The Messy Convergence of Sh**ty Customer Service and Net Neutrality

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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65 Responses

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

      That video is amazing. Thanks.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Patrick says:

      Seconded. Did anyone pick up on a familiar theme from our discussions around Hobby Lobby? The general business of having your cake and eating it too? This time it’s about being considered a common carrier precisely when and only when it’s advantageous to be so considered.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Patrick says:


    • veronica d in reply to Patrick says:

      I didn’t make it to the end, but I found the video very misleading, primarily as packet delivery is not like package delivery. The economics are different. Likewise, the existing business structure between the carriers (a process called “peering”) resembles not at all paying a shipping company. With a shipping company, you will pay a cost per package. For large customers (such as Amazon), those rates are negotiated. But in the end I’m sure it remains per package. For Internet peering the situation is different. Different contracts formed at different times between different backbone providers can be — well — very different.

      Some peering relations are indeed traffic based, more traffic more dollars. But not always. Some are reciprocal, you take my stuff I take yours, up to a point. Some are a mixture. Most of the backbones and major CDN type groups factor these costs into their own routing algorithms. The whole system is a mess of historic deals, varying regulations, and of course the acquisition beast.

      Anyone giving you a simple version of this story is lying to you.Report

      • Patrick in reply to veronica d says:

        That’s fair enough, veronica, but trying to explain the labyrinthine ins and outs of communications companies to laypersons is probably an impossible task.

        I tried to explain to somebody once how their DSL actually worked and his response was to get really mad that his bandwidth as advertised was probably a construct of statistical backbone availability given that his packets would be regarded as less important than anybody who paid for QoS.

        Network topology does kinda take some advanced math to grok.

        It’s true that peerage contracts aren’t like package contracts, but that’s intra-networking contracts, not Amazon or You negotiating with the carriers, but the carriers negotiating with each other. From the standpoint of Amazon and You, engaged in a TCP/IP session, *your* relationship is quite a bit like package deliveryReport

      • Mike Schilling in reply to veronica d says:

        It would be more accurate (though a bit more complicated) to say you’re paying for a delivery service that offers a certain number of shipments/month than that you pay per shipment. (Where “offers” is best-effort, not a guarantee.) The rest of the analogy, like the ISP owning your driveway, still works.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to veronica d says:

        I think a better model would be something like this:

        You pay FedEx to deliver packages to you and the book store pays UPS to ship them. FedEx and UPS have an agreement where they carry each other’s packages in their own territory. Even though every connection between a UPS customer and a FedEx customer is a mutual transaction between sender and receiver and even though both carriers get paid, by convention, packages are considered to “belong” to the sender. This allows the receiver to bitch and moan about carrying “the other guy’s” package even though their customers are paying them to receive it and it costs them the same amount no matter which direction the package travels.

        Over time, some carriers tend to cater more to big senders and some carriers have a lot of recipients, so an imbalance builds. Practically speaking, this isn’t very meaningful, but by convention, the receiving delivery companies can scream and tear their hair out as if the packages their customers are ordering are an unfair burden on them rather than being, like, the whole reason the recipients pay them.

        In a fair sensible world, the receiver would pay FedEx more for delivering more packages and the sender would pay UPS more for sending more packages and everybody would be happy. More packages, more business, more everything. Yay! But thanks to this carrier convention, FedEx can play the wounded party, hold driveways hostage, and try to get UPS to jack up its rates double and get UPS customers to pay for the increased costs on both sides.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @patrick — Well, keep in mind the big Netflix blow-up that keeps getting mentioned was actually a fight between Comcast/etc. and Level 3. When Netflix was on Akamai, no one minded, because Akamai’s edge servers were within the last-mile networks and thus conserved the backbone. Level 3’s approach was to cache things within level 3 and then dump heavy traffic on the neighboring backbones, which was great for Level 3 and shitty for everyone else. Honestly, I despise Comcast, but I think they had a point.

        When this story gets told, it’s always about how Comcast was trying to strangle Netflix. I think that is an inaccurate reading of the situation.Report

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I would say the Comcast story has more to do potentially with compensation.

    Slate re ran something from reedit that was posted by a former retention guy. Comcast (and I am guessing most other major service providers) route all cancellation calls to customer service reps who are meant to retain clients. The reedit guy said these people are paid a low-base salary and get bonuses for each and every client retained. They get penalized for clients unretained even if the reason for cancellation is perfectly reasonable like leaving the country.

