Saturday, October 11, 2008

Comcastic idiocy

There are many people in the world that know enough to be dangerous. They think they know it all, but really only know a little bit. Armed with that little bit of knowledge, they think everything is centered around what they know. And they apply it to everything they encounter that has anything to do with it. And they will put up an argument even against people that know a whole lot more than they do about it.

Fortunately, I don't encounter this kind of character too often.

Hopefully, the one I encountered today isn't a ham, and never tries to be one. Hopefully the written exam will filter out people like that.

I'm talking about an apparent manager at Comcast's customer service center.

My father and I are contemplating how to upgrade our TV service. It's a given that we are going to do it. The question is whether to upgrade the basic (minimum level) service we have with Comcast now, or to go with DishNet. For various reasons DirecTV has already been ruled out.

We have 4 TVs. Getting a cable box for all 4 TVs is out of the question. And I already hate Comcast's sad excuse for a set top box. DishNet's box is not perfect, either, but it is better. Comcast has only one channel favorite set, whereas DishNet's box has 4 favorite sets. The latter makes it easier for different members of the family to browse their favorite channels without having to skip through the ones they never watch. With so many channels in the lineup, and the digital boxes being slow, it's important when channel surfing to skip the ones you never care for. Comcast's set top box won't provide as good a service. Even if we get a box, the other TV sets won't have one since we're certainly not going to pay multiple for this extra cost. The DishNet box also does two other things that I like. It can receive over-the-air TV via a regular TV band antenna. It also includes two satellite tuners and can downconvert the channels on the 2nd tuner to standard definition TV and feed it to a 2nd TV set and control it via a UHF wireless remote control in another room. So we can get satellite TV programming on 2 TV sets for one box.

So I called Comcast to find out what TV programming will work without a box to see if Comcast might be able to be the better deal for me.

I spoke to 3 representatives at Comcast about this. They have apparently been trained to tell people they always need a box to get digital. What they apparently have not been trained about is the knowledge that it isn't digital that requires a box, but either that the TV is analog or that the digital signal is encrypted. I suspect this is a sales tactic to get people to accept their lousy box. But at least these first 3 representatives made it clear they don't really understand the technology. The 1st was a regular representative working from home. I congratulate Comcast for making it possible for people to do that. The 2nd was a supervisor. He quickly recognized I needed someone that knew more and transferred me to a manager, who was the 3rd. She also didn't have the technical knowledge to understand the difference between encrypted digital and unencrypted digital. She said there was a manager that did understand and I was transferred again.

Apparently this 4th person has been giving people a completely false impression of what she knows. She did seem to try to explain things. She knew more technical terms than the others. But that was basically the end of her technical knowledge. Unfortunately, she wasn't aware of it, or was blatantly lying. She tried to convince me that no TV set, not even the "digital cable ready TVs" could receive digital signals on any cable system. She also gave some other misapplied "facts" about cable TV technology that further showed her ignorance. And just when I was sure it couldn't get any worse, she tried to explain the over-the-air TV system to me. Actually, she had mixed that in a few times with other cable specific explanations.

Some of the wrong things she said could be explained by the fact that so many TV announcements about the digital TV conversion have errors in what they say. She said that the TV stations will switch to digital in February 2009. That's actually incorrect. All the TV stations in Pittsburgh that are required to shutdown analog in February 2009 are already transmitting in digital. Most are already transmitting in digital on the final channels they will be using, too. WQED is transmitting digital on 38 now and will switch back to 13 to replace the analog signal with digital on that same frequency. WQEX (owned by WQED) will move from channel 26 digital and take over channel 38, and shut off channel 16 (analog). The other major networks are keeping their digital frequencoes (KDKA moves from 2 to 25, WTAE moves from 4 to 51, WPXI moves from 11 to 48, WPGH moves from 53 to 43, and WPMY moves from 22 to 42).

ATSC (for over-the-air TV) will let you tune the station by their old channel number even though they have different frequencies for digital, and most will be staying on the different digital frequency.

