Nearly a year ago, a Silicon Valley startup called SmartCar signed up for Comcast Internet service. SmartCar founder and CEO Sahas Katta was moving the company into new office space in Mountain View, California, and there was seemingly no reason to think Comcast might not be able to offer him Internet access.
But Comcast never fulfilled its promise to hook up the business, blaming the delay on construction and permitting problems. Katta discovered that neighboring businesses were making do with painfully slow and unreliable DSL Internet from AT&T, and ultimately SmartCar reluctantly signed up for AT&T as well.
After hearing Comcast excuses for months, Katta finally got fed up and decided that he would find a new office building once his 12-month lease expires on April 20 of this year. Katta told Comcast he wanted to “cancel” his nonexistent service and get a refund for a $2,100 deposit he had paid. Instead, Comcast told him he’d have to pay more than $60,000 to get out of his contract with the company.
Comcast eventually waived the fee—but only after being contacted by Ars about the case. As for Katta, he can’t believe it’s “this difficult for startups in Silicon Valley to get Internet.”
False promise of availability
Katta’s Internet odyssey began on April 10, 2015 when he checked Comcast’s website to determine whether business Internet would be available at his company’s office in the Clyde Avenue Business Park. The website informed him, “Comcast Business is available at your address.” In fact, the website still provides that same message to this very day, albeit with some fine print that says customers have to “Call a Comcast sales representative to explain availability in your area.”
Over the next 10 days, Katta told Ars, he signed a lease for the new office space and spoke on the phone with two Comcast representatives. Each confirmed that SmartCar would be able to get Internet service.
The Comcast reps, according to Katta, offered him a specific deal—$189.90 a month for TV and Internet, with speeds of 100Mbps downstream and 20Mbps upstream. On April 20, Katta signed a two-year “Business Service Order Agreement” to get this exact package at that price. (Katta provided Ars a copy of the order, other documents, and e-mails between himself and Comcast.)
Meanwhile, SmartCar moved into the new office space. On April 22, Katta says he called Comcast and was told that the company needed to do a site survey to determine whether it could actually provide cable Internet. According to Katta, this was the first time he was told that service might not actually be available at the address.
The Comcast website’s plain statement that service is available at a particular address doesn’t actually mean service is available—that can only be determined after a survey, a Comcast spokesperson told Ars. Further, the “Business Service Order Agreement” isn’t a contract. Rather, it’s just an order that Comcast may or may not be able to fulfill after doing a site survey. If any Comcast representatives told Katta that service was definitely available at his address (as Katta maintains), they made a mistake, Comcast told Ars.
The answer came back via e-mail on April 24: “The pre-wire survey shows that your location is just outside of our Comcast service zone,” a Comcast salesperson told Katta. “It just is not a financial feasibility to run the coax cable close enough to bring you service. We have a model and this would not meet the Comcast ‘payback’ model. Comcast doesn’t have any future plans to do a build out there. I understand that this is not good news and I sincerely want to thank you for your interest.”
A second chance leads to more frustration
This surprised Katta given his previous conversations with Comcast reps and the statement on the Comcast website that “Comcast Business is available at your address.” But this wasn’t the end of Katta’s dealings with Comcast. After further discussions, Comcast told Katta the company would be able to deliver fiber Internet service—at a much higher price than cable. Construction was required to bring fiber to the building, and Comcast wanted Katta to sign a four-year contract and pay $1,050 a month for 100Mbps symmetrical Internet service.
“As we were already stuck in this lease, I had no option but to move forward,” Katta said.
Katta signed a contract for fiber in early May, and he says that a Comcast rep “promised me within 30 days of that date we would have Internet, and he said if there are any delays the longest term delivery is 90 to 120 days.”
That didn’t happen either. “Essentially since that point onwards, every two to three weeks they’ve been saying, ‘we’re getting permitting or we have some delay,’” Katta said.
Some of Comcast’s e-mails to Katta simply said, “No update this week.” In July, he was told, “we are still anticipating fiber placement and splicing in late September.” But in September, e-mails from Comcast discussed permit problems. “We are still pending the permit,” Comcast said at the time. “We have escalated to our permit manager for status.”
Later, Comcast told SmartCar, “the city of Mountain View will not let any cables be placed after construction until every piece of asphalt and concrete restoration is completed.” At this point, Comcast estimated construction would be finished in early November.
By January, Comcast told SmartCar that it was still “in the process of obtaining the final permit for the fiber pull.”
“We’re doing everything offline and going home to upload it”
Meanwhile, Katta and his five employees struggled with their AT&T DSL, which provides about 5Mbps download and 500kbps uploads. Besides being slow, it has poor uptime.
“It goes in and out almost every hour of the day, the Internet just goes down,” Katta said. “We are building a connected car cloud platform, everything we do is in the cloud. Currently, we’re doing everything offline and going home to upload it.”
With the lease expiring and Comcast service nowhere in sight, SmartCar sent a letter to Comcast on January 21 saying the company wished to terminate its contract. As noted earlier, Comcast then informed SmartCar that in order to cancel, it would have to pay $60,900.45 to cover construction costs.
Smartcar pleaded its case with Comcast throughout all of February and part of March without any success. That finally changed after Ars got in touch with Comcast’s public relations team. On March 9, a Comcast rep sent Katta an e-mail apologizing while waiving the $60,900.45 in fees. The letter promised a refund of the $2,100 deposit.
“Unfortunately, unique circumstances associated with city permitting in this case resulted in extreme delays,” Comcast’s e-mail to Katta said. “We do own the commitment to you from end-to-end and ultimately these [are] our challenges to resolve on your behalf… I thank you for SmartCar’s interest in a Comcast Business partnership, and I hope we have the ability to regain your trust at some point in the future.”
A Comcast spokesperson told Ars that there were “a series of delays” in the permitting and construction process “due to a high volume of other projects occurring in that area.” Though the project was never completed, Comcast incurred significant construction costs based on the assumption that SmartCar would be a customer for four years, Comcast said.
The Comcast spokesperson acknowledged that the company should not have demanded reimbursement of construction fees from Katta, since Comcast wasn’t able to fulfill its obligation within the original 90-day timeframe. The spokesperson also said Comcast’s website should be updated to make it clear that statements about availability at specific addresses aren’t necessarily accurate.
Katta is relieved about the final outcome and looking forward to finding new office space. But he’s still shocked at just how difficult it has been for a tech company to get modern Internet access.
“I can only imagine if it’s this difficult for startups in Silicon Valley to get Internet, it must be nearly impossible to start a business pretty much anywhere else in the country,” he said.