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Originally published December 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 7, 2007 at 3:41 PM

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Corrected version

Comcast's response to storm draws criticism

Days before the storm hit Dec. 14, Sean Wilsen, of Issaquah, called his employers on the East Coast and told them he might be out of power...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Days before the storm hit Dec. 14, Sean Wilsen, of Issaquah, called his employers on the East Coast and told them he might be out of power for a little while.

That was a big deal to Wilsen, who works in the travel industry from his home office.

"I thought at the worst it would be a day if I was very unlucky," said Wilsen.

His power came back on after three days. His telephone, cable and Internet service — all carried on Comcast lines — was another story.

Wilsen was one of 500,000 to 600,000 Comcast customers who lost service during the storm. Although he was reconnected Dec. 22, Wilsen said, he called Comcast about a dozen times and wasn't happy about the experience: "I've had all sorts of drama with them."

As of Tuesday, Comcast continued to work through 2,500 storm-related calls for service, said Walter Neary, a company spokesman.

For safety reasons, Comcast said, repair crews cannot begin fixing lines until power companies have finished their work. Sometimes, power was restored to homes and businesses days before cable service because crucial transmission equipment or lines were damaged.

"It's a little frustrating, we totally understand that," he said. "We continue to have discussions on how to do things differently. But it was a significant ... disaster."

The Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission does not review consumer complaints about Comcast, or any cable, Internet and phone service provider. But anecdotally, numerous customers report frustrations with the company's response.

And Qwest Washington, the region's biggest provider of telephone service, sent Comcast a cease-and-desist letter Tuesday after Comcast customers on Mercer Island reported that Comcast operators were blaming continued outages there on Qwest, which did not have widespread disruptions.

Qwest telephone lines are separate from Comcast cable, said Qwest spokeswoman Shasha Richardson.

"We take this very seriously and we want our customers to have accurate information," she said.

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Neary said he was unaware of the complaint and could not comment.

Philadelphia-based Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, has 1.2 million customers in Washington. The company estimated that the storm-damaged cable lines and equipment at more than 4,000 locations from Bellingham to Aberdeen.

Comcast and its contractors had more than 100 extra people working on Christmas, with some reinforcements from Spokane.

To handle customer calls, Comcast added staff to call centers in Everett and Fife. In a prepared statement, Comcast said it "enlisted the help of an experienced Comcast call-center vendor to handle the overflow of calls.

In all, the company has nearly 1,000 customer-service representatives answering calls from Washington customers."

Mike Halliday, of Bellevue, said Comcast's customer service added to his frustrations.

His power was back Dec. 18. As of Christmas Day, he still had no cable, Internet or phone service.

"They don't quite comprehend that people's lives depend on them," Halliday said.

Neary was sympathetic to the complaints, but said it is often hard for the cable company to predict which areas it will be able to fix next.

"The challenge is the situation is in a great deal of flux," he said. "Rather than give people false reassurances, we had to make the best calls."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published December 27, 2006, was corrected January 7, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly suggested that the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission reviews consumer complaints about cable, Internet and phone service providers. A spokeswoman incorrectly stated it was the proper governmental agency to receive complaints. Instead, consumers unhappy with Comcast or other such providers should contact their city of residence, which awards cable contracts and is responsible for quality and service. Consumers may also contact the state Attorney General's Office.

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