After two years of paying for a weak, intermittent signal, I’d found myself at a stalemate with Time Warner Cable/Spectrum.
It turns out that when a signal is weak, there’s not much that a cable company is required do about it. And believe it or not, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.
My research rabbit hole revealed the decades of legislative trickery by America’s most hated companies. You see, cable providers suffer from a right-time, right-place conundrum as the monolithic gatekeepers to American high-speed Internet access.
A Fledgling Novelty
Described as “a fledgling novelty for a handful of households,” cable television debuted in 1948 as the redheaded stepchild to broadcast. Useful only in rural or mountain communities where small pockets of humanity lived far from the range of urban broadcast signals.
Quite simply, no one cared about cable. This paradoxically became its biggest strength.
Since then, the cable industry grew to become synonymous with telecommunications across American homes and businesses. But initially the entire industry was left to govern itself, writing its own rules with unprecedented power.
This wasn’t a conflict of interest. It was a legislative punt.
And the current role of the cable company as sole high-speed Internet provider in many municipalities is an unfortunate byproduct of the rules set in place to regulate television.
Isn’t this why we have the FCC?
The Federal Communications Commission does set some standards to govern cable companies. The only problem is the focus is almost solely on television delivery, not Internet. And those standards are no longer enforced by the FCC directly, it falls into the hands of your Local Franchise Authority.
Local Franchise Authorities oversee certain cable company regulations and operations. The cable companies do not reveal this to customers, and the FCC provides no nationwide contact directory. This means consumers are required to proactively discover where to direct their specific complaints.
The FCC does, at least, outline when it is appropriate to contact your Local Franchise Authority:
- Rates for Equipment and Services
- Customer Service Issues 1
- Signal Integrity
- Franchise Fees
So, Just Contact My Local Franchise Authority?
Well, it’s complicated.
In New York City, for example, those specific complaints should go to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, or maybe the Franchise and Concession Review Committee. Angelenos should contact their Chief Administrative Office. Other cities might have different oversight entities established. And some just might have none at all!
In many smaller communities across America you might have to directly contact your Mayor for simple problems with your Internet’s signal integrity!
The FCC doesn’t police these specific issues because over the past 70 years, the cable industry lobbied quite effectively to chip away at FCC oversight.
The Fight for the Basic Tier
In 1992, the regulatory responsibility split between basic-tier packages (local broadcast TV) and expanded packages (like MTV, AMC, Bravo, etc.). Basic-tier packages fell under the jurisdiction of the Local Franchise Authority, but expanded-cable packages remained under the FCC.
Until 1999 that is, when the FCC lost that responsibility as well!
It may come as no surprise that the prices for the vast majority of expanded-cable packages have outpaced inflation by 400 percent.
The availability of a basic-tier package of television channels is still required by law. This small set of broadcast networks and local channels is the only cable package regulated by anyone outside the cable companies themselves.
But that won’t stop you from a few road blocks if you want to cut costs and drop your service package to that basic tier.
First, most cable companies don’t outwardly offer a basic tier to new customers. Expanded sets of channels are often the lowest packages advertised. This has understandably left many customers confused and frustrated, some even forced to call back multiple times to speak to different customer service agents before one even admits the basic tier exists!
In 2012, the FCC allowed cable companies to scramble the basic-tier cable signal. This move forced basic-tier package subscribers to buy decoder boxes for each TV in their house. A costly monthly fee tacked on for that privilege.
The Franchise Fee is yet another method to extract additional fees of out that basic-tier group.
The amount appears on the bill, unabashedly clumped in with the taxes. TV subscribers are conditioned to read that as the government taxing them, which it isn’t. The Franchise Fee is incurred on the cable company by the municipality. It’s a business tax that these companies sneak on their TV-subscribers bills!
Effective Monopolies via Overbuild Restrictions
Overbuild regulation is one of the few areas remaining under the FCC’s oversight. If you’re unfamiliar with what an overbuild is, ask yourself: How many high-speed Internet providers are there where you live?
The general premise is simple. If a competitor decides to open up shop in a town, it must build out its infrastructure to compete with the same speeds, comparable packages, and cover the same customer geographic footprint.
This obviously makes founding a startup cable company wildly expensive.
Comcast attempted to spin this fact altruistically when negotiating the purchase of Time Warner Cable, noting its intention not to encroach on TWC’s service area even if the deal didn’t go through.
Charter ultimately acquired TWC; and in allowing the purchase, Obama’s administration stipulated that Charter overbuild a million competitor’s customers, and also buildout a million fresh connections. This order effectively forced competition for those one million customers, which would then drive down their prices. In theory.
But now that the administration has changed, so has this order. Gone is the requirement for Spectrum, to overbuild any market. Now Spectrum is just required to create two million fresh connections.
New high-speed connections are still important. Many parts of this country are lucky to have DSL. But this reveals the hidden albatross: the cable itself.
A World Without Wires
Before we had supercomputers in our pockets, before Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, before wireless phones even, if you wanted to communicate, you needed a physical, wired connection. And that was fact for 120 years.
But this is obviously no longer the case.
And as we begin to see new and exciting practical applications of wireless power, the last wire in our home might just end up being the coax cable carrying our Internet signal.
Multiple major players are working on the next generation of communications networks.
SpaceX has already launched the first two of the proposed thousands of Low-Earth-Orbiting Starlink satellites. The goal? A persistent, wireless Internet signal across the entire planet. Virgin Galactic and the tech start-up OneWeb are also working on a similar plan.
And then there’s the upcoming 5G wireless signal.
We’re familiar with 4G and LTE, which offer a relatively speedy information delivery on a cell signal. 5G will boost that speed to well over a gigabit, which is ten times faster than the service many Americans pay $60+ each month to access via cable companies.
The Cable Companies Know The End is Nigh
Like any good tyrant losing its grasp on power, the cable companies are squeezing the very people forced to be their customers. This is clearly on display in a number of U.S. markets that are saddled with data caps. Spectrum is now educating customers on the concept, so it seems our time with unfettered access is limited.
Data caps are arbitrary checkpoints on usage meant to punish cord cutters for abandoning television packages and all those wonderful FCC-enforced fees. Franchise Fees, for example, are not charged to Internet-only subscribers.
So a data cap is a great way to sneak on an extra monthly fee.
But there still remains major problems with educating such a wide base of subscribers on their own usage habits. We’re long past the days of dialup and AOL, where we would connect for an Internet session. More and more everyday items now drip data from a Wi-Fi signal, leaving most customers completely unaware of their actual monthly data usage.
And to make matters worse, congress now voted to allow cable companies to sell your personal browser history.
This is perhaps the clearest sign that the cable companies really don’t care about bad press. We’re witnessing the gasping final breaths of this tyrant industry. It knows we all want to be free of this broken system, which emboldens its final awful actions, clutching the technology permanently ingrained in our daily lives.
So, What Can We Do Now?
Pay attention to the NCTA; the main lobbying entity for the cable companies. President & CEO Michael Powell is the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. So, you know, nothing weird about that…
And be sure to reach out to your Local Franchise Authority for issues and concerns with your provider. Or, if you’re in a community without one, go bug your Mayor with the impunity of knowing that’s part of his job.
We’re witnessing the sun setting on the monopolistic Internet gatekeeper in America. Its kingdom built on wires, its legacy grim and unforgiving, may it slide swiftly into that good night.