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.
Broadband in America
Seattle’s struggle isn’t unique. American broadband is among the slowest and most expensive of developed countries.
The city of Seattle claims there's nothing they can do about this. When they later apologized for the food snafu, they explained, “[we] do not regulate private businesses. It does not mean we do not think it is important, it is just not our role. Consumer protection is under State regulations and they have policies to help address this kind of complaint.”
This from the city that sends out compost inspectors if you try to cancel your yard waste. (Yes, the city warned me recently that it will actually do this.) The city of Seattle already regulates private business in a number of ways — granting licenses, monitoring labor rules and food safety, for starters. Just not broadband.
Reporting on the city's broadband agreement with Comcast, which expires in 2016, Geekwire explained that "Internet services are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); … Telephone services and/or fees are regulated by the State of Washington.”
Given the importance of broadband as a utility, the oligopoly maintained by CenturyLink and Comcast and their reputation for poor customer service, Washington should be closely regulating these businesses, but so far we’ve seen nothing beyond fraud protection.
Why? We live in a state that’s laissez faire about big business: The Legislature recently granted $8 billion in tax breaks to Boeing without performance requirements.
What about the FCC? Broadband oligopolies have existed for years, but the FCC has chosen not to intensify regulations. In fact, its chairman, Tom Wheeler, is a former industry lobbyist and is currently leading the drive to end net neutrality. This lack of restriction on the revolving door of industry executives moving to and from government roles fosters abuse.
In academic terms, this is called regulatory capture — an agency intended to regulate a specific industry in the public interest that instead advances the interests of that industry.
The laws of these regulatory agencies also create narrowly defined boxes in which citizens can make change and force energy through a system with very limited outputs, such as the controls the city of Seattle is allowed on the broadband market.
As money permeates politics more deeply in the post-Citizens United era, we also end up with legislative capture. An April study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities found that the U.S. government is not a democracy, but an oligarchy. “Contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe," study author Martin Gilens told Talking Points Memo in April, "ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”
As Politico reported last year, “this (do-nothing) Congress has only enacted 49 laws, the fewest since at least 1947”.
When Congress does act, it is on behalf of corporate interests. This is evident not only in this recent attack on net neutrality, but in the industry-biased Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA now CISA). Similarly, the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger and allegations of NSA spying on behalf of industry show whom government's interests favor.
The moral of the story is this: The FCC is currently in no position to act in the interest of consumers to regulate broadband companies.
Back to Macklemore
So how does Macklemore fit into our broadband struggles?
Cultural acceptance of marriage equality has rapidly reversed in the past few years, going from from 37 percent in 2003 to 59 percent in 2014. Now, publicly standing against same sex marriage is becoming culturally unacceptable. Elevated by Macklemore's hit 'Same Love,' the issue is currently on a victory lap through the courts and even forcing changes in law. All of this was unimaginable a few years ago.
Likewise, until we eliminate the cynical cultural acceptance of money in elections, the Tom Wheelers, Comcasts and CenturyLinks of the world will continue to set the rules about how fast and affordable our broadband is.
Mayor Murray is facing a big opportunity. With Bertha stuck underground for another year, building a citywide municipal broadband network could become one of his administration’s most significant accomplishments. He claims to see the harms imposed by our broadband oligarchy. The big question is whether he has the courage and leadership skills to make change.
It's more than possible. In January, The Stranger reported on a 2007 city-commissioned study about the potential for city-owned broadband. A city-owned-and-run system, the report found, would require $400 million in financing, but could break even at only 24 percent market penetration while offering a 20 percent discount over market prices. It also said the system could provide efficiencies for other municipal agencies such as City Light’s smart meters.
I won’t hold my breath for Macklemore’s next big hit about money in government, but we can channel what remains of our idealism into launching a municipal network on Seattle’s high speed fiber and breaking free of our Internet dominatrixes.