.Speed Demons

News1-ComcastFor years Comcast wasn’t delivering the fast-lane Internet they promised. Are they now?

When Xfinity announced this month that it was upping its Internet download speeds for Santa Cruz from 29 megabits per second to more than 105, many were skeptical.

For two years, the company, a subsidiary of Comcast, has been telling users they were getting 105 mbps, and charging $39 extra per month for the “Blast!” high-speed service, but an internal document released to Good Times shows the area was only capable of receiving 29 mbps—more of a fizzle than a “blast.”

“We’ve been complaining to the company in Philadelphia for years, asking them to stop promising something they weren’t delivering,” says a Comcast  technician whose identity is being withheld to protect his job. “But they ignored us.”

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The technician was so frustrated that he gave customers an internal document saying that speeds in the county were limited to 29 mbps, despite the company’s sales promises of the 105 mbps Blast! service. The company’s infrastructure of fiber and computers couldn’t yet support the faster speeds, according to Comcast spokesman Bryan Byrd.

Higher speeds are needed to stream movies without interruption or to send large files.

I experienced this frustration firsthand. Once a loyal Comcast customer, I changed my opinion over the past year, while I paid $39 extra per month for faster service, and still never got more than 29 mbps. During repeated calls, I was told I had to change my modem or have a service technician come out to fix the speed, or that I was getting the speed to my house, but something in the house was slowing it down. The company source told GT none of that was true.

Others tell GT about having similar experiences. And repeated calls to Comcast’s customer service staff—many of them by GT readers—produced no results.

“Every time I’ve talked to a technician or someone has come to my house, they say it’s supposed to be up to 50, but I never got it up to 50, except one time,” says Soquel art teacher Lilith Ohlson-Perez, who lives off Branciforte Drive in Santa Cruz.

“There’s not enough speed to do what we need to do,” she adds.

Ohlson-Perez is building an Internet design business that requires fast streaming to provide her clients with images and videos, but has suffered through frustratingly sluggish speeds. When she asked Comcast to stop charging her an extra $12 per month for higher speeds, her service got even slower, she says. “Every time I talked with them, they say they are slowly updating all the routers in the area and I should be having speeds over 100, but I never did,” Ohlson-Perez says.

Byrd says the problem was that customer service reps were giving out the wrong information.

Seemingly miraculously, when Comcast announced its faster speeds, mine jumped up to 186 mbps with no new modem and no visit from a technician. For the first time in a year, I could use my WiFi phone and computer at the same time.

After Aug. 11, when the cable and Internet provider announced its free upgrade to Santa Cruz, Ohlson-Perez’s service shot up to 177 mbps and she’s loving it.

“I have no more complaints about the speed, at least,” she says after six months of frustration with customer service and paying for speeds she wasn’t getting.

Today, Comcast lists its fees for various tiers as $39.95 for 3 mbps; $66.95 for 75 mbps and $78.95 for Blast! However, customers with bundled services can get cheaper prices. On Aug. 11 it announced free upgrades to 75 mbps for those who were paying for 16 mbps and Blast! speeds from 25 to 150 mbps.

Until the recent Comcast speedup, the city and county of Santa Cruz ranked among the lowest Internet speeds in the state, according to a report filed by the city’s office of economic development. At 29 mbps, Santa Cruz was 447th of 505 California cities, according to a report by the Ookla Net Index Explorer—slower than Gilroy or Monterey. It was way behind Kansas City, which boasted speeds to 150 mbps.

“We view the Internet as a utility, like water, sewer and electric,” says J. Guevara, Santa Cruz Economic Development Manager, who is pushing for a new fiber network. “For the public good, we have to have better broadband service.”

Guevara says that while 100 mbps may sound like a firehose, it’s far below what will be needed as televisions move to higher ultra-definition capacities and what doctors need for doing remote diagnoses using genetic models transmitted over the Web.

In July, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to consider a $52 million public/private partnership with local company Cruzio to bring fiber that could carry 1,000 mbps Internet service to the city in an effort to encourage more technology businesses to move here. Consumers would have to pay for the faster speeds, and it would be limited to city residents.

Guevara says he thinks Comcast’s boost was a response to the competition it was seeing from the city, and views the new speeds as a victory. Second District County Supervisor Zach Friend is working on a program to boost speeds in the county, and also believes that Xfinity was responding to the increase in competition.

The county has streamlined the permit process for getting fiber built, to encourage private companies to offer faster speeds. He also expects the county to be able to tap into a state and federally funded Internet fiber project that will bring faster speeds to the county in the next two years.

All hope may not be lost for disgruntled Comcast customers, according to Santa Cruz Assistant District Attorney William Atkinson. He says people who want a refund from Comcast for services they paid for but didn’t receive should submit a request in writing to the company. They can also complain to the consumer affairs unit of the county district attorney’s office.

When it comes to Xfinity’s speedup, Byrd says that so far people have responded positively. The company has also added 30 new TV channels, including the Major League Baseball network and a concert and music channel called Palladia.

On the GT Facebook page, though, people were still complaining about problems with poor speeds.

Byrd says they may not have followed important instructions to turn off their modem to reset it and then it will restart at the faster speeds.

So what about a refund for period in which customers didn’t receive what the company had promised?

“I think it’s case-by-case,” says Byrd. “If they want a refund or feel they deserve a refund, I think they should reach out. It’s all case-by-case. We have to look at what’s going on.”

Comcast customers can file complaints against the company with the DA’s Consumer Affairs Unit by visiting datinternet.co.santa-cruz.ca.us or calling 454-2050. You can also do a speedtest at speedtest.comcast.net and post your results to the Good Times Santa Cruz Facebook page.

CABLE CAR Comcast was unable to provide the Internet speeds it promised, according to an internal document. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE


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