On a quest for decent telecom service

It's tough to admit, but I made a big mistake.

I put all my eggs in one basket, and that basket was Time Warner Cable.

As a result, when the company's system went down last week, my family lost not only all our television service, but our Internet connection and home telephones too.

This may be the 21st century, but Chez Hiltzik was reduced to a dark uncivilized island, bereft of all communication with the outside world. No Netflix. No "Curb Your Enthusiasm." No email. No voicemail.

When I finally reached Time Warner on that silent Sunday via my intermittently serviceable cellphone (we're in a transmission hole between towers, so we often have to walk down the block for a decent signal), I was informed they'd roll a service truck to me as soon as possible. Which meant: two days later.

I'm not alone in abominating Time Warner's service, as the company often ranks below par in customer satisfaction surveys. But my experience should serve as a caution before you think of taking up any company's offer to bundle all your critical telecommunication services together. I'm a victim.

This isn't a beef about the men and women on Time Warner's front line. The company's technicians and maintenance crews have been invariably professional, polite and efficient, often above and beyond the call of duty. They've done their level best to diagnose and repair my service. But 10 days after the first outage, my Internet and phone services are still cutting out once or twice a day.

Telecom companies say bundling is a great deal for you, the customer. You get one bill in the mail instead of three, and the services are cheaper wrapped together than a la carte. But the real benefits flow to the providers. Through bundling they monopolize access to your household, to which they can also sell on-demand entertainment, enhanced features such as hi-def video, and apps for mobile devices such as cellphones and tablets. Bundling raises the bar to competitors, because once you've switched to a single provider it's a pain in the neck to switch away.

It may not be fair to pick on Time Warner alone, as it's certainly not the only cable provider that receives poor marks. A bigger issue is that regulation has failed to keep up with the commercial transformation of the telecommunications industry.

Decades ago, the home phone was regarded as a utility, requiring a high standard of service. Until 1984, AT&T was our national telephone monopoly; it faced no commercial competition to keep it honest but was subject to stringent regulation. Whatever the incentive, Ma Bell took pride in engineering its system to "five nines" reliability — it had to work 99.999% of the time.

The idea behind the 1984 breakup of AT&T was that competition would substitute for regulation. With new companies empowered to offer better service, novel features and lower prices than the remnants of the old, the marketplace would effectively monitor service standards and pricing, and customers would reap the benefits.

Things haven't worked out that way, largely because competition has been a mirage. In most places there's a single cable system providing cable TV and Internet service. Satellite services can compete for TV customers but typically don't provide Internet connectivity. Fiber-optic systems such as Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's U-Verse offer TV, Internet, and voice and get high marks for service, but they're not universally available (and not in my neighborhood).

Meanwhile, state regulators don't have the sway over cable or wireless operators they had over conventional phone providers. Cable-based phone service like Time Warner's barely comes under the California Public Utilities Commission's jurisdiction.

At the federal level, telecom regulators now seem to think their main role is to windmill big mergers through to approval as fast as they know how — the government's recent challenge to the proposed wireless merger of AT&T and T-Mobile landed on the front page because it was a man-bites-dog moment.

Companies such as Time Warner are now among our biggest providers of services that used to be utilities, but, freed of effective oversight, they don't feel pressure to match the old utility service standards.

Time Warner essentially places the onus for monitoring system conditions on the customer. Service reps have told me that they won't declare an official outage until they receive problem reports from three customers, even though the company has the technology to know what's happening on its system all the time — its techs can see from their end if my cable modem is dead, they just don't look until I ask.

Preventive maintenance? Forget it. Last week, when Time Warner's technician opened the sidewalk lid covering my subterranean connection box, the equipment was so slathered with primordial goo it looked as though it hadn't been tended since our amphibian ancestors first crawled out of the slime. Yet the company knew these connections were vulnerable to seepage and corrosion because the problem had occurred before; it just chose to wait for a failure before sending out a crew to address it.

If that policy means an outage from time to time, Time Warner figures it can fob off the clients cheaply. A customer service rep, apparently under the misimpression that I buy my home telecommunications service by the hour, like a room in a cheap hotel, initially offered to refund the charge for three days of non-service (about $18). When I replied that the sum didn't come close to covering my frustration, inconvenience and lost productivity, a supervisor agreed to further discounts, including cutting the charge for phone service to zero for a few months.

To be fair, that would bring the charge for the service in line with its true value, since a home phone that can't be trusted to stay on all the time is worth exactly nothing. But that's still too much, because I can't afford a phone line in my house that cuts in and out at random, even for free.

The only real option for customers in this world of indifferent service is to limit their exposure to any single provider; i.e., by shunning bundles. At the very least, I'll be moving my home phone off the Time Warner network. That way, even though my phone and my cable service may suffer outages from time to time, barring a natural disaster the chances are low that they'll go down at the same time. So if my cable company goes down, I'll still have a phone; if the phone goes down, I can make calls on the Web.

My new non-Time Warner phone service may not prove to be an improvement; Verizon, the provider in my area, has been accused of allowing its conventional copper-wire land-line network to go to hell so it can focus on the growing wireless and fiber-optic markets. And my memory of the stringent regulation of yore may be suffused with the glow of nostalgia. Certainly phone service in the old days was far from perfect, or Lily Tomlin's supercilious operator Ernestine ("We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company.") wouldn't have struck such a chord with audiences.

So my quest for decent service will undoubtedly continue. What I'm looking for isn't so complicated: It's for a service provider that, once it has my money, doesn't make me feel like a chump.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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