    So the guys are probably going to sell really hard. I imagine you could make this sort of compensation structure illegal and get rid of a lot of CSAs from hell.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “I imagine you could make this sort of compensation structure illegal…”

      Oh! But don’t you trust the freeeeeeeee mahket!

      Anyway, yeah, I think this shit should be regulated. Likewise, I think the cell companies should have to give you a printout when you walk through the door of exactly what you’ll pay each month, every fucking fee, surcharge, tax, whatever — totally what I’ll pay — and then hold them to precisely that. And I think they should be required to provide painless disconnect on request.

      But anyway, please get angry.Report

      • Lenoxus in reply to veronica d says:

        Regulation that makes it easier to change markets should be considered a cornerstone of free markets. Sure, theoretically, incidents like this should give Comcast such a bad reputation that people choose not to buy it and they lose customers — but the whole point is that the second part is what’s made so difficult.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      IIRC, the guy said if you tell them “It’s because I’m leaving the country” they’ll just cancel it, because that is about the only cause for service termination that doesn’t get the retention guy dinged — and cost him money.

      Literally, canceling your service is costing the retention tech money — they dock his pay if enough people quit the service, even though the tech is the guy people go to when they INTEND to quit in the first place.Report

    • Hoosegow Flask in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Any service you can subscribe to online should be cancelable online. If I didn’t need to talk to someone to start giving you money, I shouldn’t need to talk to someone to stop giving you money.Report

  2. Marchmaine says:

    Portlandia understands your Phone plan pain.

  3. North says:

    I am so happy that fiberoptic is getting installed in my building. I will be off of comcast soon. So soon. *rubs hands gleefully*Report

  4. veronica d says:

    I want my own personal Google balloon:

  5. Troublesome Frog says:

    Just wait until choosing which Internet sites and services “package” you want is like choosing which cable package you want. “Oh, you want Netflix. Then you’ll want our all-inclusive streaming media package that includes Netflix but not Hulu but does give you a bunch of kooky religious sites for an extra $20 a month. What? You want Hulu? You’ll want to add our other all-inclusive media package that includes Hulu but not Netflix but does give you unlimited high speed access to the timecube guy and Buzzfeed every other Saturday for an extra $17.50 a month.”

    Think of the innovation! It’ll be a great way for Comcast to help users focus on the content they want!Report

  6. Road Scholar says:

    The whole problem here is vertical integration. If Comcast wants to sell internet access, fine. If they want to sell services and content, fine. Choose one. The grand digital integration that was all the buzz in consumer tech circles back in the nineties is a reality and has been for some time now. It’s past high time that we started regulating this stuff accordingly.Report

    • Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to Road Scholar says:

      You’re exactly right, and the big ISPs are all thoroughly incented to fuck with streaming content providers like Netflix: they directly compete with them. Because they all sell cable TV and streaming video services.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    I cancelled cell phone service once, and instead of just doing it, they demanded to know why. I told them I was joining a holy order where I’d have to take a vow of silence, so I wouldn’t really need a phone. The idiots believed me.

    Nowadays, they’d probably try to sell me text-only.Report

  8. Doctor Jay says:

    Speaking of net neutrality, this post is as close as you can get to seeing Verizon caught in a bare-faced lie about why Netflix is slow. It’s fairly technical, though. As background, Level 3 is a backbone provider, possibly the largest in the world.

    Here’s an earlier post by Mark, which gives you some background on who Level 3 is and why they are in a position to know. At the time, they didn’t name names, but evidently they are now angry enough with the US broadband providers that they are willing to name names.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Thanks for both links — great additions.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I’d be careful fully accepting Level 3’s explanation, as they were hardly a neutral observer during this mess.

      (Full disclosure: I worked for a competitor of Level 3 at this time, who lost the Netflix account to them, so I’m not an unbiased observer either. But my thoughts were this: tough shit to Netflix for going w/ Level 3, who lacked the resources and business penetration to deliver solid performance. Netflix went cheap and got cheap.)

      (But as I said, I was not an unbiased observer.)

      I have mixed feelings on net neutrality. I like it in principle, but I would also like to see real QoS available for RTP media. Not sure how to fix all this, outside of regulation, which is its own mess. On the other hand, I trust Comcast exactly as much as I trust creepy randos on the subway. Which is not at all.

