Why cable, Internet and TV customer service sucks

Illustration by William V. Cigliano

Illustration by William V. Cigliano

Random outages that disrupt our Internet connection, interrupt a favorite television show or drop an important phone call. Agonizing calls to customer service representatives, whose promised fixes don’t materialize. A long wait for an Internet connection, erratic phone bills and surprise TV fees.

These customer service issues attract enough static from our members that Internet, phone and TV services annually rank among the most complained about categories on Angie’s List.

Nationally, Internet service ranked as the No. 2 most complained about category on the List in 2011, while phone services ranked No. 8. All three ranked among the top 10 in 2009 and 2010, according to member reports. And out of about 500 Angie’s List members responding to a recent online poll, 54 percent report having a poor experience with one of these services, with most complaining about technical difficulties, poor customer service and billing or fee issues. In addition, nearly 40 percent report spending more than $200 on their monthly bill.

Yet despite the issues, we continue to go back for more. According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 5,300 cable TV companies served 60 million customers in 2011. Satellite TV providers DISH Network and DirecTV claim nearly 24 million customers. More than 1,800 companies nationwide offer broadband, according to the National Telecommunications Information Administration. And the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry (CTIA), a nonprofit representing the wireless industry, reports more than 331 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. in 2011.

Can you hear me now?

Angie’s List member Betty Woodward of Deltaville, Va., says she continues to pay Verizon $140 a month for her landline and cellphone even though she gave the company’s Danville, Va., location a below average rating for poor service. “I only get [cellphone] service when I stand out in the yard,” she says. “Verizon is the best of the worst because we live in a ‘dead’ area for cellphone service. We use them simply because the service area for them is better than for most. But I’ve talked to customer service many times when problems come up and that’s where most of my frustration comes from. Their agents don’t always know what they’re talking about.”

Verizon corporate spokesman Tom Pica says the company tries to meet the needs of customers by offering a variety of ways to report problems. “We encourage our customers to take advantage of all the customer support available to them from our network of Verizon Wireless stores to our online experience,” he says, noting that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all option. Pica declined to specifically address Woodward’s issue.

How to get the best deal

Experts say consumers need to do their due diligence before signing a contract and understand exactly which cellphone services, TV channels or Internet broadband speed they need. “Start the process by doing your homework and use every means possible to find out information about companies that provide service in your area,” says Regina Costa, spokeswoman for CTIA. “Obviously, people who have had experiences with this can post it on Angie’s List. Word of mouth is very important.”

Costa says consumers should focus on price, reliability and quality of service when comparing telecommunication companies. “The best price might not be the best deal if the service doesn’t work very well,” she says. It’s also important to thoroughly review the contract before signing it. “Your rights are right there,” says Patrick Deignan, spokesman for the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of residential utility customers. “As boring as it sounds, read the fine print before signing. At the end of the day, you are your own best consumer advocate.”

Who’s got your back?

Consumer protections vary among states when it comes to Internet, phone and TV service providers. “For the most part, they aren’t regulated,” Costa says. “Or they’re regulated by the FCC, which doesn’t offer a lot of protection.” If the provider fails to address your problem, Costa suggests calling the public utilities commission, state attorney general or the local franchising authority (the government organization authorized by your state to regulate Internet, cable and satellite TV services).

Consumers can also file a free, informal complaint with the FCC. Customers not satisfied with the response of an informal complaint may file a formal complaint for $200, which starts a legal process that requires them to appear before the FCC. “The more of these types of calls they get, the more likely the states and FCC will take action,” she says. Calls to the FCC were not returned.

Costa points out that consumers hold little negotiating power when it comes to what’s included in the contract, so understand what’s in it. “You should demand, when you’re signing a contract, information on being able to cancel the service if it doesn’t work properly, and if it doesn’t work as advertised,” she says.

Member Stephanie Guttman of Tallahassee, Fla., learned how nonnegotiable some service contracts can be. After a doctor diagnosed her sister with cancer and she moved to hospice, Guttman called an 800 number for DirecTV to cancel the service. “They refused,” she says. “They kept referring to the contract and said ‘when she dies, come back to us.’” Guttman says repeated letters and phone calls to the company proved fruitless. “A contract that you cannot get out of for any reason seems absurd to me,” she says. “It’s not realistic and it makes me question their business ethics.”