But Comcast's little "Miss Engineering Expert" said that WPXI will be on channel 202. Oh, I think that's where their HD signal is on Comcast. But she said it was the same on over-the-air TV. I tried to explain to her that there are no over the air TV stations above channel 69. But she said it was on 202. I tried to explain to her that after February 17, 2009, there will be no full power TV stations (and very few low power or translator stations remaining) above channel 51. But she said it was on 202. I tried to explain to her that the ATSC digital TV system limits usable channel numbers to 1 through 99 (for channel identifying purposes). But she said it was on 202.

I tried to get her to call WPXI and talk to the engineering department there and find out. Since it was after 5 PM, she said she would call on Monday. I have my doubts.

She was also convinced that my digital TV user manual would tell me that I am wrong. I didn't even get to tell her I'm a ham radio operator, but I suppose she would then tell me that CB has nothing to do with TV.

You can find out for yourself what WPXI's digital channel is here.

At least she never used any foul language. I had that happen with some other kinds of customer rep people I've called before. She was very argumentative, insisting that she knew all this engineering stuff, yet had nothing more to say that was correct than any of the other reps have said. She insisted I was wrong, but she had no real way to know one way or the other.

But I guess that even though Comcast does a couple things right in the CSR department (lets some work from home, and apparently has them well trained to never use foul language), they don't follow the principle "the customer is always right" (for what that's worth). I'm sure most of their customers don't know this stuff. Clearly the CSRs don't know it. But they don't let customers talk to those who do (but then, those that do would not want to talk to most of the customers).

But it looks like Comcast is about to lose another customer due to one person's arrogance. If she had just said "I don't know this engineering stuff" I'd have nothing to blame her for. But how much can I trust Comcast CSRs now? Will I get similar lies when I might have to call in to get some troubles corrected?

I'll wait until next week. But it looks more and more like I'll be having a dish installed.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

ARRL warns hams about background check

ARRL president Joel Harrison, W5ZN, has issued a statement warning hams, especially members of ARES, to be cautious about what information and authorization they give when processing a Red Cross criminal background check online through MyBackgroundCheck.com. After checking this out, I think I will be a bit more than cautious; I won't even go through that site at all (if I were to ever be volunteering for anything associated with the Red Cross). The problem the ARRL is pointing out is that MyBackgroundCheck.com wants more information than is necessary for a background check. They also want authorization to obtain your credit report and to investigate other aspects of your private life. The concern is that the more places that end up handling your private information, the more chance there is of identity theft. I have to agree with that concern.

I am also concerned about other issues. The web site for MyBackgroundCheck.com runs on Microsoft Windows. While not every web site running on Windows is insecure, the chance of there being insecurity is substantially greater when it is Windows for various reasons ranging from known exploits in Windows itself to lack of awareness of all the details of Windows internals that prevails among Windows administrators.

What makes me particularly concerned about this site is the fact that they require Microsoft Internet Explorer be used to complete the process. This raises two issues for me. One is that web programming that requires a specific browser indicates less knowledgeable developers involved in the process. If the web developers are this limited, maybe the other developers behind the scenes may also be similarly limited. I simply have no way of knowing for sure, but it doesn't look good. The other issue is that this requires the user to expose their private and confidential data directly on their own, by having to run Explorer as well as Windows since Explorer won't run on a system like Linux.

Until these issues get properly addressed, my recommendation is to consider not performing this process at all. That may mean you cannot volunteer in areas directly involving the Red Cross. But ultimately it is your choice.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tuning Up

The KA9WGN blog begins today. This will be one of my outlets and voices about ham radio, more officially known as amateur radio.

I've been rather inactive in ham radio for a few years. But I think it's time to get active again. I should have earlier, but now is better than not at all.

My big interest in ham radio, and radio in general, is the technology of it. My interests cover a few areas like VHF/UHF/SHF, and new methods of modulation. I also have some interests in more challenging HF bands like 160 meters and 10 meters, though much of that will have to wait until I upgrade from Tech to Extra.

This blog will cover any aspect of ham radio I feel a need to say something about. That can cover anything from new technology, to ham politics, to legal affairs.