Why Your TV and Internet Service Seem to Be Getting Worse

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Americans pretty universally dislike their television and Internet service providers, an unsurprising fact hammered home once again by the Telecommunications and Information Report 2015. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, the group behind the report, noted on its homepage that “Consumers Love Smartphones, Loathe ISPs.” The pithy line pointed to the headlining finding of the group’s latest study: of the 43 industries on which the survey asks customers’ opinions, companies offering TV and Internet service tied for last place in customer satisfaction.

The study is based on more than 14,000 consumer surveys and rates companies from 0 to 100. In the category of cable TV services, Comcast’s rating dropped by 10% over the past year to reach a score of 54. Time Warner dropped by nine points to a 51, finding itself in a tie with Mediacom Communications for the lowest score among the more than 300 companies evaluated. Among companies providing Internet service, Time Warner received a better score than last year, earning a score of 58. It fared better than Comcast at 56 and Charter at 57, but not as well as Verizon FiOS at 68 and AT&T U-Verse at 69.

Writing for The New York Times, Rebecca Ruiz notes that cable TV and Internet providers have faced harsh scrutiny in a year marked by talks of mergers throughout the industry. Though regulators’ reservations about Comcast’s $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable put an end to the deal, Charter Communications announced last week that it intends to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks for a total of $67.1 billion.

David VanAmburg, director of the Index, told the Times that “Internet and TV have always been among the lowest scoring. But this year they’re at the very bottom.” He noted that the customer service offered by companies in these industries “has long been bad,” and they don’t handle inquiries with “efficiency and respect.”

Though the complaints about poor customer service date back more than a decade, they’re compounded by continually rising prices. That dissatisfaction can increasingly impact companies’ revenues as customers turn to alternatives like Hulu, Netflix, Dish’s Sling TV, and HBO Now. “There was a time when pay TV could get away with discontented users without being penalized by revenue losses from defecting customers,” Claes Fornell, chairman and founder of the Index told the Times. “But those days are over.”

While customer satisfaction with cable TV, Internet, and phone service providers is at a seven-year low, the reasons why are nothing new. Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin wrote a year ago that one reason we lack Internet competition and the innovation that would come with it is that starting an ISP is really difficult and expensive. Not only are startup costs immense, but established ISPs introduce expensive delays with frivolous lawsuits, and upstarts don’t have the buying power to break away from offering content bundles. The bottom line? Few new providers get established, and existing providers raise prices without offering innovation or upgrading technology.

The late David Carr wrote two years ago for The New York Times that “Telecom’s big players hold back the future,” reporting that the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was intended to foster healthy competition, instead “allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly.” Wired and wireless connections are controlled by only a handful of companies, which results in little competition, little investment, and uneven access to high speed connections.”While consumers love to complain about their cable companies and Internet service,” Carr wrote, “it’s sort of like the weather — no one does anything about it because no one can.”

Almost five years ago, Ryan Singel wrote for Wired that “you don’t want ISPs to innovate” in the way they want to innovate, pointing out that the industry’s investment in deployment of fiber optics is “laughable,” an argument that time hasn’t rendered invalid. He wrote that ISPs would love for both users and online services to pay for their networks, and their breed of “innovation” sees them “thinking of ways to extract more money from customers without having to invest significantly in future-proof infrastructure.” He added, “They’d rather plot to get themselves some of that sweet money flowing to online services, instead of concentrating on what the country really wants and needs, which is fast, cheap and open internet access.”

None of this has changed significantly, and customers are unhappy. Quartz’s Adam Epstein notes that many cable companies are becoming Internet companies with a side business in TV. While a few years ago, Americans were stuck with these companies if they wanted to watch television, today they’re only stuck with them for Internet access. Respondents to the ACSI survey said the bills from their Internet service providers have become easier to understand, but they expressed low satisfaction with the data transfer speed, video streaming quality, and customer service offered. “Customers resent being locked into service contracts,” the report explains, “and are not happy with what they see as unreliable service, slow broadband Internet speeds, and rising subscription prices.”

So while objectively your television and Internet service probably hasn’t gotten worse, you’re justified in being dissatisfied with the value your provider offers you. With a mismatch between stagnated innovation, a dearth of options, and ever-rising prices, your cable provider and ISP certainly offer you less value for the money than they would if they kept up with the tech industry’s pace of innovation.

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