Saturday, January 10, 2015

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part Three: Stealth Outages

For the most part, our Comcast Internet connection has been remarkably stable over the 10 years we've had it. The service is fast, and there's never any excessive latency on the connection ... when it works. Every once in a while it goes down, and when it does, it's usually down the better part of the day while they fix or replace whatever they are working on, while we sit by and wait for them to fix it, knowing that calling their office would be fruitless.

With a connection as good as we've had all these years, it's perfectly acceptable that it goes down for routine maintenance, or a piece of equipment fails. Stuff happens, right?

But there's a problem: Whenever the Internet does go down, Comcast gives no warning and will not admit there is even a problem. It was down most of the day yesterday. I could see on my DD-WRT enabled router that Comcast was having issues on their end. I could also see the modem losing sync and sitting there with the US (upstream) light flashing, trying to sync.

So, I did what many customers would do: I went on my Android phone and installed the XFinity "My Account" app, which can show you outages in your area, among other things. If you've been following my rants against Comcast, you'll know what their app said. Basically it said good news, there's no outage in my area and the problem is on my end.

The app offered to troubleshoot my connection. Because it claimed the problem was on my end, it gave me all sorts of useless tips to try to get my connection to work, none of which made any reference to a cable modem that wouldn't sync, which ironically is required to connect to the Interwebs.

Did I call their customer service? Every time I have what I deem a routine outage, customer service's computers show no outages, and proceed to walk me through the script of rebooting, etc., usually until I say something like "does it matter if my computer is powered on if my modem does not have sync?" which is beyond the 1st tier and has to be escalated until the problem resolves itself. At that point a tier 2 tech usually calls me to tell me congratulations, everything is working fine. Thanks.

I got to thinking, this must be on purpose. If I were manager of one of the offices, would I tell my corporate overlords that we screwed up and half our office is down? All the local subscribers pissed off? Not at all. So they do the "right thing" and claim everything is fine, and let their customer service call center in a different location spent hours on the phone walking people through problems that are not theirs.

Having spent decades in corporate America, there's the prevailing attitude that customers are stupid, that "buyers are liars." Kids toys are made purposely low quality, because the company knows that the parent will blame the child for a broken toy just as likely as not. And companies like Comcast will put their own technical issues on you if they can.

There's another reason these outages are "stealth outages." If they admitted that the reason your Internet was down for a whole day was THEIR problem, they might be on the hook for having to offer you a free day of credit if you call to complain. If I called to complain today about yesterday's full-day outage, I guarantee they would be telling me that their system shows that there was no outage in my area, and that the problem was on my end, and where would be the fun in that?


Friday, January 2, 2015

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part Two: "Our high prices are your fault"

There's a long tradition of trying to curry sympathy by demonizing the victim. It often works for the worst kind people, so it's honestly not surprising to hear first hand about Comcast using the tactics of a serial rapist to blame high prices on the consumer.

This happened recently to a family member. She was being overcharged for her service, which was a legitimate issue. But before Comcast corrected the billing errors after numerous phone calls similar to my experience, they claimed to her that the ever-increasing cost of her service had to do with consumers demanding a la carte service.

Yep, Comcast actually told her that it was her fault as a consumer that prices were so high. Basically that they were the good guys trying to keep prices low by bundling all the crap channels nobody wants to see together. But no, the uneducated consumers complained about those channels being bundled, and now Comcast can't keep the prices low and it's on you, the consumer. That's the gist of what they told her.

I'm sure it wouldn't have anything to do with their lobbying efforts to thwart competition or "our billions in profit aren't enough" mentality of the mega-corporation it is. Just like a cancer cell, a giant corporation must keep growing. It must keep generating more and more profit to meet the shareholder's expectations and add a few pennies to their stock value.

Capitalism says that if you don't like a company, then don't do business with it. But in this case, the company I don't want to do business with has the only high speed Internet available in my area and uses its billions of dollars to keep it that way. These days Internet is just as important as electricity or running water. For me as a technologist, there's no choice.