Guttman says she finally posted a negative report on Angie’s List, and complained about DirecTV’s policy on Facebook. Within 30 days of those postings, DirecTV terminated the contract and credited her sister’s account. “I feel confident, with all the efforts I made, it wasn’t until I posted online that the problem got resolved,” she says. DirecTV corporate spokeswoman Meghan McLarty says supervisors typically waive service agreements and cancellation fees when a customer enters a hospice or a nursing home, but the agent who handled Guttman’s original call did not follow proper procedure. “We apologize for the inconvenience we may have caused Ms. Guttman or her family during this difficult time,” she says.

Deignan says social media often produces a more immediate solution. “Never underestimate the power of bad PR,” he says. “Your Twitter and Facebook posts tend to attract the company’s attention a lot faster than a phone call. If you’re having a real problem with a company, put it on their Facebook page. They’re going to want to address it quickly and help you resolve it.” Deignan also stresses the importance of being polite and persistent, regardless of how you seek resolution. “Being loud and rude doesn’t help.”

Mind your manners, please

Member Ray Lattof of Davie, Fla., says representatives who answered calls to AT&T’s 800 number are the ones who need to learn how to be polite: They hung up on him twice when he called to dispute unauthorized long distance charges on his landline phone bill. “I was utterly dumbfounded,” he says. “AT&T is such a worldwide business conglomerate. You just get a sense that the company has no priority on customer service at all.”

AT&T corporate spokeswoman Susan Newsham says AT&T places customer care high on its priority list. “We have apologized to Mr. Lattof for the inconvenience, answered his questions and found him a long-distance plan that better matches his needs,” she says. “Additionally, customers can get access to other support options by visiting [our website].” For instance, U-verse customers can utilize an interactive application to troubleshoot any problems, she says. “AT&T is committed to its customers, but if issues occur, please visit [our website] to get in contact with a support representative.”

Lattof, who filed an F report on the company’s poorly rated Miami location, says he’s still upset that AT&T charges him $4.77 a month for long distance calls as part of its minimum usage plan. “I will continue to be stuck paying a minimal charge for long distance, even when I make no long distance calls — and that is downright thievery,” he says.

Member Beth Holmes of Henderson, Nev., says she’s happy with her bundled Internet, TV and phone services from the highly rated Las Vegas branch of Cox Communications. “We use them because they have the best rating on Angie’s List,” she says. “We have no complaints.” The Atlanta-based company offers cable, broadband Internet and phone services to 6 million homes in 19 states. “Our goal is to be a friend in the digital age, helping our customers get the most value from their services,” says Scott Wise, Cox’s vice president of customer care.

The devil’s in the details

But Costa and Deignan recommend reviewing bundled packages with a critical eye before purchasing from any provider. “They usually start off at a really attractive price. Then they skyrocket, so be prepared,” Deignan says. Costa agrees. “You have to dig a little bit beneath the surface,” she says. “For instance, the quality of broadband service might not be as good from your telephone service as it is from your cable company.”

Member Kathy Frenklach of San Francisco says she bundled her Internet, cable and phone services through Comcast to reduce her monthly bill to $178, but she’s unhappy with the overall service she’s received from the Santa Clara location. “On weekends, I often cannot access on-demand movies,” she says. “When I call for help and give the error code as requested, the representatives can never help me with the problem.”

In response to Frenklach’s complaint, Comcast contends it’s made an effort to thoroughly educate its representatives and technicians. “We know that customers want things to be easy,” says corporate spokeswoman Jenni Moyer. “We’re making sure our agents have the tools and the training. The technician today compared to a tech 10 years ago is like comparing the Commodore 64 with an iPad. We’re continually working on making the experience better for the customer.” However, mistakes are inevitable.  “Our goal is to get it right every time, but things happen,” she says. “And when they do, we want to quickly turn it around and fix it.”

