The email appears, labeled simply, “Your Spectrum bill has arrived.” Terror trikes. How much money will my cable TV company, one of the two largest cable providers in the nation, add to this bill? Benjamin Franklin used to say that only death and taxes are certain. Today he would add, so is an annual rise in your cable bill.
I try to open my account and it won’t take my password. Never does. My bad, probably? But given that I now have to go find my password and try again or change the password, I am suspicious. Often, I ignore the bill. But I shouldn’t. The Big Seven Cable Companies sneak in surprises every month.
This month a $17 surcharge turned up in my $232.39 bill. The company claimed it was simply passing along new mandated charges that it must pay to over-the-air stations like CBS and NBC in order to carry their signals. But it is always something. From 1996 to 2020, cable company prices have increased 250% or 3.95% a year. The rate of inflation was only 2.2%.
The new utility terrorist in America is your cable company which often delivers your internet, telephone and television channels, the triple play many choose. When I tried to refuse the landline service, Spectrum told me I would then be charged for installation and would pay more for my other services. What choice did I have? More meant less money for me.
So, let’s just cut to the chase: seven cable television companies hold America hostage, controlling your internet and television; they have a near monopoly. The Congress and the courts have declared that it’s perfectly acceptable to have no regulations over the pricing of what is now one of the most important utilities we get into our houses and places of business.
Important because it is where the raw material of democracy comes from — the facts, figures, the rantings and heated debates that fuel public opinion. And also because it is how we amuse ourselves endlessly with the thousands of channel offerings that our remote controls call up.
The problem is nearly 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly from internet giants like AT&T with 22 million subscribers and revenues of $181 billion. Who am I to challenge that might? And, in fact, I am glad for what the giants have done — build a broadband network across the nation that connects many of us in ways I could not have imagined when I grew up in New York City with 13 over-the-air channels. Now I have 2,100 stations, although, admittedly, I would gladly eliminate maybe 1,000 of them to pay less. I don’t want the golf channel!
But the issue is the way we have structured cable television and internet service — typically American — by allowing monopolies to flourish and declining to regulate their pricing. The consumer is left at the mercy of the giants.
Let me be clear about content. The government should have nothing to do with controlling content, including the channels that your cable provider chooses to air. It would be unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment, to tell a private speaker such as Spectrum what they can or can’t say.
How do the Cable Giants get away with carving up the country into swaths of TV land that only they can enter? Why are Comcast and Charter/Spectrum allowed to maintain an absolute monopoly over at least 47 million people?
Simple answer that we have heard repeatedly in America; they own the regulators and the Congress. Internet service providers and their trade associations spent more than $230 million on lobbying and political donations during the last Congress. For example, they don’t want to expand cable coverage to rural areas because it costs too much and brings too little revenue in return. How to avoid it?
Just buy the politicians. Throw a bone here and there, knowing their buddies in the legislature will resist real reform. Cable typically outspends most industries on lobbying, including the real estate and tech industries.
Perhaps the emerging face of television for younger households will force the cable companies to change. When I visit my daughter, who lives in rural upstate New York, she doesn’t subscribe to a cable company. Her television choices include Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Disney-plus and Paramount. Which explains why the nation's biggest cable television brands lost 1.54 million customers during the first quarter of this year.
When you surf the internet on cable TV prices you find self-help guides on how to control costs, including calling the company and treating it like a car dealership by bargaining for a better deal. The difference is if I don’t like Toyota I can go to Ford or Chevy. If I don’t like Spectrum, I have little choice. And that needs to change.
The government has the authority right now to treat cable TV companies like we treat electric utilities. Reclassify them, although it might take three or four years to get it done. Biden seems inclined but needs to move: appoint a fifth commissioner of the FCC; return to a net neutrality policy; and begin the wheels turning to regulate the price of this public utility. It will be messy and controversial but it is worth the journey — for consumers and citizens.
Rob Miraldi teaches journalism at the State University of New York.
Email: email@example.com or Twitter: @miral98.