It's bad enough that Comcast almost seems intent on a) generating lots of billing errors and b) making sure that all billing errors are in their favor and c) making sure you can't leave. But most of the time they are smug about being the supreme assholes they are. As an uninterrupted customer of more than 10 years, I have not seen a single instance where they didn't take every single opportunity to be douche bags, with the latest being "Our supervisor claimed he tried to call you several times and you never answered, and we believe him over you, sorry, so now you'll have to wait to talk to one because you're wasting our time." spiel they gave her a couple weeks ago. Shameful.

Comcast is an abomination. Oh, and since we went to just Internet, they are now spam calling us with recordings telling us how awesome our lives would be if we upgraded.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part One: "Oops, we overcharged you"

Deceitful, arrogant, insincere. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Comcast customer service. It seems like every week I read about someone with a horrible experience with Comcast. the senior management apologizes and re-iterates how much it needs to change. Nothing changes, and if anything, they are much worse. I've been reading these stories for years and I'm convinced that insincerity goes right to the top. They say "we need to do better" and then wait for the furor to die down.

Unfortunately, our story is fairly common, and from what I can tell from talking to others, here is the basic formula of how they maximize their profits day to day.

1. Comcast overcharges you. For a while you pay it, but it bugs you.

2. You call them up, and instantly hit barriers. They say "sorry, but our system can't do that" when it can. They say "we'll have our supervisor call you" and the call goes straight to voice mail. Sometimes a "Quality Assurance" supervisor calls you to ask how your talk with the imaginary supervisor went, at which point the original supervisor claims they tried to call you and you didn't answer.

3. Congratulations! You made it past the first few barriers. It is now more expensive for them to keep taking your calls than it is to actually fix your problem--you know, the one where they overcharge you ever month no matter what you do. They've tried to wear you down, and for most people this is where it ends: with the realization that you need Internet access and you're not going to call and cancel because they've made sure that there's no competition in your area.

4. So, now their tactics switch. They've tried to wear you down and found you to be tenacious and resilient. Now they start what I call the "bullshit phase" where they just admit their mistakes and tell you that their on it, and to check next month's bill to make sure everything is fixed to your satisfaction.

5. Except they didn't fix your problem, and if you're very unlucky, your bill could've even gone up. At this point they are admitting their mistakes, except the process of fixing your mistakes creates more mistakes and either another loop through the imaginary supervisor queue, or a real supervisor says "oh gosh" and promptly fixes your mistake for real this time.


Conclusions


There's a word for a group of people who continually try to take money which isn't theirs and then drag their feet when it comes time to paying it back: swindlers. We have been an uninterrupted customer of Comcast for over 10 years, and in that time they have never once had our billing right. We've had years go by where we just didn't have the energy to call every day and fight with them. They admitted they overcharged us for years and then ... wait for it ... gave us free HBO for a year after a week on the phone.

As a technologist, I absolutely need a fast Internet connection day-to-day, so I am at their mercy and they know it. The big incumbent carriers out there like Comcast are lobbying for laws to throw the consumers under the bus and eliminate what little competition they have.

This is why I say that Comcast is an abomination in every sense of the word. The world is a worse place with Comcast in it. Like some of the big banks, they tend to screw over the customers who can least afford their service. And for what? To please the stockholders?


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

NBC News Goes Down

Today I can no longer connect to nbcnews.com. Since NBC is owned by Microsoft, my theory is that their servers are running old versions of Windows Vista. For years I kept my home page set to MSN, until it became a platform to push Bing down everyone's throats. Then I switched to CNN, didn't like it and then finally switched to NBC News home page.

Looks like I need to keep looking for a browser home page:


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

SSL Certificates For The People

SSL encryption on the web has turned into an orgy of corporate influence and government interference. To enable the secure HTTPS protocol on your web site involves paying a small fortune to a "trusted" certificate "authority" for a certificate telling the world that you are who you say you are on the web.

Not only are they a scam that you have to pay into to have a secure web site, but all CA entities are trusted equally, even though some are shady as shit. Any CA can issue a certificate for any domain, and that certificate is automatically valid because it came from a "trusted" authority. Which means that _some_shady_CA can issue a trusted certificate for google.com and that certificate automatically becomes trusted by any browser surfing to it. There have been lots of documented incidents where hackers and repressive regimes use forged certificates from a shady CA to implement man-in-the-middle attacks against users who think they are browsing securely.

