The above chart will be a rude awakening for anyone who thought that the United States was the leader–or even one of the leaders–when it comes to high-speed broadband Internet. To others of us, it won’t be a surprise. Let me share with you my own story of trying to acquire broadband in one of the most technologically advanced areas of the United States: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along the way, you’ll learn about the dire state of affairs in the US cable industry, spawned by an unwillingness to make long-term investments–and how social media can sometimes bring attention to the warts on a large company that fundamentally doesn’t value communication.
A few weeks back at a local Boston Tweetup, someone told me that someone at Comcast was blazing a new path through social media, raising the level of transparency and customer service at the stumbling, dissatisfaction-oriented behemoth.
This interested me because a couple months before, my company (GamerDNA) had a terrible experience with Comcast–a maze of people who didn’t seem to know each other, an ordering process that seemed more in-line with getting a telephone in the 1950’s, and a large number of people who didn’t seem to care. You see, all we were interested in doing was getting a Comcast Cable Internet connection for our company, a high-tech dot-com in the heart of Central Square. If you walk one way down our street, you run into Harvard Yard; if you walk the other way, you run into MIT. Surrounding us are other high-tech companies like Harmonix… and in our own building, there’s also a business intelligence software company and a videogame controller company.
This isn’t exactly 1998 anymore, nor are we stuck in a rural hinterland. We’re smack in the center of two of the world’s great universities, on a main street, with laboratories and high-tech startups surrounding us–many of which have Comcast cable. One block over, one of our employees has Comcast in his apartment. As a matter of historical information, the Internet was *invented* by BBN, right here in Cambridge, MA.
We initially failed to get Comcast to even return our calls regarding broadband installation at our building, and I’d given up two months earlier. When I heard that Comcast was monitoring Twitter, I posted “Comcast sucks” and, sure enough, I was contacted by Comcast within an hour. Initially I was encouraged. I assumed that prior issues were just a sympton of a poor installation contractor, and that it would be easy to get Comcast to install broadband in the heart of Cambridge.
Failing to make Broadband Investments
Turns out it isn’t. In the process of dealing with Comcast, I’ve learned:
- A lot of things about the sad state of US telecommunications infrastructure
- Some lessons about what social media will and will not fix
First, let me state that I think Frank Eliason (who goes by “comcastcares” on Twitter) is an amazing individual. I’d like to salute him for his attempts to get Comcast brought into the world of 2008. This isn’t a critique of what he’s accomplished, and I’m sure that there are ample cases where he’s helped out Comcast customers.
Look at the chart that I began this article with. The United States is trailing almost every industrialized nation with respect to broadband Internet speed. This is a horrible condition for the country that brought the Internet to the world.
Comcast isn’t helping things. I’d be amongst the first person to argue that it’s up to each business to decide what’s worth their time–if they don’t want to spend the money, then so be it. It’s a free country, and a free market. Fair enough… So I’ll put it in terms that every red-blooded capitalist in America should be able to understand: shareholders should be alarmed by the fact that Comcast isn’t willing to make long-term investments like running high-speed lines into multi-tenant commercial buildings located on a main street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. How will they be competitive long-term?
Maybe it is this very competitiveness that’s the problem. Verizon makes DSL available (a lower speed, but marginally acceptable alternative). At home, I have Verizon FIOS, which is blazingly fast–but unfortunately, the speed of FIOS rollout in most communities has been slow. However, I’m confident that FIOS (or a similar high-speed competitor) will eventually make it to Cambridge. Maybe a savvy shareholder of Comcast will pressure them to step-up-to-the-plate and make their service available before this happens. Or maybe another company entirely step in where the incumbents are failing.
High-speed Internet is important. It’s vital for the United States economy, for the providing a distribution channel for new media and businesses, and for education.
Lessons for Social Media Evangelists
Earlier, I mentioned that this was also a lesson in what social media can and can’t do. Social media–be it Twitter, Facebook–or, I daresay, GamerDNA–will provide wonderful transparency and connect your business with real people in a way that nothing else can. But that same transparency will simply expose the ugliness within your organizations. I spent a few weeks chasing and responding to emails, only to find that:
- Social media can’t end a corporate culture that’s accustomed to passing-the-buck to faceless departments and individuals who can’t be contacted, won’t communicate, and won’t provide conclusive decisions. Giving your company a heart will need to start from the people in the trenches.
- Social media at a large company doesn’t seem to have any impact on the people who are really concerned about long-term shareholder value: the CEO, the Board of Directors, and the like…unless they are going to get involved themselves. Otherwise, it’s just another function buried in a customer service organization. Smart companies are going to start using social media to detect trends and make significant investments.
Sorry, Frank. I really do think you care. But Comcast doesn’t. And perhaps Comcast’s shareholders don’t care either.
I hope this experience will act as a wake-up for any company that’s thinking that social media is simply the latest marketing-consultanty, paradigm-shifting, “out-of-the-box” solution-oriented total-quality-improvement bandaid for their companies. Social media is here to stay; it was enabled by the Internet, but as a cultural phenomena it’s going to be bigger than the Internet itself. The wake-up is simple: social media can be a blazing beacon of trust, but if the rest of your company still doesn’t care, that beacon will also burn.