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Location: Tucson, Arizona, United States

A critically thinking curmudgeon whose goal, in addition to creatively venting about the imperfect world in which we live, is to induce critical thinking in others. The ultimate goal is to help bring about a peaceful world in which we can all live in freedom.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Reminder of Why Monopolies Are a Bad Thing

It is impossible to imagine how anyone in the greater Washington, D.C. area at the dawn of the twenty-first century would be forced to go without broadband Internet access for nearly two weeks in non-emergency conditions other than the existence of monopolies in the telecommunications business. Yet that’s exactly the predicament yours truly is now in, and will be in for at least another week because the cable firm with the regional monopoly on broadband service (Cox Communications, just for the record) has apparently decided to remind its customers that customer service is not a priority.

I marvel at the fact that Northern Virginia, a region that supposedly prides itself as “business friendly” (or did, at least until a few years ago) is set up in such a way that county councils have choked off competition in the communications industry, with each county granting an exclusive monopoly to a cable company of their choice (how these companies have been selected is best shut out of the imagination). Arlington County has Comcast, Fairfax and Prince William Counties have Cox Communications, Loudoun County to the west has Adelphia, and so on. Cox’s service has been universally lousy for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, it was so bad five years ago that the Fairfax County Council issued an edict prohibiting Cox from raising rates or accepting new subscribers within the county until the company got its proverbial “feces” together. Apparently the censure worked for at least a little while, although it is arguably only because of competition from satellite TV providers such as Dish Network and DirecTV (to which we’ve been subscribed for TV reception since moving to the area five years ago) that Cox’s service is functional at all. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Commonwealth of Virginia is one of a handful of states that still exercises state control over the sale of liquor, so why should this come as a shock?

Still, it really mystifies me. When we lived north of the Potomac River in Anne Arundel County in the People’s Socialist Democratic Jamahariyah of Maryland, two cable providers serviced our old neighborhood. Two years before our move south we switched providers when the quality of service of the first declined while their rates increased. I’ve noticed on my frequent visits to friends in the old neighborhood that these two companies are still in competition, providing broadband Internet service as well as TV. Although they weren't available until shortly before we moved, I have no doubt that the presence of satellite service providers in the marketplace has put even further pressure on these cable companies to keep customer service standards at least acceptable, if not ideal.

Alas, the same cannot be said of broadband Internet service, most certainly not here in Northern VA. While Verizon has sent us letters and flyers for the past year urging us to subscribe to DSL, a visit to the Verizon web site and a plugging of both of our home telephone numbers into the FindDSL application, as well as a phone call to the regional customer service center, reveals that this service is not currently available in our neighborhood. We are completely at Cox Cable’s mercy; it’s their way or the highway. There simply are no other broadband alternatives available. While I completely understand from a technical standpoint why Verizon DSL is not available in our neighborhood, I have to wonder what political machinations are restricting them from introducing the service to our area, shenanigans that would not be tolerated by a people with any concept of what benefits the free market in telecommunications services would yield (Verizon DSL is, in fact, considerably cheaper than what we’re stuck with right now and from what I've observed elsewhere, faster).

Two things should be obvious by now. First, monopolies are not only bad for both the customer and the provider (lack of competition stifles a firm’s innovative capacity and takes away the ability to grow by becoming more efficient), but are unnecessary as well. There is no demonstrable reason why two competing firms, even in such sectors as utilities and telecommunications cannot compete within the same local markets like any other business. Second, government, even a local one, has proved yet again (as if we needed any more) that it cannot regulate businesses any better than it can regulate or manage anything else.

What makes our own situation so deplorable is that the outage affects only our house and five others in our row, not the entire neighborhood or district. Thus the monopoly provider has even less motivation to rectify the deficiency and solve the problem in a timely manner. Indeed, they make it clear that you are not a priority at all, knowing that if you value access to broadband Internet service (or electric power, or water, or any other product of service the monopoly provides), you will put up and shut up. The Cox technician who arrived at the house yesterday afternoon (a technician being available on a Sunday was a jaw-dropping surprise, by the way) to further investigate the problem acted as if he would have rather been in the emergency room being treated for a severed artery without anesthetic than be at my house solving my problem. Although I had told Cox customer service on four separate occasions that the problem involved their own modems at the central switching point, they insisted on sending someone out to look at my cable modem. So what happened? The technician spent all of sixty seconds testing the main coax cable which, as I warned him it would be, was as dead as George W. Bush’s brain. He then walked outside and down the sidewalk to look at the main switching box, which –surprise!—was in just the condition I told him it would be (“Oh, I guess you’re a network engineer and know this stuff already,” this Mensa member mumbled). Thus a technician wasted an hour of his billable time on a problem that the central service desk should have warned both of us about.

Oh, and I won’t get started on Cox’s refusal to admit that their workers were out last Tuesday digging up the ground and tearing out cable, the very thing that caused the outage in the first place. That’s for a whole other rant.

So what’s next? Well, since the account is in my daughter’s name, she tells me that she is going to call Cox’s regional customer service center at least once per day for the next week, more often if she doesn’t get satisfactory answers on what’s being done to fix the problem. If by next Sunday the problem is not fixed, I’m going to be forced to do something I would definitely prefer to avoid because it involves government; that is, file a complaint with the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission. On the plus side, our good family friend who currently boards with us and who is a Verizon network engineer says that he knows the man in charge of telecom regulation for Fairfax County. This could be an ace up the sleeve if Cox plays nasty, but the thought of using political connections to solve a market problem is personally abhorrent to me. In the end, I suppose the only other alternative is to shell out hideous megabucks for satellite broadband, which is the only remotely possible alternative that might be available. It will be a last resort (again, I’m not even sure it’s actually available here), but it’s the closest thing I can think of to fighting back without resorting to having to ask the State to intervene.

Any thoughts out there from those who’ve been in a similar situation?


Blogger Mz Manners said...

Don’t you think George W. Bush should attend finishing school?

Your friend,
Mz Manners

1:37 PM, January 23, 2006  

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