Cable customers turn to smartphones for Internet

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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As electrical service was being restored to thousands of Massachusetts residents after Tropical Storm Irene, some were surprised to learn that when the power came on, their cable service might still be out.

Comcast Corp. customer Soraya Stevens turned to her iPhone when her cable blew out, logging on to Twitter from her Bedford home for the latest power outage updates. “I would not have any communication or insight without my smartphone,’’ said Stevens, a software engineer.

Some customers who lost cable service lost their TV, Internet, and landline phone, which are often bundled and sold together. Many turned to their smartphones, operating on batteries and the signal from cellphone towers, or friends and family who still had cable service.

Providers said many customers lost cable service simply because the electricity went out in the storm.

“We find that in 90 to 95 percent of cases, when commercial power comes back on, our service comes back on,’’ said Chris Fenger, senior vice president of operations at cable provider RCN Corp. About 1,500 of RCN’s 75,000 Massachusetts customers were without cable service yesterday, from a peak of 4,000 on Monday, according to Fenger.

Neither Comcast nor Verizon Communications Inc. would disclose how many of their customers lost service due to Irene, or when the companies would restore service. That’s in sharp contrast to utilities NStar and National Grid, which under state law must maintain communication with customers during an emergency. The utilities have been updating customers continually on their progress in restoring service and reporting that power may not return to some customers until the weekend.

“We are working very closely with respective power companies and following their restoration efforts to ensure our customers’ services are working properly shortly after power is restored,’’ said Doreen Vigue, a Comcast spokeswoman. “We know it is an inconvenience to be without these services, and we thank our customers for their patience.’’

Phil Santoro, a Verizon spokesman, said the company’s landline network weathered the storm well, but some poles and facilities were damaged by Irene’s wind and pelting rains. The company has backup generators to provide cable phone service to some customers, according to Santoro. “Our teams are out assessing the damage and making repairs,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “Our restoral efforts will be helped as more roads open up and as the power company does its work to restore service.’’

Comcast, with 1.6 million customers in Massachusetts, is the largest cable provider in the state. Verizon is second, with 280,000 customers. Although they depend on the utilities for power, the cable companies must make their own repairs to restore lost service after a punishing storm. Cable wires and power lines, frequently sharing the same poles, can both be brought down by falling trees and other storm damage.

Cable customers who lose service for an extended period could get refunds, said Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who now runs the consumer education website People without service should ask their cable provider for a refund, which would most likely be given as a credit on their bill, he said.

“Consumers are not going to have too much of a problem if they contact their cable company,’’ said Dworsky.

“In these cases, we will work directly with customers to issue credits on a case-by-case basis,’’ added Comcast’s Vigue. Verizon and RCN said they are also looking into how to make refunds to customers who lost service.

Still, when the cable is out, customers must find ways to cope.

After the storm blew out her Comcast service, Johanna Kelly, who runs the Discovery Corner Preschool in Duxbury, had only one way to access the Internet. She called her husband, a physical therapist in Hingham, on her cellphone and had him do her Google searches at his office.

“I figured that NStar has to get the power back up before cable can do anything,’’ said Kelly.

School is about to reopen, and Kelly needed to e-mail “Welcome back’’ letters to parents. Without cable, she reached out the old-fashioned way: She wrote letters by hand and mailed them at the post office.

In the meantime, she is using a generator to power her smartphone and her TV, so her three sons can watch movies on a DVD player. And she’s looking on the bright side; the outage, she said, means “more time to be outside to do yard work.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at