On Feb. 28, in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker, Ga., Carmel Booth stood in tears before about 50 people, describing how Comcast Corp.'s internet outages – if they continued — could bankrupt her small insurance business.

She had been plagued for 100 days with a "fluttering" or downed internet that was jeopardizing contracts, she told those who had gathered to vent about Comcast's internet service.

At her insistence, and the urging of other Tucker residents, town officials had scheduled the gathering in the recreation center. Booth already had contacted the State of Georgia and the Federal Communications Commission and just about everyone she could think of to no avail.

"I was on LinkedIn at one point," she said recently, "looking up every Comcast executive I could find and emailing them."

Booth's predicament shows a new order at Comcast. While it has been working to reduce complaints lodged by its long-suffering cable customers, complaints have zoomed for its internet service, threatening to undo progress in what is now a business line with more subscribers and revenue growth.

Between November 2014 and early May, consumers lodged 61 percent more complaints about their Comcast internet services than they did for their TV services, 41,760 internet complaints compared with 25,865 TV complaints, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the FCC.

The greatest ire: internet billing issues, with 21,388 complaints. The second-biggest source of complaints was a downed internet, or lack of "availability," with 8,664. The third was speed, with 4,853. The complaints were filed mostly electronically with the FCC between November 2014 and the first week of May. The period coincides with when the FCC implemented a streamlined complaint process for residents and businesses.

More Subscribers for Internet Than TV

The number of Comcast’s internet subscribers has been steadily growing for the last 10 years, surpassing televisions subscribers by early 2015.
Subscribers by quarter, in millions
Staff Graphic

The volume of gripes reflects a basic reality, experts say. Comcast now has more internet customers than TV customers: 25.3 million internet subscribers compared with 22.5 million TV customers.

And the internet also has evolved into a more critical service for individuals and families than cable-television, considered a luxury with news, entertainment, and live sports. Kids need the internet to do homework, parents use it for online banking and shopping, and more people stream Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other entertainment over it. Internet-connected devices can control everything from the home thermostat to music.

Comcast officials say the company is making big improvements in its internet service, noting that over the period of the FOIA data, about 99 percent of its internet customers hadn't complained to the FCC.

Company spokeswoman Jennifer Moyer said the number of internet-only Comcast complaints at the FCC fell 43 percent between May 2016 and May 2017 and the year-over-year April period they fell 36 percent.

Moyer noted that Comcast launched a massive program in 2015 to improve customer service — an additional $300 million and thousands of new employees — during the period of the complaint data, which is now bearing fruit.

Comcast works directly with customers to resolve concerns before they reach the FCC, she said. Comcast also prevents some common issues by including self-install kits, redesigned bill statements, and technician scheduling improvements.

Charlie Herrin, the company's customer experience czar, said Comcast has boosted its internet speeds 16 times in the last 17 years. "It's a great product. I like our results. I like our focus on customer service."

At the same time, though, demands for more capacity are constantly increasing, Herrin said. "It is shocking how many devices you have connected to your internet."

Two sources of complaints have been WiFi interference and signal strength, leading to disrupted or slow internet service for devices. A cooking microwave can interfere with WiFi, as can the WiFi in nearby homes, he said. The company recently released an upgraded WiFi gateway, the xFi, which should allow customers to better monitor and control the home WiFi.

"We call them intermittent issues and they are hard to diagnose," Herrin said. "You have to understand that there can be factors in the house or it could be our delivery."

But critics say the complaint volume should be cause for concern. And the trend of higher internet complaints lodged with the federal government as compared with TV services is not limited to Comcast.

The FOIA data showed that consumers lodged 9,259 complaints against Verizon Communications Inc.'s internet service and only 2,729 complaints against its TV service over the same period. Verizon's internet service includes older and slower DSL technology that travels on copper phone lines and newer fiber-based high-speed fiber lines, also marketed as FIOS. Verizon is a far smaller TV and wire-line residential company. The FOIA data did not contain names or addresses of complainers, or the narrative of their gripe.

Comcast had a somewhat higher complaint rate over the period: one complaint for every 606 Comcast internet customers compared with one complaint for every 756 Verizon internet customers.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, said that despite all these complaints, the FCC has moved this year to offload internet consumer oversight to the Federal Trade Commission, which is not as knowledgeable as the FCC on telecom. This is part of the rollback of Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that classified the internet as a utility. The new head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, believes the internet should be reclassified back as an information service, as it had been for years.

State legislatures also have largely relinquished internet oversight at the behest of industry lobbyists, Feld said.

"It's not like you have choice as with other products," he said of high-speed broadband services. "If you don't like Pepsi, you can get a Coke. The majority of Americans don't have that choice for broadband providers."

Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at the nonprofit Consumers Union, called it "odd that the FCC would be deregulating" the internet just as complaints are soaring.

But now state attorneys general are stepping in.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman sued Charter Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable in February for a "systematic scheme" to defraud subscribers by promising internet service "it knew it could not and would not deliver." Charter and Time Warner Cable, which merged in May 2016, vowed to fight the suit.

In June, 35 state attorneys general — including Pennsylvania's Josh Shapiro — announced that they were asking the FCC to deny a petition, backed by the cable industry trade association, that would strip states of the power to police deceptive advertising on internet speeds.

Chris Morran, deputy editor of the Consumerist website who reports on Comcast's service woes while subscribing to its internet service in Philadelphia, said "this all costs a lot of money, so when it goes down it's like your power going out. It really does engender rage in people, including me."

As for Booth, 49, she said the Comcast internet was unreliable between November and mid-April.

Frightened of her internet going dark again, Booth has purchased as backup AT&T residential internet service and a portable internet hot spot through Verizon — which costs her business more. She said Comcast had told her the consistent internet outages over months was a result of a "bad line."

"We consider it fixed because it works most of the time," she said last week, noting that she recently had the Comcast guy out again for a fluttering internet. She said regulators should pay more attention. "The government," she said, "would never let me go without electricity for six months. The internet is a basic necessity."