Bamboozled August 21, 2017: Is cable company’s pricing policy unfair?

Marty and Denise Pine thought they would receive a seasonal bill for service after notifying Comcast that they would be away from home for three months. Comcast confirmed the pricing, but later said the couple wasn’t qualified for the offer because of the location of their home. (Noah Murray/For NJ Advance Media

Leaving behind cold winters for the warmth of Florida is the dream of many New Jerseyans.

To be a snowbird.

Last winter, that dream came true for Marty and Denise Pine. The couple did it for the first time, spending December, January and February in Florida.

Before they left, the Middlesex County contacted all of their utilities to get so-called seasonal rates for the months they’d be away. They didn’t want to pay for services they weren’t using.

One of the companies they called was Comcast/Xfinity, to whom they normally pay $235 per month for bundled television, phone and internet service.

“The representative was understanding and said Comcast/Xfinity had a seasonal plan we qualified for,” Marty Pine said. “They would therefore reduce the rate to $30 a month, if that was okay with me, while maintaining our services at a minimum level.”

“That sounded more than reasonable to me,” Pine said, and he signed on.

Pine said they paid $30 the first month, but then the couple received a bill from Comcast for $430. It included a late fee and advance billing for the next month.

“Calling customer service, I was told that billing had decided we didn’t qualify for a seasonal plan based on where we lived and therefore the $30 per month was invalid and we owed the full amount,” Pine said.

Over the next several months, Pine said, the couple called Comcast weekly to argue the bill, each time speaking to a different representative. The reps didn’t appear to check the notes from previous calls, Pine said.

“The weekly process would have us connected to call centers in the Philippines where we would describe the situation, usually after 15 to 20 minutes on hold,” Pine said. “The call center staff, while courteous, was unable to help us. They would transfer us to a supervisor.”

Pine said he would then spend another 10 to 15 minutes on hold, and when the supervisor would come on, he’d explain the situation again, he said. Each time, the supervisor would say there was nothing that could be done, he said.

Finally Pine was transferred to a supervisor’s supervisor, this one stateside. The rep said it would be looked into and Pine would receive a call back.

“No one ever called back,” Pine said. “As this sequence went on every week our frustration grew.”

During these calls, one rep suggested it would be cheaper to cancel the contract and pay the cancellation and reconnect fee, Pine said, noting that made no sense to the couple.

Another rep said if the couple lived “on the Jersey shore” and asked for seasonal rates, Comcast could honor the pricing, Pine said. Their town in Middlesex County wasn’t eligible, Pine said he was told.

“I don’t understand why if we lived on the Jersey shore we would be eligible, but not in [our town],” he said. “We were gone for three months, 89 days, yet we had to pay the full amount monthly.”

After more than 17 hours on the phone and their return to New Jersey, they negotiated a $140 fee per month for the months when their home was empty. When the math was done, they said they paid $420 for services they never used.

Pine said he figured it was better than nothing, but that he’s afraid they will encounter the same frustration when they return to Florida this winter.

“I consider this discriminatory, unreasonable and unfair,” Pine said. “We hope you can help us and other unfortunate snowbirds from Central Jersey.”

SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL

We reached out to Comcast to learn more about its seasonal pricing plans.

While we waited for a response, we asked other providers about their seasonal pricing policies.

Verizon said it offers seasonal suspension for all copper and FiOS customers in all areas, but cost varies based on your services.

“The FiOS vacation suspend rates are the same for all states,” said Paul Sullivan, vice president of national operations for Verizon. “Only copper voice vacation suspend rates vary per state.”

The seasonal rates vary depending on what service a customer has. For example, if you have a FiOs bundle of TV, internet and voice, you would pay a $50 fee for the suspension, and that would cover four months of time. For another $9.99, you could suspend for an additional five months.

The fees are even cheaper for copper services.

Next we turned to Optimum, which is owned by Altice.

The company said it offers seasonal pricing to all customers in all areas, and the cost varies by service.

For example, it would cost $15 per month for basic video access, $4.95 a month for webmail access, and $4.95/month to maintain phone number, a spokeswoman said.

Now, back to Comcast, and the real question: Why would it only allow vacation suspends for residents of certain areas of New Jersey when other providers offer such rates to all customers?

Comcast confirmed that only some of its customers are eligible for seasonal rates. That’s because, the company said, there isn’t a huge demand from other communities. The seasonal pricing is only offered for what the company determines are “Jersey shore towns” in Ocean, Monmouth, Atlantic and Cape May counties.

That surely doesn’t sound fair.

We asked the Board of Public Utilities if Comcast could offer the service to some customers and make it unavailable to others.

“Under federal law, the Board can allow, but not require Comcast to offer a seasonal service option or some other reduced rate option or service promotion to its customers,” a spokesman said.

In fact, the board doesn’t have the regulatory authority to oversee company decisions regarding service package offerings, discount offerings, promotions and the terms of the particular package or offers, the spokesman said.

That would be the feds.

So we turned to the Federal Communication Commission, but it didn’t respond to our request in time for publication.

But we did get good news from Comcast. It said it would honor the $30 monthly rate the Pines were mistakenly offered and credit their account for their overpayments.

“Comcast is making every effort to consistently create the best possible customer experience and make it easy to do business with us. In this case, we fell short of that expectation,” a spokeswoman said. “We will coach our employee to ensure the correct information is shared to help customers find the right option available to meet their seasonal needs.”

So while the Pines are not eligible for the seasonal rate, the company said the couple could pare back their packages for the months they’re away so they would have lower fees — just not the same low rate for which shore residents qualify.

Marty Pine said if he cut back services, it would cost him about $80 per month for next winter’s snowbird months.

That’s something, we guess.

We’re glad Comcast honored the rate the Pines were quoted, but we think it should go a step further.

It should change its policy to treat all customers the same, just like other providers do.

Don’t you think?

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