Your Tech Night Owl Newsletter — Issue #985

Gene Steinberg

Forum Super Hero
Staff member
***Issue #985***
April 15, 2020


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As usual, this will be a long and complicated story.

So when cable TV subscriber lists soared, there were many areas in the U.S. that were all or mostly unserved. That’s because, in sparsely-populated rural locations, it didn’t make sense for a company to lay wire, or if they did, it would cost the customer an unseemly amount of money.

Forget about a TV antenna. Cable TV was actually created to provide a central connection point to provide TV service in areas too distant from the transmission tower to get decent reception by a regular antenna — or any reception.

The solution for those without access to cable was satellite. The launch of the Satcom 1 in 1975 paved the way for satellite TV, which now serves tens of millions of people in the U.S.. In addition to providing TV in areas where it wasn’t otherwise available, the satellite providers went after the cable business with a vengeance, offering bigger bundles of channels and, at least at the first, better picture and sound quality. It all came at a lower price, at least until the 12-month or 24-month discount deals expired.

DVRs also offered more features, and easy navigation and programming. Fast forwards through commercials were easier, since you could usually jump in 30 second increments. Going through the three-minute and four-minute ad blocks was a piece of cake. In contract, the Cox Contour DVR requires manual fast-forwarding and trial and error to get to the point where the show begins. But there’s also a button to back up nine seconds in case you go too far.

Now before I go on, this article is mainly focused on the U.S. The situation is apt to be quite different in other parts of the world. There may even be some competition, which is often lacking in these parts.

Over time, the cable providers fought back against satellite with better packages, improved reception, and DVRs that were mostly competitive with the ones provided by the satellite providers.

But the best part of the cable package addresses the biggest limitation of satellite, which is Internet access. TV/Internet bundles are common, and when you combine the two, satellite usually doesn’t offer much of an advantage, or any advantage. I use Cox, and I focus on the cheaper packages, but I still save over any deal that would focus on Cox Internet with somebody else’s TV.

That assumes I even live in an area where I can get satellite TV. Although apartment and housing management companies in this country can’t block satellite, they can set up onerous connection requirements that would make it difficult for the satellite installer to comply. Where I live, a dish can be installed on the patio — it faces in the right direction — and it’s, held in place by large ugly bricks because holes can’t be drilled into the wall. But that also prevents running a cable to the TV.

In may cases, there’s a way to move the patio doors to allow for easy snaking of the cable, but the design in this complex makes that impossible. Hence no cable!

We live in an era of cord-cutting. Cable and satellite prices keep rising, but not just due to greed on the part of the provider. The entertainment companies want more money to fund their growing creative budgets — or just to help pad executive salaries. Those increases have to be passed on to someone, and it’s not the provider.

That explains where a channel may be blocked temporarily, as the two sides negotiate new contracts.

In any case, the usual cable/satellite experience is 300 channels and little or nothing to watch. Channels are carefully parceled out over multiple tiers, so you may have to accept extra cost tiers to get the ones you want. There is no “one from column A” and “one from column B.”

For many reasons, many people have decided to cut the cord, quit cable/satellite and rely on old-fashioned antennas — where possible — or such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and all the others. Indeed, some of the best programming never reaches network or cable channels.

One of my favorite shows, “Bosch,” a terrific police procedural about a sometimes rogue LA detective, was one of the first original shows to appear on Amazon Prime when it premiered in 2014. Netflix has its own “must see” shows, but with the departure of such Marvel comic book programs as “Daredevil” and “Luke Cage,” I’ve considered canceling or just turning it off for a few months, and only resubscribing to binge a show or two before canceling again. Star Trek fans in the U.S. must sign up with CBS All Access to watch “Star Trek: Picard” and “Star Trek: Discovery.”

In any case, the new order has forced satellite providers to set up their own streaming services to keep up, such as Sling TV from Dish Network, and AT&T TV. In large part, they mimic the low-end tiers of the satellite equivalent, but you don’t have to deal with wires and dishes.

