Every so often I have an experience as a consumer so bad that I have to write about it. The latest were the interactions I had with Comcast to get a new TiVo box working properly at my Mom’s house in Chicago and then (having, I thought, learned from that one) ordering a Comcast DVR from the company itself along with a bundle of services and getting someone to come to my house to install it.
The only way to get through these experiences was to treat them as tests of my patience, tell myself that they were great blog fodder, and try to see the humor in them (as if I were the King of Swamp Castle instructing his guards; this honestly helped). I encountered impenetrable web sites; dropped calls; having to explain what I wanted over and over, sometimes to the same person; inconsistent information (I had a person in one chat window telling me I wasn’t eligible for a particular package at the same time someone else in another chat window was signing me up for it); and a truly noxious combination of apathy and confusion.
Comcast is certainly busy these days. It’s trying to merge with Time Warner Cable to create a giant quasi-monopoly that will, according to a letter opposing the deal written by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells, “pass over 60 percent of U.S. broadband households…with most of those homes having Comcast as the only option for truly high-speed broadband.”
Hastings and Wells are concerned that “The combined company would possess even more anti-competitive leverage to charge arbitrary interconnection tolls for access to their customers.” That sounds right, but I have another worry: that the company just won’t care very much about taking care of its customers, because where else are they going to go?
We’ve seen this before. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of large industrial enterprises, some of them run by ‘robber barons’ who, as Robert Heilbroner points out in his essential book The Worldly Philosophers, “were uninterested in producing goods.” (emphasis in original).
Railroads, which like cable companies can wind up looking very much like local monopolies for a lot of reasons, provided some great examples for Heilbroner. As Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt were fighting for control of the Erie Railroad, a superintendent wrote that “The iron rails have broken and laminated and worn out beyond all precedent until there is scarcely a mile of your road, except that laid with steel rails, between Jersey City and Salamanca or Buffalo, where it is safe to run a train at the ordinary passenger or train speed.” At the time the golden spike was driven to connect the Northern Pacific Line, “the capitalization [was] far ahead of what it should be for what there [was] to show, and the selection of routes and grades [was] abominable. Practically it would have to be built over.”
So the financial machinations continued and occupied a great deal of time and energy from the empire builders at the top of the company, while the actual business crumbled. Sounds familiar, and helps me understand how Comcast can win Consumerist’s Worst Company In America contest twice in the past five years. Maybe I should stop complaining and consider myself lucky that the cable entering my home actually delivers signal. But I can’t help wanting more, and wondering how I can get it. Any ideas?