The Pitch A harried mother, her face creased with exhaustion and dread, pleads with her son's principal via telephone. It seems that little Sammy's been expelled on account of some violent malfeasance. Mom promises that her demonic offspring has seen the light, but Sammy proves otherwise in the background; he inserts a vacuum in the family aquarium, just to see the fishies die. Fire and mayhem result, though all involved are lucky to be alive—water plus electrical appliances generally equal tragedy, no? (Or at least so I learned in the first scene from The Believers). It's the perfect setup for an insurance ad, but don't be fooled: The product on offer here is Comcast Digital Voice, the cable Goliath's phone service. "Your phone calls won't change, they'll just cost less," the narrator promises. But is this money-saver really such a revelation, especially compared to VoIP upstarts like Vonage?

The Spin Comcast launched Digital Voice nearly three years ago, making it one of the first cable behemoths to capitalize on the trend toward IP telephony. But don't tell Comcast it's a VoIP provider—it much prefers (nay, insists on) the term "true home phone replacement system." The euphemism is designed to reassure potential customers that their calls won't be traveling along that big, scary internet backbone that's prowled by the most nefarious characters this side of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Comcast takes advantage of this consumer paranoia by stressing that Digital Voice data doesn't travel over the public internet. The idea here is that you'll be willing to pay a premium over Vonage's lower rates in exchange for peace of mind. And, hey, you're still saving a bundle over what you fork over for copper wire, right?

Counterspin Yeah, you save, but the service still seems a tenner or so overpriced. The $39.95 rate that Comcast usually trumpets is only if you sign up for the company's triple play package. Take away the TV component and rates vary widely, often fluctuating due to introductory promotions. Once those teasers run out, consumers can experience sticker shock. Check out these reviews from DSLReports; a lot of folks once enraptured with Comcast Digital Voice ended up switching away purely for fiscal reasons. My big question is, Why is there such a spread between Comcast Digital Voice and Vonage? Comcast obviously has higher capital costs, but it can also partially subsidize its phone-service offering with TV loot. And keep in mind that Vonage has kept its prices static despite incurring massive costs from various patent disputes. Oh, Vonage customers also don't have to tip the cable guy for installation—though, granted, most consumers would rather stick a fork in a toaster than fiddle with a router.


Mission Accomplished? This ad's humorous (if slightly macabre) all-about-price pitch is just a short-term play. At CES, Comcast bragged ad infinitum that it had become the nation's fourth largest provider of residential phone service, eclipsed only by some Baby Bells (Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest). But Comcast's pricing advantage will rapidly disappear as those companies go large with their own VoIP services—er, sorry, "home phone replacement systems." So Comcast is scrambling with the pricing message now, but seems prepared to replace it with a tech-centric campaign once AT&T's U-verse gets cranking. In the next few months, expect Comcast to start touting its service's up-and-coming features: caller ID that appears on your PC and TV, remote programming of DVRs, and even Comcast-branded cordless phones (watch out, Uniden).

Hype-O-Meter 6 (out of 10). A mildly funny, mildly successful attempt to reach technophobic consumers who've yet to grasp the value of IP telephony. But, man, I feel for that mom—isn't there a chestnut about Ritalin being easier than parenting?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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