Comcast blues.

As those of you who came here through the main page of this site (Jenkins Online) already know, I recently switched from Comcast to Earthlink DSL for our broadband service. Earthlink’s service isn’t as fast as Comcast was in the download speeds, but it’s still plenty fast for our needs and will tide us over until Wide Open West deploys cable modems in our area. Working as a PC Systems Administrator for Ford Motor Company I get a lot of questions from folks in the building about Comcast and why I dropped their service. Most of these folks who are asking do so because the stability of their connections to the Internet have suffered since they were transitioned to Comcast’s new internal network or they’re not getting the speeds they were previously.

I tell them that it was a matter of trust, or rather the lack of, I had for Comcast that made me switch. I knew there would be connectivity and speed issues during the transition from the Road Runner broadband network that the former MediaOne service used prior to being gobbled up by AT&T (which had to give up X number of regions to Comcast in order to complete the merger, hence why I was suddenly a Comcast customer) to the new network Comcast had built. That wasn’t the issue. They’d eventually work out the connectivity and speed issues and things would settle down again. It was the fact that they were lowering the cap on upload speeds from what I had previously, the fact that they were going to charge more for the same service (e.g. modem rental charge), that they were not going to allow VPN connections unless you signed up for their pro service (at $99 a month), were dropping all of the USENET newsgroups (which doesn’t matter to most of their clients), and the fact that they were now using a shadow proxy to capture their customer’s websurfing habits. It was the shadow proxy issue that acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back in my decision to drop Comcast, not so much because it existed, but because Comcast said it didn’t. At least at first.

I can understand why Comcast wanted to use a shadow proxy. First, it saves them money. There are a lot of websites that a lot of people visit every day such as Amazon.com or Yahoo and by using a proxy server Comcast can “cache” much of the data that these people would normally be downloading from those websites over and over again. When a user tries to go to Amazon the proxy server checks its cache to see if it has a recent copy of the data and if it does it gives that to the user instead of actually connecting them to Amazon directly. The proxy server only connects to Amazon to retrieve data that it doesn’t already have and this reduces the amount of traffic outside of Comcast’s own network. In simple terms, any traffic that Comcast keeps within its own network will cost it less than traffic that goes outside of it thus saving money. A lot of ISPs do this and there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it.

The second thing you can do with a proxy, however, is track where your customers are going on the net. Comast was doing this as well. Customer surfing habits can be a very profitable knowledge to have as there are a lot of companies willing to pay big bucks to know that sort of information. This is the bit that most folks get upset about, but done properly this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. There are lots of valid reasons, beyond merely the potential resale value, to gather such information and more ISPs than Comcast engage in this practice. As long as such data is gathered in aggregate, and not tied to individual customers in any way, then most folks have little to be concerned about.

Unless, of course, they aren’t aware that it’s happening in the first place. Comcast’s transition to their new network was appallingly handled starting with the boneheaded decision to start the process on a holiday weekend. Why the hell would anyone with any sense at all undertake such a massive project on a weekend when many of the companies they are working with to develop their new network will be closed and unavailable because everyone is home for the holiday? That’s just stupid and not a good portent of things to come. Word of the shadow proxy first came out when a lot of newly transitioned people suddenly couldn’t get to their favorite websites (Amazon.com being one of them) and the more technically inclined among them started looking into why. If you know what you’re looking for and where to go for the tools, it’s not really difficult to discover the presence of a proxy being used by your ISP. Comcast apparrently seems not to understand this because as word first came out that they were using a shadow proxy and the first waves of folks inquiring as to why they were using it started emailing and calling the technical support hotline Comcast decided to deny it was using a proxy of any kind. Now whether this was a case of the tech support people just not being informed by upper management of this change in the network or a case of being told to outright deny it is hard to say. Either way there was no mention of the change made to any customer in any official documentation about the transition prior to the move. Once word finally started getting out into the press about the shadow proxy Comcast finally officially owned up to the practice and claimed that their intentions behind the use of the proxy and the data collection was purely to provide the customer with better service.

The fact remains, however, that they never bothered to tell their customers that they were going to do this in the first place and actively denied that they were doing it for several weeks until there was too much evidence that they were lying about it. It doesn’t help their case that reporters have since discovered that Comcast may be collecting more data than is necessary for the purposes they claim to be using it for. Specifically, they were capturing individual user’s IP addresses along with what sites they were visiting which would allow them to tie individual customers to their surfing habits. In effect giving them a detailed profile of where each of their customers goes on the Internet and how long they stay there.

Comcast has since stopped collecting any data on their customer’s web surfing habits in response to all the negative press and criticism they’ve gotten over it, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t start again. The truth is they lied about their changes, made false claims about their new network being more stable and faster than the old one (it isn’t), and raised their prices prior to working out all the bugs in the system. To top it off if you don’t subscribe to their cable TV service then they charge you an additional $10 a month for the cable modem service and seeing as they dropped the one channel I had digital cable for (and then promptly raised the price) I had no reason to keep their cable service. I was already paying extra for 2 additional IP addresses (of which they lost one during the transition to the new network) so that all three of the PCs we have here could be on the net at once as it was easier than fiddling with an Internet router. Total all of that up and I was suddenly paying substantially more than I would for DSL for less features than I previously had with a company that was quickly proving it couldn’t be trusted. That’s why I switched from Comcast to Earthlink and am eagerly awaiting the deployment of WOW.

