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New customer service survey says Comcast is no longer the worst

Rob Pegoraro
New customer service survey says Comcast is no longer the worst

There’s a new installment of a landmark survey of Americans’ opinions of their corporate overlords, and it brings some moderately shocking news: Comcast is no longer the internet provider and TV service we hate the most.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index’s latest findings, released Wednesday, reveal that telecom customers quizzed by this project of the University of Michigan still feel kind of blue about their internet access and subscription-TV services. But the Philadelphia cable giant no longer leads their enemies lists.

Local monopolies still make people angry

The ACSI has been collecting this customer data since 1994, and for most of that time subscription-TV services have ranked among the most-disliked firms — with Comcast (CMCSA) among the lowest of the low.

Although it doesn’t have the honor of racking up the lowest-ever score in this sector — Charter (CHTR) earned a pitiable score of 51 out of 100 in 2009 and Time Warner Cable (TWC) tied that last year — it was worst or second-worst every year from 2002 through 2015, when its score of 54 represented zero progress over 2008’s dismal performance.

This time, things have changed: With a score of 62, Comcast now stands in the middle of the bracket. It’s not as liked as Verizon’s (VZ) Fios, with a score of 70, but its TV service appears a good deal better than that of Charter (60), Cox (59), Time Warner Cable (TWC) (59) and Mediacom (54).

(The funny thing there is that if you hate cable boxes, Comcast is better choice than Verizon: It will give you a CableCard for a TiVo DVR for free instead of charging $5 a month, and it’s further along in allowing box-free viewing via smart-TV apps.)

In internet providers, which only fell under the ACSI’s gaze starting in 2013, Comcast ended a three-year losing streak by earning a score of 59. That’s still borderline horrible but beats Mediacom (57) and Frontier Communications (FTR) (56). That last firm has been in the news lately for making a mess of the Verizon Fios markets it bought; Fios itself, meanwhile, again topped the category with a score of 73.

Comcast, the nation’s largest TV and internet firm and alsoa frequent winner of Consumerist’s “Worst Company in America” award, has been talking a good game about improving its customer service for the past few years. These numbers suggest the company’s attempts to overcome a cringe-inducing series of customer-abuse stories are finally paying off. They also invite the question of how badly the company might have fared in the ACSI had it been allowed to buy TWC and then spend a year with the usual case of merger indigestion.

Comcast does, however, remain ACSI respondents’ least-favorite source of fixed-line phone service, with a score of 64. Their favorite is not a traditional phone company of any sort, but the internet-calling firm Vonage (VG), which earned a 78.

Wireless phone service doesn’t enrage you as much

The ACSI’s new findings also covered wireless phone service, and those figures provide far less ground for customer rage: The worst among them, Sprint (S), had a score of 70 that represented a dramatic jump from last year’s 65 or its 2008 nadir of 56. That was also just below the industry-wide average of 71.

T-Mobile (TMUS) had almost as big of an increase to lead the big four wireless carriers with its 74 score, although the reseller TracFone Wireless did even better with a score of 75. Verizon and AT&T (T) tied at 71 each.

Wireless phone service differs from internet access and subscription TV in a few key ways. The hardware required to use it doesn’t just represent some formidable engineering but is also often a pleasure to use, something few people would say of the cable modems, WiFi routers or pay-TV boxes. Service plans also keep getting cheaper, such that holding on to an old plan can become financially foolish.

But the most important thing here is that in wireless, we have genuine competition. The big four carriers, unlike most wireline internet and TV services, can’t hide inside regional or local monopolies. They have to work to get your business — sometimes by making offers they later regret.

As the press release’s headline blandly states: “ACSI Telecom Report Shows Competitive Industries Have Higher Customer Satisfaction.”

Consider this yet another data point verifying what a huge favor the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice did us when they quashed AT&T’s dream of buying T-Mobile, then gave Sprint enough dirty looks to discourage it from its also-awful ambitions of purchasing T-Mo.

None of this means that even wireless carriers can start to slack off. Smartphones — another fiercely competitive market — positively shine in the ACSI compared to the services they run on. Apple (AAPL) came away with a score of 81, with Samsung just behind at 80. We’re still a long way from being able to call anybody the iPhone of pay-TV or internet service.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.