Let's start with a disclaimer: There are in fact many more than five reasons for hating your cable company. Experiences vary -- or, as Tolstoy would probably say if he were writing today, "unhappy ISP customers are each unhappy in their own way."
But we can all agree that Americans loathe their Internet and cable providers. The yearly American Customer Satisfaction Index consistently shows TV cable and Internet companies battling it out for last-place honors. As Slate puts it, "[their] approval ratings hover between those of Congress and syphilis."
Here are some of the toxic traits common to all bad ISP relationships.
Customer service from hell
Lousy customer service begins with the cable installer who fails to show up after you took the morning off work, and it ends in a Kafkaesque version of hell when you attempt to disconnect your service. This recording of an actual disconnect call forever cemented Comcast's claim as poster child for Bad Customer Service. (Keep your blood pressure medication handy while listening.)
Higher prices, less competition
Does this even need to be spelled out? American consumers pay some of the highest broadband prices in the developed world. The U.S. broadband market is also less competitive than ever. Doubt that those two facts are related? Then watch what happens when Google Fiber comes to town. But Google Fiber is only focusing on a dozen or so markets. The FCC recently found that two-thirds of homes currently have the "choice" of one provider offering 25Mbps speeds -- the agency's standard definition of broadband. That situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, thanks to industry-backed/written state laws banning competition from municipal broadband.
Admit it, you've given up all expectations of paying the advertised price when it comes to your monthly cable bill. ISPs are masters at hiding price hikes in below-the-line fees. Take for instance the Internet Cost Recovery Fee, which CenturyLink explains as helping to "defray costs associated with building and maintaining CenturyLink's High-Speed Internet broadband network." Or the Broadcast TV fee, which helps with providing TV programming. Or everyone's favorite: Administrative fees. In other words, ordinary costs of doing business.
These fees aren't mandated by government, but they're "named to sound that way so annoyed users blame government," says DSL Reports. What they actually do is enable cable companies to jack up rates while keeping advertised prices steady. They also make direct price comparisons impossible.
The FCC this week announced a nutritionlike label that ISPs are encouraged to use so that customers will know how much they're going to spend each month. The agency believes the labels will help with sticker shock, observing that "the actual prices paid for broadband-related services can be as much as 40 percent greater than what is advertised after taxes and fees are added to a bill."
Motherboard calls such a system "patently absurd" and "a depressing reminder that ISPs and mobile providers, for years, have been allowed to mislead customers in a number of different ways." A better solution than voluntary pricing labels would be "actually policing false advertising and misleading fees for the first time in FCC and FTC history."
Usage caps and overage fees
If you don't hate 'em now, you soon will, as ISPs are falling over themselves to embrace these unnecessary and arbitrary limits. When cable companies first introduce caps, they invariably purr that "most users will not be affected." (First they came for the gamers and Netflix addicts.) Don't believe it. The outgoing CEO of cable operator Suddenlink informed investors last year that overage charges had become a significant revenue stream, and leaked Comcast documents confirm that usage caps are all about profit.
Caps are aimed at protecting cable TV providers from Internet video competition while padding profits, plain and simple. But perhaps you're still persuaded by Comcast's justification for the overage fees? CEO Brian Roberts is fond of the analogy that "if you drive 100,000 miles or 1,000 miles, you buy more gasoline." Except broadband is nothing like gasoline. As the CCG Consulting's POTs and PANs blog explains:
Transport [the cost of getting the bandwidth from one of the major Internet access points to a market] can be a major cost for an ISP that operates a long distance from a major POP.... But for Comcast this cost has to be minuscule on a per customer basis. And the cost is fixed. Once you buy transport to a market, it doesn't matter how much bandwidth you shove through the pipe. This cost doesn't increase due to customer usage.
As usage caps become more common, complaints about usage meters are skyrocketing as well, including tales from consumers who were charged for gigabytes of usage when they had no power whatsoever due to storms. (This is the point in the game where you get bumped back to "customer service from hell.")
Until recently, it seemed no one gave a damn about broadband privacy. Maybe you still don't. ISPs have relied on that complacency to enable a gold rush on personal data. The telecom-data-as-a-service market is currently worth $24 billion per year, on its way to $79 billion in 2020. But if you are bothered by the idea of your data being sold on the open market, AT&T has a "premium service" for you. It'll agree to stop snooping on you -- for only $30 more per month!
What about those new FCC privacy rules that would require ISPs to get consumers' permission before sharing their info? Totally unnecessary, industry groups argue, because ISPs are harmless, innovative sweethearts -- read the reports they're issuing. As TechDirt says:
The broadband industry is now engaged in a full court press to derail rules that might take a small bite out of billions in user-tracking revenues. And in typical telecom-industry fashion, that involves creating a sound wall of fauxcademics, fake consumer advocates, third-party consultants and other mouthpieces who will be spending the next six months informing you that ISPs are utter angels when it comes to respecting and protecting consumer privacy.
The schemes that cable companies have devised to rip off consumers sometimes seem endless, but five is a good place to start. We'll save for another day peccadilloes like penalizing customer loyalty, outrageous rental fees for add-ons like DVRs and wireless routers, and zero-rating data plans that sound great but are instead a Net neutrality dodge. Can't wait!