Incidently, almost a week and a half after I canceled my cable modem service and a full six weeks since I put in the trouble ticket, Comcast technical support finally called me back about getting me that third IP address I had been paying extra for and had lost during the transition. With such speedy service it’s no wonder they have to raise the price!

10 thoughts on “Comcast blues.

  1. Ah, the witty retort of the hopelessly non-courageous. Nary a reason as to why nor a smidgen of backbone to stand behind it. Still, you’re nothing if not amusing.

  2. I was already paying extra for 2 additional IP addresses (of which they lost one during the transition to the new network) so that all three of the PCs we have here could be on the net at once as it was easier than fiddling with an Internet router.

    Huh?? I mean, sure, I’d rather have the dedicated IPs, but, c’mon, setting up a router takes like 10 minutes from shrink-wrapped box to up-and-running (that’s how long it took me the first time I’d ever hooked one up). It’s also cheaper since you only pay for the router once.

    My nit-picking notwithstanding, Comcast’s tracking of individual surfers is Not Nice At All(tm) and they’d be rightly pilloried for it. It they can’t figure out the difference between that and aggregate tracking, they’re idiots. If they’re merely trying to pretend they don’t understand the difference, then they’re being disingenous and not doing a very good job of it.

  3. Routers have become a lot easier, but I had a tough time with the one I bought early on because I’m a gamer. It was a Netgear RT314 and it had a problem with GameSpy 3D’s pinging of servers where it seemed to think it was under attack and lock up. It would take a hardware reset of the router and the cable modem to get it working again. So out of frustration I dropped using a router altogether. Originally Media One wasn’t charging a heck of a lot more for 3 IPs so it wasn’t a big deal… until Comcast took over. Then the cost went up, etc..

    I’m using a router now even though Wide Open West provides 3 IP addresses as part of the standard cable modem service. I picked one up when I switched to DSL for a short while, ironically it was a used RT314 from a friend of mine (I sold mine to a friend once I stopped using it). The firmware for the RT314 has since been updated enough that it no longer has a problem with GameSpy’s pinging binge and that’s what we use today.

    Routers are a lot better than they used to be and the natural firewall protection they offer alone makes one worth it. I’m hoping to upgrade it in the not too distant future, possible to a wireless router so I can have the joy of learning how to properly secure a wireless network. grin

  4. Comcast is honesty-challenged.

    Before I signed up, I asked if they blocked any ports. The guy on the phone responded in a “you must be a criminal” tone. He said they would not block ports as long as you don’t spam or anything like that. They do block a few ports, both incoming and outgoing. They also actively sabotage incoming eMule connections. They don’t “block” them, they appear to monitor for them, and then actively destroy them with fake packets. 5 percent can get through, so eMule still works.

    Comcast is “make-sense”-challeneged.

    Comcast doesn’t support Linux. They require that you install their software on a Win or Mac box. Your connection will not work unless this software is installed and run once. After that, it isn’t needed at all. I never understood this. What information were they gathering? There must be easier ways to get it.

    Comcast is slower than advertised. This is the case with most broadband providers, but with Comcast, they can’t provide half the speed they advertise. Comcast has really high latency. Web pages take about 2 to 3 seconds to load, making it almost slower than dialup.

    Comcast has a monopoly on broadband in my area. I would go to DSL just for the lower price if possible.

    Thems my beefs with Comcast.

    -Rick

  5. As a former comcast installer, i totally agree with everything said here about their practices and their habits.  Just thought you’d like a touch of ‘official’ support.  I use them because I cannot stand the DSL options in my area, but Verizon had moved it’s FIOS network into the area around my place.  Keep you fingers crossed that my place is next.  Also, for you Linux users out there, the software is actually designed to update the modems firmware and unlock a block process that is enabled out of the box, however if you call tech support and wait the requisate 5 hours, you can have them ‘push’ those settings through from the far end.  Hope that helps all of you.

  6. (As Les will no doubt remove the spam quick explanation- prev post is link to site that will allow you to get around blocked sites at work)

    However I won’t be able to get to the site because it will be, er, blocked.

  7. Comcast has resumed this process. They do have a profile on each and every customer. With the changing of the internet laws they are using the information to ferret out individuals with known habbits. This can be a good thing, however, this just shows that our right to privacy and free speach is being eroded. If any of you has ever read “1984” the ruling party governs what information we see. Isn’t this the same case? A bunch of bleeding heart conservatives telling us what information and websites we can and can not view? Of all the bonehead mistakes that our government has made this ranks as one of the top along with the Patriot Act which was to be used to catch and ferret out terrorists but instead was turned on the public which our Government serves. Our Government serves us not us them. “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” and it has a name….Comcast

  8. What a whining weakling. You’re no longer a subscriber to Comcast and yet you’re now paying for a slower download server while remaining upset for what you got for your money when you were with Comcast.

    And joy joy, you get to use pejoratives so as to feel better about yourself, when people recognize you’re an idiot weakling still bitching about what no longer matters.

    One can’t help but wonder what information you collect from people who post here. IP address, etc… One never knows now days. It is the Net.

    Do grow up.

  9. lashkme wrote:

    when people recognize you’re an idiot weakling still bitching about what no longer matters.

    The irony of your comment, Lashkme, is that it comes some 9 years late. I wrote this entry back in 2002 and I’ve moved twice since then and have had three different ISPs in the process with the current one being AT&T U-Verse which has served me well so far. So I guess you’re the one who’s bitching about what no longer matters.

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