May 31, 2013

Comcast Investigates Failure of Back-up Plan After Widespread Outage Angered Lowcountry Customers

David Slade  /  Post & Courier

Blackout Fallout: Comcast's Business Customers Irate

Following a 10-hour Comcast outage that shut down Internet, phone and television service for customers across the Charleston area Wednesday, business owners were fuming and thinking about contingency plans.

"The loss of commerce from that incident, to me, it's unconscionable, and this community's owed an explanation," said Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor and the city's director of business development.

Comcast has provided few details about the outage, and won't say how many customers lost service, or whether customers could receive refunds or statement credits. Comcast's service was out from Goose Creek to Mount Pleasant to Walterboro, from roughly noon to 10 p.m.

Shannon E. Dulin, Comcast's senior manager for government and regulatory affairs, said "a fiber optic cable owned by another communications company was severed by construction crews doing work on a bridge along U.S. Highway 17 south of Charleston."

Andrew Barrett, portfolio manager and partner at Family Asset Management in Charleston, said the company had switched from AT&T service because Comcast promised reliability. But on Wednesday the company had to use a secondary location with AT&T service, after Comcast went dark.

"We were forced to execute a contingency plan that we have that allowed us to perform critical functions," Barrett said. "It was very disruptive." "If we have a contingency plan to deal with this, why doesn't Comcast?" he said.

Dulin said Comcast did have a back-up circuit, but it failed as well. "We are fully investigating the root causes of the redundancy failure and taking the necessary steps to avoid this occurring in the future," she said.

For those with bundled services –- where phone, Internet and television all come through one provider –- the outage knocked out most ways of communicating electronically.

"You can only imagine the lost revenue and the panic with restaurants, bars, hotels and such who rely on this cable service and had to take credit cards on the faith that the funds were available," said Mitchell Crosby of JMC Charleston, in an email to clients and vendors.

Crosby said his event- planning company had no phone, email, Internet, fax, or credit card processing throughout the afternoon and evening.

The incident was a black eye for Comcast, which struggled for years to overcome a reputation for poor customer service, and for Charleston, which has been touting itself as a new hub for high-tech companies.

"If we are positioning ourselves to be a tech center for the Southeast, these are issues that need to be investigated and explained," Andrade said. "I think Comcast has got to be a little more proactive."

Charleston's Flagship business incubator building on East Bay Street was hit by the outage, and Andrade said the experience will have them looking into back-up systems.

Examining business vulnerabilities and making contingency plans is what Scott Cave does as principal and lead consultant at Atlantic Business Continuity Services in Charleston. He suggested that businesses examine key vendor services, think about how long they could do without them, and figure out what they would do if there were a more lengthy disruption.

"We went through that type of analysis eight years ago," Cave said. "We brought in a secondary Internet connection and invested in a device to switch between the two. "When Comcast went down, it redirected all of our traffic over to that secondary connection," he said. "Most of our employees didn't notice a difference."

At Blue Ion, a Charleston website design and interactive marketing agency, off-site servers, a Wi-Fi connection and a contingency plan to reroute phone calls helped to deal with the Comcast outage.

Rich Yessian, part owner of Blue Ion, says the Comcast outage did not affect the company that much because of backup precautions they had made. Of course, for those who were not relying upon Comcast to begin with, Wednesday's outage was no big deal, and some businesses even benefited. When the system is down, any call to the main number is getting rerouted to our cellphones," said Blue Ion partner Rich Yessian.

"We had an influx of people come in to watch the hockey game, the basketball game and use the Internet," said Derek Zito, general manager at the King Street Grille. "We beat last year's numbers."

Some restaurants reported problems with online reservations, phone service and credit card processing. "If it wasn't for the Internet, we wouldn't be able to run credit cards," said Kili Wern, manager of Sermet's Corner. "You don't realize how important the Internet is until it's out."

Want a refund?

Comcast won't say if customers can get partial refunds or statement credits because of wednesday's service outage, but here's how to ask for one: Email or log into your Comcast account online and live-chat with a customer service representative.

Brendan Kearney and Nicholas Watson contributed to this report. Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.