Beginning a few years ago, various companies in the telecommunications industry began competing against each other on previously monopolized turf. This was the result of federal deregulation of the telecommunication industry over the past dozen years.
Photo: Associated Press
Ideally, deregulation was meant to loosen the grip of geographic monopolies on various telecom services. It initially allowed for cable companies to offer phone services and phone companies to offer television programming and such. It can be said that deregulation has been an overwhelming force in promoting the spread of broadband internet access — primarily because it eliminated the requirement for all ISP’s to lease service from AT&T (and other local phone monopolies).
Unfortunately, this same deregulation program has resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of companies offering services. Most of the “baby bells” have reemerged into a newly reformed and even larger monopoly — AT&T. Formerly “local” cable companies have merged and been bought out by the likes of Cox, Comcast, SuddenLink, and Time-Warner (you may remember the timeline in Alexandria: Alpine Cable, Alpine Cablevision [CableVision Corporation], TCA Cable, Cox Communications, SuddenLink).
So, basically, what we as consumers now have is fewer companies offering the same services over different media — dual wire for AT&T; coaxial cable for SuddenLink, ComCast, and Cox; and wireless signals for various other companies like Dish Network, DirecTV, Centennial and Alltel. Now without getting into conspiracy theories over price-fixing or anything else, I would like to point out that any consumer, with just a little research can find that most of these service offerings are very close in price, with rarely more than 15% difference in any carrier.
Essentially, government deregulation has taken several smaller and regulated industries and yielded a single, much larger industry that has regulated itself toward a system with less consumer choice, less competition, less innovation, and fewer options and a model that limits consumers while providing much higher profits to the industry itself.
It gets worse. Under recent legislation, much of the power to regulate these companies locally has been removed to the state and federal level, even further taking the needs and concerns of local consumers out of the equation.
But OK, I’m digressing a bit. Deregulation of the telecom industries is bad. There I said it…
That deregulation and its effects are really just the pretext for the main concern of this article. I want to draw some attention to something that seems to be of interest to at least a few people. Mainly, whether these companies are actually giving us as consumers what they are promising.
I have a small business that contracts out various technical services from networking to home theaters and installing satellite systems. I started noticing a a pattern in consumer complaints a month or two ago. These weren’t complaints on my business; we just handle the actual installations. What we were hearing, however, is that consumers were often not getting in their homes what they thought they were buying.
Here’s an example: AT&T would call a consumer who had ComCast and offer to bundle their services all under AT&T. They’d get a home phone from AT&T, 6 mbps DSL Internet, and High Def TV service through Dish Network. Sounds good. Sounds equal to ComCast. The reality ends up being different though. AT&T, of course, did deliver on phone service. However, they do not actually have 6 mbps DSL service in Louisiana (or, at least, in my experience, it doesn’t perform as a 6mbps service). ComCast sells 10 mbps and delivers that.
AT&T can rarely provide over 3. In Shreveport, where this consumer was, global ISP stats show their average speed is on 2.1 mbps. As for the TV offerings, Dish Networks standard High Def package is marketed as High Definition DVR in 4 rooms.
In reality, it’s a single TV in High Def with a DVR, a single TV in standard definition with a DVR, and two TV’s in standard definition with no DVR. And, the DVR’s Dish Networks provides can only record a program if you are watching it (versus DirecTV and cable where you can record one thing while watching another). Add to that, these AT&T services require a 24-month contract.
Now, I’m not on a rampage against AT&T. They’re just one example, and for almost every other company, there is an equally disappointing reality to their bundle packages. The fact is that this deregulated market has created this ability to buy bundles, but by having so little oversight, there is now no real requirement that the bundles be anything truthful or of value to consumers. It’s a true buyer beware market, but unfortunately in this market you pretty much have to be an industry and technology expert to truly understand your options.
I personally have had a very difficult time even getting a dependable DSL connection out of AT&T. I’m paying for 6mbps and rarely top 1mbps with a bandwidth that is so bad I can barely watch YouTube. Lamar and Daniel have SuddenLink in Alexandria, and from what I understand, neither one of them have anywhere near the performance they pay for either. They must not be the only ones, as Lamar’s SuddenLink “rant” is almost daily in our top ten traffic list for CenLamar.
After fighting with AT&T for month or so, I spoke with PSC Foster Campbell’s office in Shreveport. They were very friendly and helpful. However, they had some bad information for me. Because the laws have not changed to keep up with technology, DSL, digital TV, and various other things are, in fact, not regulated by the Public Service Commission.
The woman I spoke with told me that DSL complaints are actually their single most often received phone call, but that until laws are changed, they have no oversight of it whatsoever.
So my point in all this is that
1. We need to be careful as consumers;
2. As consumers and voters, we need to demand that our legislators enact legislation to recognize these services as what they are these days — Utilities (try scheduling flights without the net — good luck).; and
3. We must take an active role in demanding the same oversight and consumer fairness that we expect from electricity, water, gas, and other similar providers.