      But neither do I trust all these videos and blogs going around, which are often pretty bogus. As far as I can see, no one is really giving the whole story here. It is propaganda from both sides.

      Good luck.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to veronica d says:

        I have mixed feelings on net neutrality. I like it in principle, but I would also like to see real QoS available for RTP media. 

        Prioritizing packets by protocol only makes sense, particularly on a network closing in on max capacity. I tried to explain this once somewhere on the net and just ended up with people screaming at me in all caps. It’s not hard to understand. The router should queue up Skype first, followed by multicast streams, then unicast streams (Netflix), then web and finally email. With reasonable overhead everything works fine and you never know it’s happening. Without it, Skype can fall apart at random and your Pandora glitches in the middle of your favorite song, all so some email selling magic boner pills makes it to your spam folder a half second faster.

        What net neutrality should really be about is breaking up the vertical integration so you can have multiple companies competing head-to-head to sell you cable and on-demand and streaming music and Skype-y stuff and whatever-the-hell, all over the same regulated monopoly fiber connection to your back door.

        When the Bell System was split up, separating the local last-mile telcos from the long-distance market, prices for long-distance service fell like a rock. Now it’s like what they originally promised for nuclear power, too cheap to meter (excluding international). When’s the last time you saw an itemized charge for long distance calls?Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @road-scholar — Yes, yes, yes. To me this is about fostering thriving markets with meaningful consumer choice. And I want real-time traffic to go to the front of the line, because I want people’s phone calls and videos to be top quality. Likewise I don’t mind if bulk transfers are bursty, since who cares?

        Note there are two separate issues here: total bandwidth and “burstyness,” which in tech jargon is called “jitter.” The first, bandwidth, measures the average number of bits delivered per unit time. But it is an average. It could represent “more during that time slice, less during that other time slice.” Which is fine for bulk traffic. If your website loads up in 300ms instead of 150ms, it doesn’t matter much. (At about 500ms people begin to notice.) And for email, torrents, and similar file transfers, a delay of even a few seconds does not matter, not if the total bandwidth is high.

        For voice and video, however, the situation is different. In these cases the stream needs to be delivered steady. This is particularly true for interactive, back and forth traffic. In these cases, a packet delayed for 200ms is basically a packet lost. It will be discarded. You usually won’t notice one or two lost here and there. But any more you will notice.

        I do not trust the providers to do this for us. To me, it is obvious that Comcast would do exactly what people here warn us about, use their monopoly position to suck consumers dry. And consumers lack meaningful choice. But the technology exists to do this well. How to see it deployed and delivered?Report

      • Morat20 in reply to veronica d says:

        I’ve got no problem prioritizing packets by type — just not by origin.

        You want to prioritize streaming video over email? That’s fine and dandy and clever and you should. But you shouldn’t be able to prioritize your video streaming service over Netflix over YouTube.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @morat20 — Problem is people would lie. For example, folks would set up their torrents to appear to be real-time video traffic, and thus get high QoS. So some policing by the providers would be required.

        But then, we also need policing of the providers, for all the reasons mentioned. Which is why we need regulation.Report

      • patrick in reply to veronica d says:

        You are attempting to put traffic that should be circuit-switched onto a network that is packet switched by performing an overlay that is just a freaking kludge.

        Streaming video and voice is contraindicated by the very design of the network. It doesn’t belong there.

        Don’t use TCP/IP for that. It’s like attachments in email… It’s so attractive but fundamentally you’re throwing cars through airspace with a catapult and a parachute.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @patrick — That’s a non-solution. I mean, it’s true that TCP/IP is poorly factored for voice/video, but the Internet we have is the Internet we get, and folks obviously are going to put voice and video on it, ’cause we’re people and we do stuff like that and good luck stopping us.

        And just an aside, switched networks can handle RT media just fine, as long as they have QoS guarantees. And I would argue this is not essentially a problem of “circuit switching” per se, although circuit switching makes the problem trivial. It is possible to get it right for TCP/IP, just non-straightforward. (And difficult over shared public equipment, for obvious reasons.)

        Furthermore, both ATM and frame relay are “switched” technologies that handle RT traffic fine, since they were designed to do so.

