Friday, February 28, 2014

How I cut my Time Warner Cable bill by 33%

It started when I decided to get a new WiFi router. I bought one and installed it, then called my ISP, Time Warner Cable (TWC), to let them know. They told me to bring the old router to their store.

I went to the store and, after giving back the router, the very courteous representative thanked me and said "that was it" -- she was was finished with me and ready to go on to the next customer.

I almost left, but first asked her what my new monthly bill would be. She replied that it would be $110, said it had been $115 before I returned the router, thanked me again and was ready for her next customer.

But the $110 bill surprised me -- it seemed high -- so I kept the conversation going:

Me: How does that $110 break down between Internet and phone service? (I do not get cable TV).

Rep (after tapping on her keyboard): the phone is $41.84 per month.

Me: That is outrageous, I want to cancel the phone service.

Rep: I can lower your bill.

Me: OK.

Rep: (after a few more keyboard taps) Your bill is now $100, not $110.

Me: How did you do that?

Rep: I put you on a promotion.

Me: So my phone bill is now $31.84, right?

Rep: No, I lowered your Internet bill, not your phone bill, but, don't worry, the speed will remain unchanged.

Me: Then cancel the phone.

Rep: Let me try something else. (after quite a few taps on the keyboard) Now your bill is $76.37 -- $50 for the Internet, $20 for the phone and $6.37 tax.

Me: How did you do that?

Rep: I put you on a different promotion.

Me: So, after 1 year, the bill will go up to $110, right?

Rep: No, it will only go up by $5-10.

Me: Then how did it get so high after my initial promotion ended?

Rep: It goes up by $5-10 every year after a promotion ends.

Well, I am kind of embarrassed to tell you this story. I have written many blog posts about the lack of competition in the ISP market, but have been too busy and too lazy to be an active consumer. So, shame on me.

But, shame on TWC too. Their courteous rep wanted to get me out of the store without telling me I was overpaying. I am sure she was following TWC policy. Is it ethical to not tell a customer that he or she could be paying less for the same service if they asked to?

I do not recall what my initial bill was, but it had evidently jumped when my promotion ran out and then continued rising $5-10 each year thereafter. Did their cost go up by 5-10% per year? If not, are they exploiting their monopoly hold on me? (My "alternative" service is Verizon DSL at 1.5 mbps).

Well, shame on both me and TWC. I promise to be more watchful in the future, but they will not change their policy. But what would happen if every one of their 11.1 million residential high-speed data subscribers did the same thing as I did? That would be too cool!

Update 3/7/2014

There was a long (205 comment) discussion of this post on Slashdot. The comments are of varying quality, but there were tips from ex-ISP "retention reps" and suggestions of other ways to cut your bill -- primarily through alternative phone service.

Update 3/8/2014

I held a chat session with another TWC representative in an attempt to document this transaction and he reduced the speed of my connection. I lost. You are in a weak position when dealing with a monopoly provider of an essential service.

Update 7/15/2014

Check out this bizarre recording of a call to a Comcast phone representative requesting termination of service. The Comcast rep makes the Time Warner Cable rep sound good and he out-panders Time Warner -- hinting at huge speed increases and price cuts. I guess this is what we can expect from a merged TWC/Comcast. These guys make door-to-door magazine salesmen look good.

Update 7/18/2014

A senior vice president at Comcast publicly apologized for the call, stating:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

Great -- except that Lauren Bruce, a former Comcast customer account executive says the customer service rep in the recording was not going rogue, but adhering to company policy. Bruce says the Comcast rep in the recording was trying to upsell the caller and also complete a mandatory questionnaire they had for each call. She says it was sometimes easier to make up answers than get them out of irate customers and that the customer rep in this call is being made a scapegoat.

Update 8/7/2014

Here is a copy of the Comcast retention representative handbook -- the call rating system encourages them to be persistent and -- "take control, ask targeted questions, make an offer", etc. I'd hate to have their job -- it's like working on an electronics assembly line.

Update 8/11/2014

Comcast COO Dave Watson posted a note on a company blog saying the employee in the above retention call ”did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do ... He tried to save a customer." It's nice to see Comcast assume responsibility -- let's hope they revise their policy and incentive system.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

European 5G vision spelled out at MWC

A European Union memo predicts that by 2020 there will be more than 30 times as much mobile internet traffic as there was in 2010 and that traffic will reflect the massive growth in machines and sensors using the Internet to communicate -- the "Internet of things."

They predict that 5G won't just be faster, it will bring new functionalities and applications with high social and economic value in the following areas:

  • eHealth
  • Connected homes:
  • Secure transport
  • Smart grids
  • Entertainment
The memo concludes with links to several 5G research projects in which the EU has invested €50 million, a Mobile World Congress speech on the Connected Continent by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda and the Digital Agenda Web site.

Update 4/8/2014

UK and Germany to cooperate on 5G. The UK government signals a push on ‘5G’ mobile technology -- after falling behind on 4G mobile, they hope to catch up with 5G.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Comcast is probably not cheating ... yet

Within the last few days, Comcast agreed to purchase Time Warner Cable and Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for direct access to their network. Will Netflix pass the Comcast payments along to us consumers? Will we get better quality and fewer pauses for buffering? Is this the end of network neutrality regardless of anything the FCC might do to restore it? Is this the beginning of the end for the good old Internet we have grown to love?

Maybe not.

It is true that Netflix will be paying Comcast for direct access to their network, but they will save what they had previously been paying intermeidate transit networks like Cogent. The overall cost to Netflix may be more, less or the same -- terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Don't get me wrong -- I doubt that they will be saving money, and, if they do, I am sure they will not pass the savings on to us consumers.

How about speed increases? Netflix has acknowledged performance problems, and this deal should help. It is practically certain that we will see improved performance, even if the blockage was done on purpose. (Hey, that was some good news).

This may not even be a violation of network neutrality. Couldn't the delays have been due to capacity problems of intermediate networks rather than Comcast? Is there evidence that Comcast was dropping or delaying Netflix packets? This is not to say that Comcast was not discriminating against Netflix traffic or that they may not in the future, but, as far as I know, there is no evidence that they did. (Where is Edward Snowden when you need him)?

Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing good to say about my ISP -- Time Warner Cable -- and I am confident that the situation will be even worse if the Comcast deal is approved. That sort of concentrated power cannot be good for anyone except those who have it.

Timothy Lee points out that one result of that concentration may be the elimination of the transit ISPs like Cogent, who are in a competitive market. Comcast and other companies that connect consumers face little or no competition.

GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham has suggested that transparency -- opening the terms of these deals to public scrutiny -- might be a solution, but I am skeptical.

The following images show the route between one's home and Netflix before the agreement with Comcast, the way it is now that the deal has been done and the way it will end up if Comcast has their way.

Before the agreement, transit ISPs connected us to Netflix servers.
Now our ISPs connect us straight to Comcast.
After the merger, Comcast will be my ISP.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Google may give us some ISP competition

Just after we heard the competition-reducing news of Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, Google has announced that they may become a competitor in the ISP market -- they are evaluating 34 cities in 9 metropolitan areas as potential Google Fiber installations.

This is not a complete surprise. A Google executive announced their intention to expand last year, stating that Google Fiber is "a great business to be in."

Google is evaluating nine metropolitan areas, but none are big like New York or Chicago. I know a large installation would be daunting, but it would also be a learning experience and at least one big city mayor, Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, is looking for a fiber partner.

(Full disclosure on that last "hint" for Google -- I live in Los Angeles, and my chance for getting fiber dropped to zero when my phone company, Verizon, decided to get out of that business).