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Some Support Gripes

11% of ISP customers whove had a billing problem say it was never resolved.
The majority of our survey respondents said that they were satisfied with their ISP's customer and technical support. (AOL, Charter, and Comcast were the only ISPs to receive below-average customer service scores.) And less than 20 percent of respondents reported ever experiencing a billing problem with their ISP. People who have had billing problems, however, tended to be dissatisfied with how the problem was resolved.

Customer service mishaps can include technical issues too. Just ask David Ferrera, 58, a Comcast customer in Halethorpe, Maryland. When his cable modem died last December, Ferrera received a new one from Comcast. But the new modem wouldn't connect to the Internet. When Ferrera phoned Comcast support, he says, Comcast instructed him to call Dell, his PC manufacturer. He did. Dell told him Comcast was to blame.

At one point during the two-day ordeal, Comcast came up with a solution that proved disastrous. "They walked me through a procedure that made my computer unstable," says Ferrera, a dispatcher for an intermodal transportation company who pays about $50 a month for a 5-mbps connection. Things worsened; Ferrera had to reformat his hard drive to get his computer to work. "I was ballistic, I was going nuts, I was going to lose all my data," he says.

After additional calls, including a three-way summit connecting Comcast, Dell, and Ferrera, the source of the problem was revealed: "The people at Comcast's customer service center hadn't registered the new modem, so I couldn't access the server," he says. "That was the only thing wrong." Luckily, he was able to recover much of his data, but only because he had recently upgraded from an older PC, which still had most of what he needed. (Comcast earned a rating of below average for its technical support.)

Comcast officials, citing customer privacy issues, declined to comment on Ferrera's case. However, they did state that Comcast is working to improve its customer relations by hiring new support personnel, extending service hours on both weekdays and weekends, and adding new support features such as online chat.

Despite his support woes, Ferrera is mostly satisfied with his Comcast broadband service, which he has had for seven years. Then again, his options are limited: DSL and FiOS aren't available in his area.

Overall, about half of our small-business and home respondents reported being satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality of their service provider's technical support, indicating that there's room for improvement on the vendor side.

EarthLink user Robinson says his view of his ISP's customer support is "less than admirable," even though he praises the reliability of his broadband connection. "When I run into a situation where I've got a little problem, like I can't access my DSL line for whatever reason, my frustration begins to build," he says. (In our survey, EarthLink DSL received average ratings for connection reliability and tech support.)

"I feel like I am being walked through a preprogrammed list of let's-check-everything-on-your-computer," Robinson adds.

In contrast, Carol Falconer, 64, an Omaha, Nebraska, customer of the highly rated Cox, says she's had very few problems. "And when I have, I call them up, and they don't make you feel stupid. They answer your questions and, bingo, it's taken care of."

Customer support is not the only area in serious need of improving: Only a third of small-business and home respondents gave their ISPs high satisfaction marks for blocking spam.

Despite problems, about three-fourths of home and small-business respondents said they're "not very likely" or "extremely unlikely" to switch ISPs within the next six months.

Chart: Fiber-Optics Users Are Most Satisfied

Though fiber-optics users are happiest, they don't pay the most for their service. Cable users are generally satisfied, but express the most disparity in satisfaction regarding their ISPs' download and upload speeds. Click the icon below to see the satisfaction scores for each connection type.

Connection Type Average monthly bill Percentage satisfied or extremely satisfied with:
Overall service Connection reliability Download speed Upload speed
Broadband power-line $35 64 63 69 65
Cable $47 66 68 75 61
Dial-up $15 44 57 16 16
DSL $32 65 70 64 54
Fiber $37 87 89 92 82
Fixed wireless $39 61 63 60 50
Satellite $65 40 49 33 33
Source: Survey of 6463 PC World readers and visitors, between April 26 and May 10, 2007.
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