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David Hazen credits Angie's List with motivating Bright House Networks to finally fix his service problems. (Photo by Brandon Smith)
David Hazen credits Angie's List with motivating Bright House Networks to finally fix his service problems. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

In the Indianapolis area, Internet service ranked as the No. 2 most complained about category on Angie's List in 2011, while phone services ranked No. 3 and TV services came in at No. 8, according to member reports.


In Scranton Service Area, You unplug cablebox for afew min. plug it in again, It reboots and you are back in business

I can tell you that part of the problem is they outsource a lot. And when you are only a branch on a tree things constantly go wrong. Too many people stirring the pot when you have to call 3-4 times for one issue. Even tech jobs get outsourced they are contractors who slap a magnet on their truck

From your description, your cable boxes are losing their IP address or having upstream problems. In cable, systems upstream is the return RF path used to communicate, which allows you to order movies, etc. When you experience the problem again ask the technician to check the MERS / BERS and look for errors on the upstream return path. You also want the technician to disconnect your home from the serving pedestal or pole and test looking back into your home. In this case, the technician is testing for Ingress, which is licensed Radio Frequency (RF) that is coming into your home. They also want to test for Egress, which is RF escaping from your home wiring or drop. Ingress and Egress are almost always caused by bad connectors or a splitter that does not meet company specifications. The key here is having a technician use the expensive tools they have to troubleshoot your issue.

Your service sucks because of the quality of the wires or infrastructure of the company in the area you live in is lower quality than it needs to be to provide top quality service. It will remain that way until the company or companies involved decide it make more financial sense to upgrade their infrastructure in your area than it does to allow things to remain the way they are currently. The other main cause for issues with TV, internet, and phone service is the quality of the wires inside your house that legally speaking, you own. Most companies will charge to repair or replace those wires and will replace them in the cheapest quickest way possible even if it does not look aesthetically pleasing because it is hard work, can be expensive, and in many cases is not possible without tearing down walls to replace that wire. Wireless options in many cases are not as effective as you might hope due to interferers such as large concentrations of metal like stainless steel kitchen appliances or the steel I-beam that keeps your house from collapsing. These are the main reason why TV intenet and phone service does or does not work where you live and might be perfect or abosolutely horrible down the block or in the next sub-development.

Check out the Institute for Local self-reliance web site for great info on how many municipalities across the country are creating community owned broadband networks that provide better service/connectivity at less cost.

Oh Michael. If only it was possible. Alas, it's an unattainable dream for many of us. I live in one of those increasingly unfortunate communities where just paying for minimum police and fire protection is a struggle. Previous city councils spent lavishly and made expensive contractual agreements and promises, as if the money would be a steady, increasing flow. It all came crashing down with the recession and now ordinary folks are losing their homes to foreclosure and unable to pay property taxes. Community broadband would be a very low priority around here. It's every man for him (or her)-self!

I would have thought that an article titled "Why cable, Internet and TV customer service sucks" would have said why... somewhere in the entire article.

That title is the reason I read the article, but it never explains the reason all. It's just a list of complaints, all of which I knew perfectly well before reading it.

I agree about being polite when calling for service or with a complaint. You have to remember that the person on the other end is human too, and being abrasive or vulgar is not the way to go about addressing a problem. Technology fails, no matter how well designed the structure is. Often you're speaking with someone at a distant location, so they won't have any idea what might be happening locally until a report is made. If you state your problem in a respecful manner, I've found that I get faster service, and the problem is resolved more often than not. If I were a customer service rep, and someone called me ranting, raving, cussing and making threats, I probably wouldn't go out of my way to be helpful. Instead, I'd probably hang up. When you consider all the equipment it takes to send you a TV, phone or internet signal, it's amazing services don't fail more often. It takes far more then simply flipping a switch to bring customers the services.

Big problem if you're squeezing every penny and your money comes in sporadically. I would never bundle my personal stuff. I might be able to cover the phone bill this week and the internet bill next week. With a bundle you pay them ALL on the due date or they ALL get shut off! For my new busiiness bundling made sense though, just phone and internet and the bill wasn't a huge chunk all at once.

