Commentary

Barnett: Giant cable merger threatens consumers

February 22, 2014 

Like all horror stories, this one began innocently. My daughter was moving to a new job out of state and on moving day she handed me a small box with a cable attached to it and asked, “Can you return this to Time Warner?”

“Sure,” I said. It’s a good thing I didn’t say, “No problem.” That would have been a lie. It took me four visits to the cable company’s Raleigh store on Atlantic Avenue to complete my mission.

In the meantime, Time Warner Cable sent my daughter a bill for $70 for failure to return equipment and followed up with a notice that her debt had been turned over to collections.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried. I went to the TWC store first on a Sunday. I thought the cable company might have limited Sunday hours for people who can’t get there during the work week and for those who are moving on weekends. The store was closed.

Next, I tried on a Saturday. I could barely get in the door for the snaking line of about 40 people. I asked an information clerk why it was so crowded. “It’s always like this on Saturday,” she said.

I decided not to wait. I went back on a Thursday. Same line, different answer. “It’s because of the snow and all.”

I went back Monday. Same crowd, but changes. No line. Instead, 15 chairs were set in three rows with more set along the walls. Almost all were occupied. All who entered took a number. How long will this take? “Forty five minutes to an hour.”

I went back Tuesday. I asked why it was so crowded. I was told some clerks were at lunch. It was 3:25 p.m. I took a number: 939. They were on 911.

I waited standing up, observing the people seated in their plastic chairs, some elderly, some with children, some with cable boxes on their laps. Time Warner Cable’s News 14 played on a TV before them. They were a captive audience. Some stared ahead. Others struck up conversations.

As new people arrived, their eyes swept the room in disbelief as they took in the packed cable purgatory. Some numbers were called to no response. Those customers had given up, they and their patience gone. At one point there was even a line to get a number.

One man came, looked and walked back out disgusted. I followed him. He was Gerald Bunch, 69, of Raleigh. He had come to the office that morning to pay his bill, but it was too crowded. He had come back, and it was the same.

“I can’t wait no hour,” he said. There should be two lines, he said, one for people paying their bills and another for people returning equipment. “This is ridiculous.”

I went back in. At 4:30 p.m., my number came up. The clerk was quick and helpful. I turned in the box, got the failure-to-return-equipment charge dropped and received a receipt. The transaction took three minutes.

Scott Pryzwansky, TWC’s public relations director, said the wait times at the Atlantic Avenue store “don’t live up to our standards for a quality customer experience.” He said, “We are adding customer care representatives to this store and expect them to start by THE END OF NEXT MONTH.” (Emphasis mine).

I add this tale to the encyclopedia of the cable industry’s customer service woes with more urgency than irritation. The cable giant Comcast has bid $45 billion to buy Time Warner Cable and expand its subscriber base from 22 million to 30 million, about 30 percent of the overall market. That cable colossus likely would be even more impervious to customer complaints. This threat was succinctly documented in an article last week in the International Business Times headlined: “Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Promises Worst Customer Service Disaster In History.”

It sounds like a headline from the satirical website The Onion. But this is no joke. The IBT article reported: “In 2013, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which surveys about 70,000 customers annually, ranked Comcast last and TWC second to last among Internet service providers, already a low-ranked industry in terms of customer service.”

Both cable providers have earned places in MSN Money’s “Customer Service Hall of Shame.” Yelp.com reviews blister them. Facebook pages are devoted to the primal screams of frustrated customers.

In recent years, that anguish has given rise to a “cut the cord” movement. Many people are quitting cable TV and watching shows through the Internet. But the cable companies are also cornering the market on the high-speed Internet access needed to view movies and TV shows. The New York Times reports that a merged Comcast-Time Warner would control approximately 40 percent of the high-speed Internet market. You can’t get away, and the price keeps going up.

The cable monopolies don’t only drive up prices and take customers for granted, they also discourage the development of alternatives.

The federal government should reject this merger as anti-competitive and anti-consumer. Comcast has its billions of dollars and it hungers for more. But this time, it should be the cable companies’ turn to wait.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com.

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