The Time Warner Cable office on 23rd St near Park Avenue in New York City has something of the atmosphere of a soviet post office. Clerks staff a row of desks, calling customers forward at a languorous pace. During my visit, the queue stretched out of the door.
No one was there because they wanted anything from the company. Like me, they were there to give something back. When I took out a cable plan some months earlier, the company had insisted that I use one of its modems. I had to pay an installation fee and wait at home for a technician to turn up late and attach a cable – a ceremony I could have performed perfectly well myself. Now the company had changed its tune. I could use my own modem if I wanted to. But if I kept the one it had thrust upon me, I would have to pay rental of $48 a year. (The one I already owned had cost $18 to buy outright.)
Americans are familiar with what many see as the cable companies’ fiendish schemes to fillet their bank accounts. The best that can be said for the industry is that, having carved up the country into a patchwork of local monopolies, it lacks incentives to serve customers well. Broadband speeds are slower than in Europe and customers complain of unreliable service. Some even suspect that the cable companies’ outward appearance of hapless incompetence belies a calculated effort to rip customers off.
If Time Warner Cable had deliberately set out to make me keep paying for something I did not need, it could hardly have done it better. To stop paying rental on the modem, I would first have to give it back. That, it turned out, would test my powers of perseverance.
A security guard gave me a number. How long was the wait? Forty minutes. Could I leave the modem with him, instead of pointlessly waiting to hand it to a clerk? “I ain’t sayin’ you can’t. But I ain’t sayin’ it ain’t gonna go missin’.” In the event it took over an hour. Many people would not have had the time.
One person who did was an immaculately dressed Upper West Sider, I guessed in her sixties. We enjoyed a few moments of mutual commiseration, but our conversation ended sourly when I described our tormentor as a “poorly regulated monopoly”. “I suppose you would prefer a benevolent dictatorship,” came her curt reply.
The idea that the government should cap telecoms companies’ prices, or force them to allow rivals the use of their cables, smacks of statist oppression to many Americans. Such measures, adopted years ago in Europe, remain inconceivable in the US. Yet there is nothing incoherent about welcoming free enterprise while regulating monopolies.
America may have invented the internet. But if Americans want cheap and reliable internet access, its regulatory authorities have some lessons to learn from overseas.
The writer is the FT’s executive comment editor
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