Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Duopolies Suck: Charter Communications

When DirecTV's DSL internet service went belly-up a little over five years ago, I switched my service over to my local cable monopoly, Charter Communications. At the time, Charter had just dropped their $10 surcharge for internet users who didn't also buy cable TV service, and this made their broadband offering appealing enough to try out (it will be a cold and lonely day in Hell before I ever pay for cable TV again).

True to monopoly form, Charter reinstated the no-cable-TV surcharge a few months later, and has proceeded since then to basically double their fees for broadband service. I didn't drop them like a bad habit mostly because it was always possible to call their "retainment" department, threaten to quit, and get my previous rate reinstated for another year. The rep infallably would warn at this point that the "promotional" rate would expire and I wouldn't be "eligible" for it again; my response was always, "That'll be Charter's problem, not mine," and every year, they'd back down and give me the old rate again.

This is nothing new in the internet (or for that matter, television or satellite radio) game. It seems most companies really have two rates, one for the people who can use Google, and another for suckers who don't know to ask for a rate that's actually competitive. What this says about the company in question's attitude towards their customers is not good; it belies a fundamental disrespect.

That disrespect on Charter's part was amplified early this year, when the company arbitrarily announced it would be enforcing limits on how much broadband internet users could download in a given month. Funny, isn't it, how all the companies who have suddenly decided that "unlimited" internet isn't really "unlimited" are also very interested in selling expensive cable television "service" to the same customer base. Gosh, it's almost like they're worried that people will download what they want to watch on TV instead of paying a big fee every month for cable, isn't it?

This was the last straw as far as I was concerned, and I called to cancel my service for real. The rep tried to talk me out of it, reading canned talking points about how the download caps wouldn't affect me, but I'd had quite enough of my 'net service being metered back in the bad old days of AOL. The rep signed off by reminding me to return my modem to my local office; I reminded him that I'd never used a rented modem, I'd bought my own from day one. He assured me he'd make that notation on my account, and that Charter would promptly refund me the balance of my last payment.

Flash forward six weeks, to last night, when I got an automated nastygram phone call from Charter informing me that since I hadn't returned "their" equipment, I'd be billed for the modem that I never rented in the first place, and if I continued in my recalcitrance, sicced with a collection agency.

So I called up Charter's billing number, and was eventually connected to a young lady with a tenuous grasp of the English language. After wading through page after page of her scripts, I was finally able to communicate the fact that I could not return Charter's equipment, since I had never possessed it in the first place. This resulted in a ten-minute hold, after which the English-challenged rep scolded me for having started my service with Charter so long ago that she'd a hard time pulling up the records; but she did finally agree that I do not owe Charter a cable modem.

Let me note for the record here that every single bill I ever received from Charter contained the note, "Customer-owned modem" in the rundown of charges. Funny how they never managed to communicate that to the collections department, isn't it?

Then I asked why I hadn't seen my refund. She asked me how much of a refund I wanted, at which point I fairly flew off the handle. "Do you not keep records on accounts? Look it up!" She finally agreed that I was due a nominal refund, and said that I would receive a credit on my account. She was surprised (I have no idea why) when I replied that a credit on a closed account really wouldn't do me much good. Finally she mumbled something about mailing a check, and having wasted half an hour of a perfectly good evening, I hung up and reached for the Crown Royal.

I know I shouldn't be surprised by any of this. Cable companies in general treat their customers with open contempt as a rule, and there's most likely a good reason why Charter in particular has a terrible reputation for what Clark Howard calls "customer no-service." That reputation, I'm sure, also goes a long way towards explaining why Charter is currently in bankruptcy.

Speaking for myself, they've seen their last dime of my money. Charter, you suck.

So where did my service get switched to after I booted Charter? Ah, therein lies another tale...


  1. Hello Will,

    My name is Eric Ketzer and I am a Manager at Charter Communications. I understand you are upset with us and Cable providers in general, and I am very sorry that we lost you as a customer, but I'd like to make sure this issue with the modem has truly been resolved to avoid any further frustration. Please contact me at Umatter2Charter@chartercom.com, so I can verify and make any necessary corrections.

    Thanks, Eric

  2. Contra Eric,

    I'm going to warn you that this is probably not over. The company that I work for is one of those collections agencies that Charter will turn their accounts over to. I have seen it all too often that Charter will continually tell a consumer that they have taken care of the matter only to have the same consumer screaming in my ear a few months later because Charter couldn't keep their records straight.

    Be sure to save any final bills that you receive showing either a credit or a balance of 0. You are probably going to need them.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Eric,

    Thanks for the comment on my blog post and the offer of help. My Charter account number was [redacted]. I would appreciate an email from you acknowledging that I do not owe Charter the return of a cable modem, as I never leased one from Charter in the first place. I would also appreciate expediting a check in the amount of [redacted] to the address on my account for the unused portion of my last bill.

    Regarding your last comment, if Charter really does want my business back, you can take two steps: first, eliminate metered billing for internet services, and second, remove the surcharge on customers who choose not to buy cable television. It would also help if Charter engaged in open pricing at competitive levels, but I'm not holding my breath on that account.

    While I do appreciate your taking the effort to chase down this issue, it does not speak well of Charter that people have to "go public" to get the company to correct its own mistakes. I will be happy to post an update on my blog when (and if) these issues are resolved, but fair warning: if I ever get another call, bill, or God help you, notice from a collection agency in this matter, all hell will break loose.