        (Yeah, we can argue about “packets” versus “frames” or whatever. Fair point. But they are hardly “circuit switched.” They’re just made to look like it by good framing/routing. I would love to see an IP/ATM hybrid evolve that shares the advantages of both. Don’t expect that anytime soon.)Report

      • patrick in reply to veronica d says:

        Let me clarify: I have no problem with putting voice or video on a network. It just doesn’t belong on TCP.

        TCP has an incredible amount of redundancy because it assumes no QoS and it assumes unreliable links. If you’re doing voice and video and you have a good network, you’re injecting a whole bunch of unnecessary overhead if you are using TCP (some companies don’t except at the edge, they licensed fasttcp from Dr. Low, here at Caltech, just because it reduces all that overhead).Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        Right. Done right, RTP runs purely in IP space. However, the prevalence of NAT and stuff makes TCP necessary for easy-access consumer stuff, which leads (for example) to all the tricky stuff Skype does.

        Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a standard way to do this stuff that everyone could agree on, and that companies couldn’t leverage against the interest of consumers (’cause this ain’t nearly a free market and won’t become one), and that didn’t suffer a tragedy of the commons? I wonder if humanity can achieve something like that?Report

  9. Kazzy says:

    This week, I called two separate banks to cancel credit cards: Chase and Citibank. Chase’s call took less than a minute. “We’re sorry to hear you want to cancel. Is there any way we can retain you? No? Well, thank you for banking with us. Your card is now cancelled.” Citi’s took 7+ minutes and was similar to Block’s experience. The rep couldn’t believe I wanted to cancel. She doubled my point accumulation, reminded me of the zero-fee nature, and reminded me I used the card a whole one time (accidentally) in the past 3 months. “I just want to cancel.” “But 7x points!” “I get it. But we never use it. And I’d rather not track additional cards just to gain 7x points at movie theaters I don’t go to because I have a 15-month-old.” Round and round. It was embarassing. She was so desperate.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Kazzy says:

      @kazzy — It’s funny how uneven these things are. For example, after I changed my name, most of the CC companies were a complete pains in the ass about it, such as Capital One, who made me mail them originals of my court documents (which are not free) before they would update things. Citi did it all for me right on the phone. “You’re Veronica now. Great. We’ll overnight a new card to you.”

      I called on a Thursday. Citi had a new card in my hands by Saturday. (Which, look, having a CC that said “Veronica” was a real big deal for me.) It was weeks and weeks before I got my Capital One cards.

      So, yeah. I really don’t understand why sometimes these companies are great and sometimes awful.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to veronica d says:

        I’m glad your Citi experience was better than my own. I’d much rather you get the long end of that stick than I. 😀Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        Awwwww! But maybe their great when you stay and crap when you leave. Dunno.

        Maybe we need a law about leaving a service. Companies have been pulling this shit for years — recall AOL was like this — and it must work or they would not do it. But it degrades the quality of our lives.

        I call this a broad market failure. Outlaw it.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to veronica d says:

        @veronica-d I am actually quite a fan of that idea. Before this post, I was contemplating one of my own when I worked customer support for a satellite company. By far, the thing about the job I hated the most was trying to convince people who were trying to do the right thing by terminating service not to. (“I understand you lost your job, but now you have more time to enjoy even more channels. Can I interest you in an upgrade?”)Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @will-truman — Yeesh.

        No one should have to explain why they no longer want a service. Contract up? You can walk away. “No longer interested” is the only answer you should have to give.Report

      • Mo in reply to veronica d says:

        @veronica-d The irony is that Block is a VP for AOL. Part of me wants to feel bad for him, the other part of me is Nelson Muntz.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        Really? Heh. That’s hilarious.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to veronica d says:

        Maybe we need a law about leaving a service. Companies have been pulling this shit for years — recall AOL was like this — and it must work or they would not do it. But it degrades the quality of our lives.

        It probably degrades it more than you think. The *reason* such nonsense exists is that large companies so often have incredibly shitty service to start with, and they’re using that nonsense to get away with it.

        These companies with shitty service have decided that the way to deal with customers getting pissed is to only offer good service to those who want to leave. And even then it’s pathetic and as much begging ‘please don’t leave, we’ll bribe you’ instead of actual customer service.

