Since the new modem was a refurb, its functionality was at that point in some doubt in my mind.

He agreed that this made sense, so after going downstairs and grabbing the old modem and my reading glasses, I went back upstairs and read off the old modem's MAC address to him. I went back downstairs, reconnected the old modem to the router ... and it didn't go online. I power-cycled the old modem and router several times ... no improvement. I direct-connected the cable modem to my laptop ... and obtained only an range link-local (i.e. automatic private) IP address, no matter how many times I requested a DHCP renewal or how long I waited. Clearly, neither modem was online. I then went back upstairs ... and found that my tenuous cellular phone connection to Comcast had also gone dead.

Once again I called Comcast and waited on hold for several minutes. The third time was the charm. In this iteration, the technician sheepishly admitted that although his predecessors had entered the modems' credentials into my account, they'd forgotten to partition the modems, thereby rendering both pieces of equipment gear non grata. He partitioned the old modem ... and it went back online. Then, admittedly pushing my luck (and my cellular voice tether to him), I gave him the MAC address for the new modem ... and lo and behold, it also went online. It's remained online all weekend, too. And this ultimately successful outcome only cost me a few hours' and chats' and calls' worth of customer support frustration, a dozen or so roundtrips between the upstairs and downstairs, and a mild case of frostbite (I'm kidding about that last one ... barely).

Obviously, the modem non-partitioning oversights were inexcusable. But let's rewind to the very beginning of this tale. Comcast's first big mistake was in telling me that activating a new modem wouldn't disrupt my broadband connection. I'm sufficiently geeky that I realized I was likely being fed bad data. But 99.99% of the consumer population doesn't have my (or your) technical chops. So when the cable Internet service went down, they would have been SOL until they took the time and otherwise made the effort to drive to a Comcast service center and explain the situation. Then again, though, a goodly percentage of them wouldn't even realize that buying a cable modem was an option. So they might not have experienced my pain, but its avoidance would cost them $84 (plus tax) per year in rental fees. This is a pathetic situation all the way around.

Also see:

Loading comments...

Write a Comment

To comment please Log In