Recently I switched my home alarm to a cellular system, thinking I would save money by canceling my landline. Simple capitalism, right? Buy less, pay less.
Not so fast.
You can charter a jet on the Internet, but CenturyLink doesn’t allow you to make service reductions online. It took me 50 minutes on the phone to cancel the landline.
You know the drill: Repetitively provide your account number, home address and social security number. Someone from far away, Jamaica in my case, picks up the phone. They repeatedly pile Orwellian platitudes on you, “I just want to tell you Mr. Reifman how much we appreciate your business here at CenturyLink” to a point of utter absurdity. If there’s a customer service line in hell, it makes frequent use of their next phrase: “I’ll need to transfer you to someone in our loyalty department who can help you with that.”
You scream obscenities in your head. It makes you want to hang up. And, it’s meant to. It’s a customer service system designed to maximize hassle and minimize lost revenue into the future. It’s not by accident that you’re left with the feeling that you never ever want to have to call them again.
Citing a similar experience, writer David Goldstein (Goldy) tweeted, “Every interaction I might need to have with @CenturyLink, can be had online. Except canceling service. That requires an afternoon on hold.”
When I finally managed to cancel my landline, CenturyLink actually increased my monthly rate, saying I no longer qualified for one of their bundles and nullifying most of the savings. Eventually, sensing my frustration, the agent restored my promotional rate, but it wasn’t added to my account. I had to make another 25 minute call the week after to fix it.
When I complained to the city about this experience, they replied: “Because this complaint involves food, you may want to contact the Department of Health."
The Internet: An Essential Utility?
This wasn't my first tussle with a broadband provider. In 2010, I wrote a viral post about how to save $420 annually on your Comcast bill. Broadband companies routinely offer a heavily discounted first year promotional price to gain your business, then quietly double the price hoping you won’t switch. If you’re willing to spend time on the phone threatening to cancel every six months, they’ll generally restore your original rate, as if they’re doing you some favor. Sometime after that article, Comcast called my bluff and I switched to CenturyLink.
The current retail broadband rate at CenturyLink is $62.98 per month. With 283,510 households in the city, Seattle residents spend very roughly $214 million annually on broadband. Add in $25 for a cellular data plan and the average city resident pays nearly $1,055 per year for Internet data. That’s 5.5 percent of total income for minimum wage earners.
What we’re paying so much for isn’t clear: Comcast and CenturyLink ranked worst and third worst in last May's American ISP Customer Satisfaction ratings.
The situation has caught Mayor Murray's attention as well. “The City’s current high speed Internet options are not dependable enough, are cost prohibitive for many and have few (if any) competitive options,” he wrote recently.
This is not how things should be. We shouldn’t be forced to call our cable companies every six months to maintain the best rate. Nor should some residents be paying more than others for the same service. The Internet is becoming too vital to our daily lives for cable companies to play these kind of games with customers and pricing.
So what’s going on here? How is it that these two companies are able to put city residents through such pain for vital services? To understand this, we have to step back and look at the big picture.
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