21 July 2007

Comcast and dishonesty, part 1

I live in Philadelphia, home of Comcast. I can see Comcast's new tower in downtown Philly -- when completed, it'll be the "tallest buildling between New York and Chicago" -- from my living room window. An exercise for the reader: where do I get my Internet access from?

If you guessed Comcast, you're right.

Now, I recently had a bizarre customer service with them. The story goes as follows:

Saturday, noon. I'm sitting in my apartment. The Internet and the cable TV stop working, at essentially the same time. I call tech support, wait on hold, and so on. Now, whenever I talk to someone at Comcast's cable television division, they insist "oh, that's an Internet problem, that's not our problem." Hello? They come over the same wire. They go out at the same time. You expect me to believe this is two independent problems/ In the two years I've lived in the territory of Comcast or its predecessors, twice I've lost cable TV and Internet at the same time. I've never lost one but not the other.

Let's say there are three kinds of problems that can happen - one that makes just the TV go out, one that makes just the Internet go out, and one that makes both go out simultaneously. These are all "rare events" -- let's say each happens once a year -- and furthermore I'll say they're Poisson processes. (This basically means that future outages are not aware of past outages, which is technically called "memorylessness" or "independent increments". Now, let's say my cable and my Internet both went out within the last five minutes. What's the probability the same problem caused both?

The probability of losing my cable and Internet due to the same problem in any five-minute interval is five divided by the number of minutes in a year. Since I like RENT (the musical), I know that a year is 525,600 minutes, so this probability is one in 105,120; call it one in 100,000, since everything here is obscenely approximate anyway. But the probability that I lost them due to separate problems? It's the square of this, one in ten billion. So if I lived in this apartment for a hundred thousand years -- ten billion five-minute perioods -- then one hundred thousand times I will lose both TV and Internet due to the same problem. And one time, they'll just happen to go out within five minutes of each other, independently.

Conclusion? Even though I'm complaining about the Internet, it's your job to fix it. But you say "tell your landlord", because of course it's not your company's fault.

Saturday, 1pm. I call my landlord (a small, local property management company; their offices are closer than the closest mailbox, so I walk the rent over there instead of sticking it in the mail when it's due once a month.) The landlord says "it's not my problem", which is what I expected. then I get the tip which will haunt me for the next many days -- "I just let someone from Comcast into the basement of your building."

I run downstairs, chase down a guy in a Comcast pickup truck I see across the street. Someone -- him? one of his colleagues? I'm not sure -- had been there disconnecting people's cable because they weren't paying. I was paid up, but they'd made a mistake. The probabilistic moral here? This will happen less often if you live in a small building. (I've heard this about theft, as well -- the smaller the number of people who have keys to your building, the less likely your property is to be stolen.)

Another moral here is that Comcast ought to have a better system for telling which wire services which apartment, but that'll come later, when I talk about how their current system seems to work.


Jonathan said...

I remember seeing an interesting-looking half-finished building on a recent trip to Philly from the UK...I now know it's the Comcast Centre. Thanks!

Did you try explaining your probability theory to the call-centre slave on the end of the phone? Somehow I don't think it would have helped though... :-)

The Probabilist said...

The numbers might not have helped. But the numbers aren't important; as you can see, I just made them up. I think that common sense would have been enough. Unfortunately, call center people don't seem to have common sense. I still haven't worked out whether this is because they are actually exceptionally foolish or -- as seems more likely -- whether their hands are tied by the corporations that employ them.

Aaron said...

I feel like approximating life as a set of independent Poisson processes is somehow against the spirit of RENT. ;-)

I'm with you on the suspicion that some call center employees are explicitly instructed to act foolishly by the companies they work for. As George Vaccaro notes in his open letter to Verizon, a little well-placed ignorance can sometimes make a business a lot of money...

The Probabilist said...


I am almost certain that you're right, although Jonathan Larson is dead, so we can't ask him. However, I also have something of a sense that having too little faith in logic means that the culture which RENT celebrates is in danger of being swallowed by the parts of the larger culture which embrace that sort of ruthless efficiency.

Anonymous said...

And the probability would have been what if you'd also had CDV (telephone) from Comcast?

Personally, I enjoy when one of our customers calls and has something better to say than, "I haven't paid my bill in over three months. You guys are idiots because you shut my service off."