The worst part of the penalty for being late, despite that fact that I've had an account with them for 25 years and never walked away from a payment, is when they shut-off my email service (in addition to my phone, cable and internet). And what I mean by this is that when someone emails me while its "shut down". I do not get their email nor does the sender get a "message undeliverable" return email. The email is gone, vanished and it never arrives once the system is turned back on. I especially love it when they do this on a Friday evening just before they close for the weekend. When I complain about this specific act they give me a generic "we have no control over that" excuse. They act as if I am never going to pay. And being that they have absolutely NO formal customer complaint department they will never, ever learn fast enough...love the big mergers.....

uh, so how about you just pay on-time? gee, that was easy.

Most companies do not care when the money is received. They only care if it's there by the due date. Send payments once a week if you need to. Just make sure you have a zero balance by the due date.

Well we have been Cox Cable customers for 10 years. In all that time with ice storms and summer thunderstorms I can not remember a time we were with out service. Only when the power is out. The internet is fast and always up. But I have to admit, it is their customer service that sets them apart. Friendly on the phone and in person. The field service techs are always on time. I have been quite impressed this company.

I had serious trouble with these two companies in getting results after numerous attempts. I agree that social media is a great place to get results. I posted a detailed comment on Facebook and got an immediate reaction. I also did some research and found the CEO of Dish Network's email. Of course he acted ignorant to my complaint, but by the time I finished with him, he understood quite clearlya and gave me the option to cancel my contract at will. One other very affective avenue to solve a dispute is to contact your state's Attorney Generals Office's Consumer Protection Division. This office is even more affective than the BBB, at least in my state. Good luck, Lee

We have internet and TV service with AT&T, they are not on Fibre Optics in this area yet. At least once a week there is an issue either with TV or the Internet. I do business with China and often work on line late and very early and of course holiday. I cannot tell you how much business and money I have lost (I work from my home office). Every time I call, I get the round and round speech. We are sorry, but we cannot send anyone out because ...blahblahblah. I want to get away from AT&T, however I have another 8 months to go and they are increasing their rates. A license to steal, just like the banks.

If you're doing business from home, shell out for business internet. Sure it's a little more expensive, but you get priority support, and if it will keep you from losing money, it's worth it.

I did not know there was a "business internet". We also have AT&T and deal with China in our home business through e-mail, but don't recall having many problems with the computer part. We also have a terrific certified computer tech who gives us top priority whenever we do have a problem. He is coming this week to look at my "non-business" lap-top...I'll have to ask him about "business internet". Thanks for this information.

Well, they have the power to irritate you, that's for sure. After repeated calls of poor internet connection, I was met with long hold times of over 10 minutes each time I called. I reached the Dominican republic and was told I must have a virus, it looks like you have an outside line issue on another call...finally the tech that was confirming appointments just laughed when he heard my stories...he said he hears this day in and day out...I was not laughing......I asked if he could forward a complaint for me, since I just had surgery a week prior...he said.."oh, you want me to do your job for you...?" Well, the power to simplify my life has not been seen by anyone at Mediacom!!!!!!

I am moved to say I'm so sorry you were treated that way by this representative. I know how vulnerable you felt, not just sick, but torn up and sick! I just had heart surgery and although I am usually a pretty self-reliant person, I need all the help I can get. Your patience is kind of thin when you're wounded, and your energy is non-existant (I think it's working on re-building tissue!). Well, I personally am glad I believe in life after death of the physical body, life where there's a strong sense of justice, a promised pay-back for failure to sympathize and help others of our species in need. Of course this means I have to be a sympathetic person myself, and of course I'm not always.

We have been with Direct TV for about 10 years and I must say I have been very happy with the service we have gotten from them over these years. I am not saying that it is not less expensive than Dish but from all that I have heard the cusomer service is like 100 times better with Directv and I have not been dissapointed.

I agree that it can be very stressful and frustrating to deal with these companies. I have tried both ATT&T and Comcast although Comcast doesn't seen to be as difficult to deal with as it used to be.

We have been Direct TV subscribers for the last 10 years and we have been very happy with our service. I am not saying it is the cheepest around but I would not change because of the complaints we have heard from people who have other services.

I have earth link hi-speed internet,Dish network, for my computer,phone, and tv. I have had them for ten years or better, NO complaints. I have had excelant service from this"bundle"


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