The #Comcastageddon internet outage yesterday lasted almost nine hours and affected about 30,000 customers of the telecom giant around Seattle. That means some businesses, unable to function, reportedly sent their employees home. It meant canceled teleconferences for Danni Askini, director of the Gender Justice League. Six thousand landline phone customers also lost service, meaning some weren't able to call 911, according to KIRO 7.
But if you expect a refund, well, each one of you is going to have to call Comcast and ask for one. Comcast spokesperson Steve Kipp says customers should call the company to request a credit "because outages impact customers differently—one customer may not even be home during an outage while another customer may have lost valuable work time—we prefer to work with customers individually to satisfy their concerns."
(Under the city's franchise agreement with Comcast, Mayor Ed Murray notes on his blog, customers have a few technical rights. Go check those.)
Pouncing on the outage yesterday, however, was Upgrade Seattle, a group organizing for a city-run internet network, much to the chagrin of Comcast and CenturyLink. "A public [internet] utility," the group said in a statement, "would be more accountable to Seattle voters."
That's undoubtedly true. But some questioned whether a municipally run internet provider would really offer anything better than Comcast in the context of a surprise outage (Comcast says it was caused by a South Lake Union construction crew). Two weeks ago, after all, it took the city nine hours to remove an overturned salmon truck causing traffic delays from Highway 99—not exactly a shining example of government efficiency.
Still, there's one big example we can look to, and once again, it's found in Chattanooga, Tenessee, where the EPB, the city's public utility, has developed a nationally renowned gigabit municipal broadband network. As author Christopher Mitchell explains in Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Network, when a series of tornadoes wiped out service in the spring of 2011, EPB offered an automatic credit to subscribers who lost service:
Kathy Burns, Vice President of Customer Relations, said, “That is pretty much unheard of in the communications industry … but it was the right thing do.” According to Mike Kaiser, assistant Vice President of Finance, they were thinking about it from the customer’s standpoint, not EPB’s standpoint. “From a financial standpoint, it wasn’t a good decision,” he added with a laugh.
The ensuing discussion clarified that it was the right financial decision from a long-term perspective even if it compromised short-term cash flow. When Comcast customers notified Comcast that EPB customers were getting credit for outages, Comcast said they did not have a similar policy, which generated tremendous positive attention for EPB’s network. Kathy Burns summed it up, “If you don’t have that mindset as a utility of what is the right thing to do for your customers, don’t think about trying to do this."
Take that for whatever it's worth.
In Seattle, there are also concerns about the fact that damage in one place to a fiber line caused such a widespread and lengthy outage. "Going down completely because of a fiber cut isn't great, and people are right to complain," says Slog commenter geekboy. "Comcast had 41 percent margins on their cable business last quarter and $2B in net profit, which they're using to boost dividends and share buybacks rather than investing in their network."
Comcast's Kipp says the company invests between $20 and $30 million annually in the Seattle area to improve the redundancy of its network. But the company's engineers are working to identify and learn from what went wrong, he adds.
By the way, there's also this news out of Tacoma, where yesterday angry residents pushed back against a proposal to lease the city's internet service provider to a private company:
Leslie Young, a 14-year resident of Tacoma, said Tacoma is “cooler than Seattle” in part because it has its own fiber network.
So, that happened.