Starting last week, Comcast began rolling out phone service (called "Digital Voice"
) in parts of Maryland and Virginia. The Comcast press release specifically says Montgomery County residents can get service (although when I visited the website to try to sign up, it told me I was ineligible).
Why would you want to switch your phone service from Verizon to Comcast? Or from a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) provider to Comcast?
I suppose it would help if you hate The Phone Company. There is a long tradition of hating The Phone Company (ok, I'll stop calling it that), the model of a large faceless uncaring corporation that you have to pay every month like it or not. If you're old enough, you probably remember how it gradually became worse and worse to deal with Verizon or perhaps Bell Atlantic or even AT&T or whatever it was called as it merged and morphed over time. Unions, deregulation, reregulation, mergers, and competition from cell phones, VoIP, etc., have provided plenty of excuses for the difficulties that Verizon has gone through.
More recently, the failure to deliver any kind of a competititve broadband solution to most of Montgomery County has allowed Comcast to eat Verizon's internet lunch. And now VoIP is eroding Verizon's traditional telephony business.
Verizon is attempting to reinvent itself with fiber-to-the-home but they have to earn their customers all over again. I still remember the ever-rising costs, absurd extra charge for touch tone dialing, for caller ID, and the inability to reach Verizon outside of "normal business hours."
The question is whether Comcast provides a meaningful alternative. And Comcast not only has to compete with Verizon but with the many VoIP providers.
Surprisingly, Comcast's price for telephone service ($39.95 when bundled with TV service) is exactly the same as traditional phone service from Verizon's "Freedom Essentials" plan which includes unlimited nationwide calling and features such as caller id. (The Comcast package has additional features but none that I would pay extra for.)
But Verizon also offers a VoIP package (VoiceWing Unlimited) that is significantly cheaper at $29.95. And of course, there are many other VoIP providers such as Vonage, Skype, and SunRocket that are even cheaper. I'm on SunRocket's pay-by-the-year plan which works out to less than $17/month for unlimited nationwide calling. The much more popular Vonage is $24.99. Skype is representative of a number of services that offer free computer-to-computer calls with per-minute charges only for connections to the traditional phone network.
One differentiating factor of Comcast's VoIP service is that it uses different routing and prioritization for voice packets. This should enable better reliability and quality (enable but not guarantee, ahem). As a VoIP user myself, I am well aware that the quality of the voice is not always as good as a traditional telephone circuit. One of the problems of my VoIP provider is that it's dependent on Comcast's internet service - which isn't reliable! (Isn't that ironic? The way Comcast chose to improve on VoIP is to avoid relying on their own internet service!) Will the quality of Comcast phone service achieve traditional phone quality? Whether this is true in practice depends on how Comcast manages their internal network capacity and how Comcast manages other aspects of their services.
Comcast's advertisements tout additional features such as web access to voicemail as well as more traditional extras (3-party calling, for example). So there is a possible customer for Comcast - the person who wants all the high-tech features and isn't on a budget - then Comcast VoIP may be attractive.
However, one thing may stop people dead in their tracks. For years, outages have been a regular event. Comcast may be pouring tons of money into improving infrastructure, but for many people the Comcast name will long be associated with unreliability
, exactly the opposite one wants from a phone connection. Imagine your phone stops working - but you can't call Comcast about it because ... your phone doesn't work! Oh but we have cell phones to cover this eventuality right?
All of Comcast's previous products have been "best effort, no guarantees
", so you have to wonder why this should be any different. I'm not aware of Comcast having any experience with high-reliability services. I've no experience with their business packages but this new phone service is aimed at residences - and it's hard to imagine that Comcast will start offering first-class service all of a sudden. What I expect:
"I'm sorry to hear your phone doesn't work, sir, but we show a strong signal on your line. Could you please disconnect all your computers in the house, pull the cable out of the modem and powercycle your modem and telephone adaptor? That didn't work? Ok, I'm rebuilding your account, please try again in about 45 minutes and call back if it still doesn't work. Then we'll schedule a service call to your home - will you be available sometime next week?"
And Comcast's record of customer service is poor. In the past, I have put up with it only because cable was my only choice for high-speed internet access. Will other people put up with it given the choice
? And even worse is Comcast billing. In our franchise area, the county cable office frequently reported that half the complaints they received each month were billing problems. I don't know why billing was always such a disaster for Comcast but it makes me cringe to read Comcast's latest advertisements touting "only one bill
" as a benefit. And I already have difficulty understanding the bills now! (You'd think it should be easy when the bill is the same each month, but noooo....) Anyway, turning my phone bill over to Comcast's billing department sounds like it would only increase
my headaches, not decrease them. (If I were to order Comcast's phone service, I would insist it be on a separate bill.)
For these reasons, it is hard to imagine more than a fraction of Comcast's customers being attracted to their VoIP service. For people that want traditional voice quality and reliability, they can still get that from Verizon and at the same price. For people willing to risk quality in the interest of saving money, just about anyone else's VoIP product will be cheaper.Bottom Line
Will people really move their phones - for no financial savings - phones that have been working for years without problems on Verizon - to Comcast, a company that has long been associated with poor customer service, unreliable connections, billing headaches, and ever soaring rates? Let me know if you sign up and why.