NEW MONOPOLIES

05May07

I never thought I’d say it, but I’m starting to miss the cable companies.

Whipping boys don’t grow on trees, you know.

It’s not that cable TV has gone away. Far from it. Cable is bigger than ever, with more channels and digital programming features, including one that allows you watch any program any time without all the “trouble” of programming a VCR.

No, cable hasn’t gone away. It has just morphed from a one-headed monster into a three-headed one. With deregulation, few companies deliver just cable TV anymore. Now, cable companies are also in the telephone business. And telephone companies are in the cable business. And everybody is in the Internet business.

In Wakefield, Massachusetts alone, there are three companies–Comcast, Verizon and RCN–and each offers cable, telephone and high-speed Internet service. These companies are offering three-way deals in the $90-$100 range for a period of up to a year, and all of them will do anything but your laundry to get you to buy their bundled cable/phone/Internet packages.

I know–I finally caved in and got high-speed broadband Internet access at home.

Since I’m evidently the last person in the civilized world without a cell phone, I decided that I did not want to be the last person with a dial-up Internet connection. So even though I made the pushy telemarketer lady work for it, I knew deep down that I was going to go for the three-way cable/phone/Internet service for $99 a month for a year, with no installation charges or contracts.

When the introductory rate expires, the combined price of my three services will jump almost 50 percent, to $145. And then, of course, there will be the inevitable annual rate “adjustments” into infinity.

When I mentioned that $145 was considerably more than I was accustomed to paying, the pushy telemarketer was very reassuring. If, after a year, I’m not happy with the price or the service, I am welcome to switch to another company. In other words, I’m welcome to waste another morning or afternoon having another company come out, attach another box to the side of my house and drill more holes through my walls.

The fact is, once they get you, you’re going to stay because it’s easier. Switching cable/telephone/Internet providers isn’t like signing up for a lower rate credit card. The telecom companies know that, and that’s why they’re willing to give you a great deal for 12 months. A year seems a long way off now, but it will come. And then we will all pay full price for a long time, and the companies know that too.

Life seemed simpler, if not better, when monopolies ruled the telephone and cable industries. We deregulated these industries in order to get away from non-competitive monopolies, and ended up with monopolies in our own homes. With the exceptions of the US Mail and the morning newspaper, all the information flowing into my home now comes through one company. And that’s the case in more and more homes, as people are lured by these cut-rate three-way introductory deals for cable, telephone and Internet.

Is it a bad thing? All I can say is that getting most of my information filtered through one source triggers in me a vague sense of uneasiness. But hey, $99 bucks a month is a hell of a deal, and a year is a long time.

Plus, if I’m not happy when the price shoots up, I can always change, right?

[the column originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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