Fun with Charter Customer Support, Part Two

I figured I should follow up on my post from Saturday, filling in the rest of the story. To recap I’d lost three HD channels on my cable – 734 AETVHD, 735 HISTORYHD, and 742 MOJOHD. I think I failed to mention last time that I’d also been experiencing some pixelation on some of my SD digital channels as well, for the past couple of weeks. It wasn’t as big of an issue since it was mostly on channels I never watch. The only one that got me was IFC, since I record Speed Grapher and Witchblade on Friday nights. But even then it seemed to only pixelate on one tuner of my S3, the other tuner worked OK and the cable box on the bedroom S2 would work OK as well. So I wasn’t sure if it was the cable or the TiVo, and I hadn’t had time to really look into it.

Since this is long, I’ll cut it.

On Saturday around 14:00 I got a call from Charter’s automated system asking me to confirm my appointment and, once I had, informing me that the technician’s expected time of arrival would be between 14:30 and 15:30. The window was 13:00 to 15:00. Not bad at all for a cable appointment, IMHO. The tech showed up around 15:00.

She was a little nervous once I filled her in, because she apparently had never worked with CableCARD and wasn’t sure about them. As I’ve repeatedly said, cable MSOs need to train their field techs better. She was polite and professional, which I will say just about all the Charter techs I’ve worked with have been, and determined to figure things out. As it turned out, she had her work cut out for her.

After my original post I had a brainwave and used the TiVo’s internal diagnostics to check on the signal strength. I probably would’ve thought of that earlier if I hadn’t been running on three hours sleep since Thursday. (I’m crazy/stupid like that – I ended up staying up after my nap Friday afternoon until about 05:30 – Sunday. Including going out to the bar Saturday night. I have no body clock.) Sure enough, all of my channels were showing a low strength. Where I used to get 80s and 90s – and even 98-100 on some channels – I was getting mid-50s, some 60s. And 0 on the three channels that were out. Which, interestingly enough, were all on the same frequency, 735000KHz. Which is interesting because Charter runs a 750MHz system in my area, which means that’s one of the highest frequencies, and if the high end was being attenuated it would be one of the first to go. In fact, I believe it is the highest frequency used on the channels I receive, so it’d be the first to go for me. And the CableCARD diagnostics showed no channel or frequency lock, and the modulation kept flipping between QAM64 and QAM256 – when it should be QAM256 – which basically meant the signal was too weak for it to lock on and tell.

So when the tech arrived I already suspected that it had nothing to do with the CableCARDs and everything to do with the signal. Well, I was pretty much sure of it, I’d suspected it all along since I’ve had my cards get de-paired before and the symptoms were different.

She checked my signal – and sure enough, it was way low. First she checked it off the 4-way splitter I have feeding the TiVo (TiVo Series3, Pioneer DVR-810H (TiVo Series2), TV, and Slingbox PRO) and thought maybe the splitter was bad. But she checked from the wall and it was low there. Still, she replaced the RCA splitter I had with one from Charter to be sure. And she replaced the pass-through on the wall plate. But it didn’t bring it up by much really, certainly not enough.

So then it was outside, where she re-did the splitter in the drop-box. My house has been remodeled a few times, and was even a day care center for five years or so, so there are unused drops, old wires, etc. I’m only using two drops now, living room and bedroom, so she cleaned up the distribution. But even then the signal was low. And she determined that it was low coming off the pole.

So up the pole she went. Turns out the drop from the pole to my house was bad. The insulation had been worn, or maybe chewed, off in places and water had gotten into the line. So she ran a new drop from the pole into the box. Signal strengths on most channels went from mid-50s to high 60s, and that fixed the pixelation issues. But the three HD channels were still dead. She felt the signal strength was low, but within acceptable ranges. So she suspected something with the cards was not right, that maybe they weren’t mapping the channel to the right frequency or something. And she turned the issue over to the head end CableCARD guy. She took my card info – serial, host ID, etc, and called it in. And the head end said it would take a half an hour or so to check on things and they’d call me. So she left, thinking that was it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The office did call me back as promised, but the problem wasn’t resolved. So they booked a second visit for Sunday morning, between 08:00 and 12:00. I almost missed the appointment because, as I said, I’d been awake from about 17:30 Friday until 05:30 Sunday. I thought about trying to just stay up for the appointment, but my body decided it would really like some sleep now, thank you very much. So I set my alarm for 07:30 and thought I’d take a short nap.

Around 11:00 I woke up. My alarm was still set and on, I can only believe I must’ve been pressing snooze every nine minutes in my sleep. My alarm is right under a window, which was open, so that must have been annoying/amusing to my neighbors, who were having a yard sale and were just outside all morning. I was still pretty exhausted and I ended up just laying there half asleep until someone was banging on my door, around 11:30 I think. Fortunately my neighbor is a nice guy and he knew I was home. The Charter tech, a guy this time, had knocked but I didn’t hear (I probably dozed off) and was going to leave, but my neighbor, knowing I was inside, banged on the door which roused me.

