THE LINE – You don’t often see a store with a large sign by the front door warning not to bring firearms inside, complete with the big silhouette of a revolver. And inside is a very big guard (true to the sign, no gun) but with badge and uniform and the look of a rabid Tasmanian devil. Why all of this self-protection? Is this a bank, a gold exchange, a Starbucks? No, this is the local office of my cable company, Disable Cable, and it’s clear I am not alone in my feelings toward this establishment. Everyone in this long, slow-moving line has a surly expression, deep and malevolent thoughts, and we exchange war stories.
But let me begin a few months ago. We visited our lakeside hovel in Varicose Valley, home of retired generals, drug lords in the Witness Protection Program and Nazi war criminals having undergone plastic surgery. As usual, the cable was out meaning no phone, no computer, no TV. We have had to call Disable Cable (“We put the vice in service“) every time we arrive and then every other day while we’re there, so I have its number of my cell phone speed dial. Long story short, a cable guy would come out in three days sometime between dawn and midnight. He fixed the problem and as he drove off the whole system went out again. After about two weeks, another guy came out and said the problem was with the cable from the house to a big box, so he strung a bright orange cable across my back yard down the hill and into the trees. He said a crew would come out and bury the cable on Monday (this was a Friday). No one came, but we had to leave for home. Came back two weeks later, the cable was still across the yard and – surprise! – nothing worked.
You probably have cable and thus can sympathize with me. Between my home and the lake house I have spent hours on the phone (my cell phone because the land line is dead) or waiting for the cable guy. Over the years they have fixed it, not fixed it, said I needed a new modem (three in two months). Getting help over the phone is interesting because there are two of us in the conversation and one can’t speak English. Akmed has had me get on my knees to plug and unplug various wires and black boxes, etc. etc. That is, if you can get a real human being. Mostly I get recordings: “If the problem is your phone, touch 1, touch 2 for your TV, 3 for your computer, 4 for a technician. The waiting period is (pause) let’s see, this is Thursday, isn’t it?”
We also have bundling. If you want NBC, it is bundled with the Danish Pottery Channel, the Waltz Channel, the Hong Kong Traffic Guide and 23 other similarly needed spots on the remote. You like sports and want to take the NFL Channel? Lucky you, because you also must take ESPN 76 (kayaking in Pampa), Curling Classics and 41 other sports channels including the Best of the St. Louis Browns — 1941. Like you, I use maybe a dozen different channels, some hardly ever — how long can you watch a Dane making teapots?
It is not surprising that a survey of 70,000 U.S. consumers found that Internet service providers and cable companies are the two most hated sectors of the entire U.S. economy. Market Watch reports that the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which is put out quarterly by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and is considered the most comprehensive customer satisfaction survey in the nation, found that once again Comcast and the Time Warner Co. have the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any company. Market Watch: “Not only do Internet service and cable providers sit at the bottom of the survey — below airlines, health insurers and the U.S. Postal Service — but somehow, satisfaction has dipped with those two industries since the previous year’s survey.” Meantime, the cost of subscription TV has been rising 6 percent per year on average — four times the rate of inflation. This explains why Comcast is trying to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion, and AT&T is trying to purchase Direct TV for $48.5 billion. For us, fewer companies means less competition, higher prices. In fact, a Comcast executive basically admitted as much by saying, “we’re certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly” after the deal is finalized.
We now return to our story of the lines here at Disable Cable. I am standing in a large room filled with people holding boxes, wires, bulging bags of equipment, as am I because I’m changing channels — or cable companies. I’ve had it with their inefficiency, lack of fixing my many and constant problems and rising fees, although I must say all their employees both the cable guys who come to get ‘er done and Akmed on the phone, are always patient and polite. But I’m switching to Tired Wired Cable.
There are so many people here that we each take a number when we enter and, if possible, sit on a long bench, and wait as they call out the numbers while being watched over by the guard. I am number 16. That didn’t seem so bad until I heard them calling out 74. My time finally comes and I dump my cable paraphernalia on the clerk’s desk. “Is it like this all the time?” She shakes her head. “Sometimes it gets really busy.” I inquire if any of these people are signing up and getting new equipment. She shakes her head again. “They’re cancelling their service.” The next day I call to change systems. “Thank you for calling Tired Wired. The waiting period is (pause) let’s see, this is Thursday, isn’t it?”
Ashby is remote at firstname.lastname@example.org