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Kendall's Korner: A chat with Comcast

Jeanette Kendall TimesNewspapers
Jack Segal, vice president of corporate communications for Comcast's Greater Chicago Region, poses with the live streaming selections offered by Comcast on his iPad.

I used to think of Comcast as a nameless, faceless cable TV giant that has mediocre customer service.

After a meeting with Jack Segal, vice president of corporate communications for Comcast’s Greater Chicago Region, Melissa Jones, marketing manager, and Bill Haarstad, senior director of marketing, my perspective has changed.

We discussed things that make my head ache, such as how cable TV works, Net Neutrality, Netflix rebuffering issues and throttling.

This all started with my personal frustration due to my Netflix service rebuffering constantly, which means that while watching a movie, it’s interrupted about every three minutes. 

I’ve been told all sorts of solutions from different sources: Hard wire it with an Ethernet cable, get a new modem, get a new router, use a Roku streaming device instead of your Blu-ray, and on and on. 

I did double my Internet speed with Comcast and still had issues. I then purchased a new router, and still had some issues, but not as many. A Comcast serviceman also came to my house and reattached a sagging cable outside that went from a telephone pole to my house.  

I wrote a column about my frustrations, which Segal read on the East Peoria Times-Courier website. He contacted me for a meeting.

The mystery as to why my Netflix was rebuffering remains. I posted about it on Facebook and some friends sent me links to articles that said Comcast was purposely throttling, or slowing the service, because Netflix is a competitor. But later I read an article that said that’s not true and that people who do not understand how the Internet works are writing about it.

Segal provided me with a little education.

“Netflix buys its roadway in, so I don’t know who they were buying from in this region, but they buy from a third party. They send the signal to that third party and that third party then sends it to all the different providers in the region where they’re buying it. You can’t tell whether the problem is on the Comcast end, the Netflix end or a third party. It’s hard to tell, but I can tell you that Comcast is not throttling,” Segal said.

Yikes! So, added to the list that my issue could be device related (DVD, modem, cable wire, router) or speed related (Internet service), now there are new possibilities to add to the mix. I don’t think I will ever know the reason why this  happened. All I want is for my Netflix to work on my TV. It works perfectly fine on my laptop. 

So, as I understand it, kind of, even TV stations like NBC and ABC, have to go through a provider to deliver content to consumers.

On Feb. 23, Netflix signed a deal for Comcast to be its new supplier.

Comcast

There is a lot going on with Comcast.

In addition to the Netflix agreement, the cable company is in the process of purchasing Time Warner Cable Co. Segal said the deal will not impact this area because there are no Time Warner offerings here.

I decided to start with a subtle question. I asked Segal why so many people seem to hate Comcast. I thought he had a good answer. Well, it was actually a question.

“If you think about the number of touchpoints that a person or a family has with any service provider, can you think of any service provider that is more ubiquitous in your life as Comcast?”

I could not.

“We have equipment in your house. We have different services we’re providing through that equipment,” Segal said. “And then you take it with you on the go because all of this stuff is available to you on the laptop, on your iPad or on your Android device. We’ve just so much more complexity to what we offer than just about anything else.”

Haarstad echoed Segal’s comments.

“We need to work with a lot of different things in the house and a lot of different devices.”

Haarstad talked about the historical progression of TVs from those that had dials with channels 2 through 13 to those today with their multitude of channels and components.

Programming has also changed tremendously. Think back to silent films and black and white movies to the type of content that is available today.

“There are so many great things on TV now. That’s why we’re doing well. The TV content is so good. It’s sort of changed from the movies to TV almost. Think about ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Walking Dead,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Sopranos.’”

Haarstad said he never thought he would see AMC as the top-rated network.

“It started out as old movies. Now they have ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ all this stuff,” he said.

With all that being said, Segal summed it up.

“It’s just really complex to deliver all that we have to deliver on a daily basis. We have 50,000 miles of cable — we call it our network — in this region only.”

A good business, of course cares about its customers, and Segal said Comcast is no different. 

“We want to do better. We think about these things. We never want anything to go wrong. We all want it to be a great experience for our customers. We’re really going from a reactive to a proactive state,” he said.

Now, here comes the painful part. It involves technical jargon. All of the techies out there won’t be phased, but this will fly over most people’s heads, like mine.

Segal said everybody is on a node. Nodes are every 300 to 500 properties. He said when something goes wrong, Comcast is alerted.

“We can go out and fix things even before people know about them,” he said.

Even though its customer base is expanding with a couple million in this area alone, Segal said their “truck rolls,” or calls for service, have decreased by 5 percent in the past year in this region.

“That’s a huge number,” Segal said.

Comcast has four call centers in this region with more than 1,000 people to man calls 24/7. 

But where does your call go?

“If a call can’t be answered by a call center here because it’s at capacity or it’s a snow day and people aren’t in or whatever, what happens is the call gets moved somewhere else in the division. Sometimes, we also move calls to an outsourcing, and there’s a couple of reasons we do that. You want to make sure you answer calls as quickly as possible and you want to make sure you have the capacity to answer those calls,” Segal said.

Comcast was established 50 years ago and now serves 39 states. Their biggest competitor in this area is DirecTV and Dish Network. There are also other players such as iTV3 and Frontier, depending on where people live.

“Every house has an option,” Haarstad said.

“So, we’re fighting for every customer,” Segal added.

Something I didn’t realize is that in addition to Internet and TV, Comcast offers phone service and home security options. And the apps are pretty awesome.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” Segal said.

“One of the big things that differentiates us is the portability,” Haarstad said.

Jones said she uses six of the Comcast apps.

“We’ve got Xfinity connect, which is your email on the go, but it also connects to your home phone,” she said.

Jones has another app that shows her video of the inside of her home. She can see what her dog is up to during the day.

“I have one camera pointed toward each door and rules set up that any time that the front or back door opens, a camera takes a video clip of whoever is coming through the door,” Jones said. 

She can also check her thermostat and smoke detectors remotely or will be alerted if there is water in her basement.

Wow, beam me up Scotty!

One feature that Segal defines as “really cool” is the 35 live streaming channels that people can watch on their devices.

“If you’re an Internet customer of ours, you have access at no additional charge to these Wi-Fi hotspots that we’re developing. We have about 70 in the Peoria area.”

Segal said the big differentiator between Comcast and other companies is, “We’re really expanding the capability to access our stuff anywhere, anytime, and we’re building you the roadway. I don’t think anybody here locally can say that.”

Another thing that Comcast is doing to improve service is doubling their Internet speed. 

“Over the last 12 years, we have doubled the speeds on an annual basis. This year we’re doing the same with several of our packages,” Segal said. “We’re really trying to make sure we’re able to meet the needs of our customers by giving them more bandwidth and faster speeds.”

After our meeting, Segal asked me if I still thought they were the big mean cable company. I don’t. The three reps I met with were extremely nice and helpful, and Comcast offers some awesome services. Now, I just have to ask myself if I can afford them. 

— Jeanette Kendall is executive editor at TimesNewspapers and  editor of the East Peoria Times-Courier. She can be reached at jkendall@timestoday.com.