The Margin: ‘I’ve given them thousands of dollars over the last 15 years’ — how one woman got $100 when her internet went down

When Gabrielle Gambrell’s cable and internet service goes down, she springs into action.

The White Plains, N.Y., resident relies heavily on her service from Optimum, a division of Altice USA
to run the home-based public relations and marketing business she has grown — particularly during the pandemic. So any outage is costly, and she makes sure Optimum knows that she expects a refund — and a sizable one at that.

More often than not, Gambrell succeeds, receiving as much as $100 per issue, even if she has to threaten to jump ship to another cable and internet provider for someone in customer service to pay attention.

“My position is, I’ve given them thousands of dollars over the last 15 years. It’s kind of the idea the customer is always right,” she said.

Gambrell isn’t alone in feeling such frustration related to cable and internet outages, especially given how Americans have come to rely increasingly on the internet during the pandemic. On Tuesday, customers of Comcast Corp.

Xfinity services across several cities, including San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, were affected by an outage.

But it’s still something of an open question as to whether consumers in such situations are entitled to a refund — and if so, how they can go about getting it.

““You have to be aggressive, you have to pursue it.””

— Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America

Certainly, Comcast had no shortage of customers demanding their money back, at least judging from posts on social media. “I pay for 24/7 service and when we don’t receive what has been promised, refunds need to be made,” one tweeted.

In a statement about the outage, a Comcast spokesperson said on Tuesday: “Earlier, some customers experienced intermittent service disruptions as a result of a network issue. We have addressed the issue and service is now restoring for impacted customers, as we continue to investigate the root cause. We apologize to those who were affected.”

The spokesperson didn’t respond to a MarketWatch question about refunds.

Some cable and internet providers say they will consider refunds as the situation merits. A spokesperson for Spectrum, which is part of Charter Communications
said, “When rare service-interruptions outages occur, we work directly with affected customers regarding credits.”

Altice USA, which is behind Optimum, the service provider that Gambrell uses, said through a spokesperson that, “We closely monitor service disruptions and provide credits consistent with applicable regulatory requirements. The amount of a credit is based on a number of factors, including source issue, length of disruption, services impacted, and more.”

““Cable, phone, and internet service is essential, not optional.””

— Connecticut Attorney General William Tong

Speaking of regulatory requirements, some states and municipalities do have laws that demand cable and internet providers make restitution for service outages, according to Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. Connecticut is one such locale: When Tropical Storm Isaias hit the state in 2020 and service outages resulted, state Attorney General William Tong made sure to contact providers about their responsibility to issue refunds. “Cable, phone, and internet service is essential, not optional,” he wrote in his letter to companies.

In New Hampshire, state Representative Terry Roy has pushed for legislation to ensure consumers receive refunds for service outages, but he hasn’t had success so far in getting a bill passed. Roy says the issue is even more critical in his state because in many areas, there’s only one service provider — in effect, that means if consumers aren’t satisfied because of an outage or other situation, they don’t have a competing service to consider as an alternative.

Roy also says refunds should be given automatically rather than make consumers fight for them, as is often the case. “You have to jump through six hoops of fire and then they might throw you a bone,” he said.

Ultimately, consumer advocates say that the best recourse is to keep fighting for a refund, particularly if you’re in a state or municipality where a credit for a service outage isn’t guaranteed by law. Gambrell says in addition to calling customer service — and if need be, speaking to a manager or customer-retention specialist — she will also tweet out to the company to get their attention.

Gillis of the Consumer Federation of America says it’s ultimately a matter of being the squeaky wheel that gets the grease — or in this case, the outage refund. “You have to be aggressive, you have to pursue it,” he said.

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