What's wrong with this picture: Large corporations given these CA contracts by politicians, with every web site on earth as a captive audience are responsible for creating trust on the web.

As broken as SSL is, currently it's the only game in town. Right now the two biggest problems:

1. Cost - Certificates are priced out of what small companies and individuals with web sites can afford to pay.

2. Trust - Most trusted certificate authorities don't seem that trustworthy, even though the entire system is based on their trust, which they sell for money.



Let's Encrypt


A new Certificate Authority has been created in conjunction with the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and a few other companies that give a flying fish about our privacy. It's a short list of good guys on the Internet, and the EFF is at the top of that list.

This site when it goes live will offer SSL certificates for free! A certificate I can afford from a CA that is actually trustworthy ... it doesn't sound right, but I'm exited that this may actually come to fruition.

Assuming it goes live, now small blogs and shops like me can offer the safety of encryption without borrowing money from relatives to afford being gouged for the certificates we need to have to make it happen.




Thursday, November 13, 2014

How To: Disable Video Autoplay on Google Chrome

As a guest, I wouldn't thinking of walking into someone's house and turning on their stereo. And maybe I'm a bad host, but it seems presumptuous for a web site to take it upon itself to make sounds on my speakers without my permission. I'm starting to think that these huge mega-corporations don't have very good manners. They certainly don't seemed concerned with users' bandwidth caps.

Today I finally got sick of videos I never intended to play stepping on my music or movies I watch on the computer, so I figured out how to turn this unsolicited video and sound off, but still be able to watch the video if that's what I intended.

Luckily, Google Chrome has a feature buried in its settings to restrict plugins from auto-playing media until you the user click on something.

Go into Chrome's settings screen and scroll down until you get to the Privacy section. You'll see a button labeled "Content settings." Press the button as shown below.


Then scroll down until you get to the Plug-ins section. It's probably set to "Run automatically" which makes all that crap start playing without your permission.


Change this selection to "Click to play" and click the "Done" button to save the setting.

That's it! It's buried in the settings pretty good, but it's worth the little bit of effort to find it. Now these sites won't hijack my speakers and waste my bandwidth. Some of these news sites will just start playing, sometimes after sitting there doing nothing for a period of time. The site will then start playing video until you tell it to stop, using up your device's power as well as bandwidth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BolehVPN Is Awesome

After having less than positive experiences with several VPN providers, it dawned on me that I was using the Google machine wrong. What I needed to be searching for was highly rated VPN providers. Even then, the reviews are all over the map. Some of these review sites seem to have a financial interest in recommending a select few providers.

Even when the review sites look legit, they all seem to recommend a completely different set of providers. So it took me quite a while to find BolehVPN, and even then I was skeptical. It's very hard to filter through all the noise, at least for VPNs.

So I signed up for a month just to try it, and everything went smoothly. They have a well written control panel that gives you full access to your account, and all the different servers and services they offer--it's all right there.

After the month was up, I purchased a two month plan. But after I paid, the control panel still told me I was expired. Most of these sites seem geared towards recurring subscriptions, which I won't do until several months without a problem, which so far hasn't happened. The problem turned out to be that when you purchase "air time," then you have to go into their web site and press a button to activate the time you just bought.

It's not very intuitive at first, but after about a year with them, I get used to activating my time every time I pay. It's actually a neat feature because you can defer activation to a later date, so for example you could pay for a couple months, realize you have to be on a plane tomorrow, and just activate it when you get back.

The security seems well done, performance is good, the service is reliable, and so far, no billing shenanigans. More than one service has done funny business with the billing cycle. So on one service I even waited until the service actually expired so they couldn't shorten the billing, but then they demanded a late fee for restoring service, which is the story of how I ended up at BolehVPN.

With about a year of smooth operation, it's almost been a dull experience compared to the other providers I tried. A couple weeks ago it stopped connecting, so I went to their web site and discovered they changed the AES key strength, and all I needed to do was go to the control panel and click the update button.