So I filled in this tech on the story so far, and he took readings, and felt the signal levels were way too low. So he went around taking more readings, and decided the cable run from the box to the set might be the issue. You couldn’t get the TV further from the box – the box is on the right-front corner of the house, the TV is in the left-rear corner. So the cable runs down the side of the house, then across the back. He replaced that entire run with new cable – and signal levels on most channels jumped to high-70s. And the three dead channels came back! Huzzah! But they have signal strength in the low-50s, like around 52, sometimes sitting right at 50. So I feel they’re borderline.

The tech feels that the signal strength is too low, even from the pole. And once you add in the long run and the splitter, it is marginal. So they’ve done everything they can in the house, and he said he’ll call it in as a line issue. Since there was water in my drop line, he feels water probably infiltrated the drop on the pole and that could be why all my signal strengths are lower. And it is spring in New England, which means rain, and a lot of it. So it makes sense that water could have infiltrated the line on the pole. At this point I don’t have to be involved, since it is a line issue they don’t need to get into the house. They can come around and check out the lines on the pole and my drop whenever they want.

The whole visit is a little hazy, I think he was gone by 14:00 and I crashed again and didn’t get up until after 22:00. I really needed that sleep.

So I have the channels back, for now at least. But my signal is definitely being attenuated right from the drop. Hopefully they’ll be able to sort that out and boost my signal strength so I have more margin before they cut out. There are other drops available on the pole, so they could switch me to another one if it comes to that.

Both techs were professional and polite, and did their best to figure out the issue. And I was surprised to get appointments so quickly, and on a holiday weekend to boot. Part of me wonders if they have me flagged in their system now after the fiasco last time. Which I didn’t blog about, BTW, because it involved the install for the TiVo HD which I had before the release to review. I didn’t want to blog about anything to do with the HD, even if I didn’t reveal it specifically, just to be safe rather than sorry with the NDA I was under.

But my experience with their online support system, detailed in the last post, and the techs themselves just reinforces the fact that Charter, and cable MSOs in general, need to train their people better with respect to CableCARD. When someone calls with a CableCARD issue you don’t ask the customer to go mess with their unrelated cable box in the other room. Asking if the channels work on the box, sure, that could make sense be cause it would help determine if it was a larger issue or not. But when the cable box is SD-only, and the problems are on HD channels, I really don’t see what playing with the box would accomplish.

And they have good field techs, in my experience, but it is hard for them to do their job if they aren’t given the training to prepare them. I’m surprised, though I probably shouldn’t be, that they still have techs who have never worked on CableCARD. Which also shows that the FCC mandate for cable MSOs to use CableCARD in their own boxes isn’t really helping. The intent was to give cable MSOs more experience with the cards, and make them dependent on them and so to ensure they established a stable CableCARD infrastructure. That part seems to be working. But the other part was giving people in the field more experience with them as well. That part is not working because the MSOs pre-install the cards in the warehouse before shipping the boxes to customers. So field techs gain no experience with the cards used in the cable boxes. They’re already paired and configured, so installing the box is no difference from the old boxes with security ‘baked in’.

Anyway, I’m happy at this point. I have the channels back and the pixelation is gone, and I’m hopeful that they’ll sort out the line issue in the next week or two, bringing my signal back to where it used to be. I’ll check the TiVo’s signal strength meter periodically. The techs they have are solid, but need better training on CableCARD. And they need better scripts for the support people. They don’t seem to cover CableCARD, and you just have to get lucky and get one of the support reps who knows about them.

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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  • George

    Its not over… Wait until you get your bill to see if they charged you for it.

    We had a situation on standard SD cable (no box … just direct analog), where we were getting a “fuzzy” NBC on what should be the PBS station. We called the local PBS station who said that a couple of other people had called it in. So I called Charter, who scheduled an appointment. Next day, the Charter tech called to say that it was in the head end and was their problem and expressed apologies for the problem.

    Then, on the next bill, we were hit for a $35 service call. It took an hour on customer service to get it credited after being hung up on twice.

    And even then, the rep told me the amount she was crediting me ($35 plus tax) and to therefore just pay the net amount.

    The next bill, I get a small ding for not paying the “full” amount. At that point, it wasn’t worth wasting an hour of my life on Charter customer service for the $5.

    I continue to pray for competition.

  • Glenn


    Sounds like fun :-(

    Anyway, assume you already know this but in case you (or others don’t) you CAN get an RF-booster from Radio Shack that will sometimes help with situations like this (or at least in cases where things are slightly marginal). Basically just lets you boost the signal say BEFORE you split it 4 ways and cut 13db out. Obviously it won’t fix the problem if the signal is disastrously low like this…