Stuck in the Middle With Cable

By Brian L. Clark

Tuning Fork

If you've read any past "Tuning Forks," you know I feel nothing but contempt for the current cable company monopoly over who provides my service. With two companies' lines running behind my house, the idea I only have one to choose from annoys me no end.

On top of that, cable prices have been climbing at an absurdly high rate—over the past ten years, rates have leaped almost 70 percent—so the lack of competition is even more galling. Why aren't more people bitching? For one thing, there's the so-called triple play, whereby providers can offer cable TV, Internet service and phone service. If you're told the bundle costs X, you're less inclined to look at what your individual cable bill costs. But since I haven't gone with VoIP yet, I know full well how much I'm shelling out for my mediocre cable service.

In any case, this week, Congress, at the behest of the phone companies, decided to get into the middle of this mess. I'm not a big fan of this type of intervention—I believe generally, Congressional intervention only makes things worse. But when it comes to the cable monopoly, it may be the only option. So it got my attention last week when the House told telecom providers that unlike cable companies, they wouldn't have to approach every town to seek permission to offer next-generation television services, like IPTV.



This particular bill was sponsored by Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R) who, interestingly enough, gets a sizable chunk of money from both cable providers and phone companies. (I wonder how Comcast is feeling right now about the $27,000 opensecrets.org says it contributed to Barton last year?) Barton's bill goes on to the Senate, now, where it is likely to pass in some form or another. This was originally attached to the net neutrality amendment, which would have prevented ISPs from charging more to high-bandwidth users who download things like video. But Congress didn't see the need to protect consumers, and tossed net neutrality in favor of ramming the franchise exemption through.

Barton claims his bill will do three primary things:

1. Provide more choices and more control for consumers.

2. Clear roadblocks on the information superhighway.

3. Create jobs and strengthen the economy.

The first two are enviable objectives, but the last one sounds like political BS.



Barton adds, regulations that govern cable stifle competition and prop up prices and that American consumers are used to being able to look for the best deal. Fair enough, but I personally think it's because once a cable company lays lines to your home, it has exclusive access to your business. If you want to open up competition, force cable companies to open their lines to other cable companies. They did it with the phone companies, for crying out loud, and look what happened to long-distance rates.



Later this week, the Senate is supposed to take up a compromise proposed by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R). Apparently, Stevens' bill preserves consumers' ability to surf anywhere on the Net, but doesn't ban ISPs from charging for specific content that companies like Microsoft and Google are seeking. IOW, online video fans beware.



One of the other issues surrounding this bill is that cable companies believe telcos will cherry pick their towns, offering IPTV service only to areas with higher incomes. It's illegal, but not hard to believe, even though the Telcos deny it's their intent. To top it off, Congress plans to put that regulatory wonder, the FCC, in charge of making sure the phone companies don't. Can't you just imagine Telco Legree rubbing his hands together at the prospect of an agency as inept as the FCC regulating the phone company steamroller? It's like asking a Little League commissioner to oversee drug testing for Major Leaguers—he'd be out of his league. Oh, wait...

What this boils down to is cable companies and telcos fighting to force their own agenda on consumers while telling us it's for our own good. Meanwhile, Congress, ever obliging and the one-time guardian of the people, is really only interested in placating industry lobbyists and corporate interests. As to what's going to happen down the road, suffice it to say that it's all likely to work out in the end...for them.

Brian L. Clark is a reporter and consultant on all things digital, runs the The Tech Enthusiast's Network, and writes for Money, Men's Health, and Laptop. Read more Tuning Fork here.