        Imagine a world where, by law, every single reoccurring bill come with a special code and a toll free number and website, (and, if you owe any disconnect fees, those fees printed)…

        …and you can call that number or load that website, and put in that code, and your account was instantly canceled, without them even being allowed to speak to you…

        …companies couldn’t keep having this bullshit ‘We will maybe, possibly, offer to stop pissing off our customers, but *only after* they have reached their breaking point with us and try to cancel.’

        Maybe this should actually be single site run by the government: ‘Select the type of service: ISP/Select the ISP:Comcast/Type in your account number:394952-323424/Type in the security code located on your bill:94372/Click here to cancel’.

        ‘Hey, you know that customer we didn’t bother to help with their problem? Well, apparently they’ve now canceled their service.’

        Make it where the point that people are ready to cancel is too late to solve problems, where customers can do the electronic equivalent of leaving their shopping cart in the middle of the store and storming out of the building without talking to anyone, and the companies will have to solve problems earlier. Or, you know, lose their customers.Report

  10. Mike Schilling says:

    What’s more, in that same year Comcast and it’s so-called “competitors” also succeeded in getting Tom Wheeler appointed as the Chairman of the FCC.

    Umm, you know who appointed him. If it had been his predecessor, I wouldn’t hesitate to snark about his brining Texas-style “voluntary regulation” to Washington DC, so let’s name names. It is a fishing disgrace and a slap in the face to all of us who though he had actual principles that Barack Obama appointed Wheeler as FCC chairman.Report

  11. KatherineMW says:

    All telecom companies are terrible, in my experience.

    Canada has an oligopoly market with just three of them (Telus, Rogers, and Bell), so they all know they can charge inflated prices and get away with having terrible customer service. The two times I’ve had a cell phone – once with Telus, once with Bell – they didn’t waste my time when I called to cancel my plan, but they also didn’t cancel it. They assured me that it was cancelled and then continued to bill me. And, in both cases, kept on doing so for several months after several more calls in which I told them that I had cancelled my plan, and in which they told me that yes, it had been cancelled. (Thank goodness I had access to a different, landline, phone, or I wouldn’t have any means with which to contact them and object to continually being billed for a service I didn’t want and didn’t receive.) In both cases I finally managed to get them to actually cancel the thing, and – in the case of Bell – refund at least some of the money they’d overcharged me, but it’s discouraged me from every wanting to get a cell phone again.

    And in neither case did I have a fixed-time contract. I had month-to-month plans. I just cancelled, was told that I had cancelled, and…they kept on charging my credit card.

    They’re unethical, cheating, thieving, assholes.Report

  12. Jim Heffman says:

    “The reason I got access to these three amazing AT&T employees is that my post sparked a Google-alert with two of them.”

    This is kind of getting sidelined in all the Let’s Have Another Net Neutrality BItchfest.

    It’s like, what happened to all the poor bastards who didn’t get a Google Alert for their post? Yeah it’s great that AT&T fixed the problem but if the problem was so easy to fix then why was it ever a problem at all?Report

  13. Will Truman says:

    I’d actually suspected that AT&T would contact Tod. I didn’t know they would necessarily go as far “above and beyond” as they apparently offered to do.

    I’m sorry to hear about T-Mobile. They previously had a reputation for being among the most benign of the national carriers, but I’ve been hearing increasing bad things about them.Report

  14. Will Truman says:

    On the general subject, while I disagree with some of his comment(s), Road above more or less echoes my own thoughts on the matter with his comment on vertical integration. I don’t have a problem with vertical integration in the abstract, but there are certainly cases where it creates conflicts.

    Unlike some, I don’t think the “government assigned monopoly” is in and of itself the issue here, as non-monopolies do exhibit the same behavior. It does require a certain degree of consolidation and high barriers to entry in the market, though. And treating them as “common carriers” does seem like an appropriate response here.Report

  15. Mike Schilling says:

    I hate to say nice things about AT&T, but I just cancelled my DSL (upgraded to much faster cable internet), and the whole process took about 15 minutes, 10 on hold and 5 to do it. The rep did ask if I would keep it for a discount or an upgrade but there was no pressure after I said no.Report

  16. Christopher Carr says:

    Death to Comcast.Report

  17. ScarletNumbers says:

    The best thing I ever did in this arena was dropping Comcast and switching to Verizon as soon as FiOS became available in my town.Report

  18. Mike Schilling says:

    This phone call was a voluntary transaction made without coercion, so obviously it makes both parties better off. What are you, Tod, some kind of socialist?Report