But you may have to deal with your ISP’s bandwidth cap. Streaming TV, especially the 4K version, for hours on end each day will soon eat up the limitations many ISPs in this country set. Cox, for example, offers a 1TB limit for the lesser packages, but you’d have to pay extra if you exceed that limit. If you want their version of Unlimited, it’s $50 per month. Suddenly what you think you save by going all-streaming vanishes with the wind.

To keep up with the changing industry, TV providers have merged. The number two cable company, Charter, brought out Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2015. The number one provider, Comcast, owns NBC/Universal.

AT&T bought out the number one satellite company, DirecTV, in 2014. Time Warner, the company left after the Charter deal, was acquired in 2018. So that means that AT&T not only owns CNN, TNT and Warner Bros., but DC Comics, which includes Superman and Batman.

Alas, when a company completes a huge merger, things often change for the worse. Despite the claim of potential “synergies,” what this usually means is that redundant personnel, particularly in support departments, are slimmed. While I once received decent tech support from AT&T, that changed beginning in 2014 when DirecTV came onboard.

In short, DirecTV’s customer support is bad, very bad. It’s not just because Tier 1 support calls are often funneled overseas. It’s because the company is not making the investment to train it personnel and respect the customer.

Sometimes the support issues take you into “Alice in Wonderland” territory.

So in 2018, I moved to an apartment that was wired by CenturyLink, which provided exclusive satellite and Internet service via its Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) division. Each building has a single DirecTV dish on the roof. While I could technically order Dish Network if the location of my unit was in the right location, it was still cheaper to stick with the MDU bundle.

I signed up for the 24-month package, but the apartment didn’t work out for us, and Barbara and I moved out after seven weeks. CenturyLink and DirecTV were contacted to disconnect service. In both cases, I told them that I hoped to reinstall service at a new location at some time in the future.

Here’s where the incompetence of DirecTV’s support people caused one big mess. So they recorded my disconnect request as a suspension order, meaning it would be turned back on after six months.

So despite the fact that they knew full well I had moved in mid-2018, they restored service to that unit in January 2019. And since I still had the set top boxes, the new residents couldn’t receive that signal even if they wanted to.

Can you believe this?

Now I have had back and forths with CenturyLink and DirecTV to stop billing me for service I do not have and cannot get, and they so far have stonewalled. One DirecTV support person assured me she’d take care of the extra billing but would have to charge an early termination fee unless I chose to set up service at my current residence, or they determined it wasn’t possible.

And, because of the prohibition against drilling holes from the patio to the bedroom, that wasn’t possible.

Through all this period, DirecTV provided service to a virtual black hole, since I haven’t lived in any place where it can be installed in mid-2018.

I have escalated the complaint and run into a pair of totally obtuse support people from both CenturyLink and DirecTV.

So the CenturyLink Senior Analyst for its “Customer Advocacy Group,” Matthew Linn, claims the company paid DirecTV for service I could not access, meaning he expects me to pay them over two grand even though he has confirmation from the leasing manager at my former apartment that I don’t live there anymore.

His counterpart at DirecTV, John Li, from the “Office of the President,” absolutely refuses to accept the fact that his support person made a mistake by labeling a disconnect request a suspension request. Yes, he has also received the confirmation from that leasing manager, and he knows full well I haven’t been at a location where I can receive service since then.

Linn says it’s up to DirecTV to sort things out, and my attempts to contact someone there who can actually understand what they did wrong have not succeeded. Making Li understand has been an exercise in utter futility.

In the meantime, they aren’t making any effort to collect the money that I don’t owe. But I’d love to hear from my readers as to whether you have had a customer service nightmare of this sort. I can’t think I’m the only victim of this corporate and support incompetence.

And when I read reports that DirecTV is shedding subscribers by the hundreds of thousands — and more — every quarter, I can understand. AT&T, in fact, is in the process of phasing out attempts to sign up new DirecTV subscribers, and is reportedly testing an “Osprey” set to box for its streaming version.

It is obviously a lot cheaper to supply a set top box than invest hundreds of dollars to install a dish and its accompanying wiring. And it won’t matter to them if customers are forced to deal with their ISPs over bandwidth overages.

Oh and by the way, I continue to rely on AT&T for its wireless service because they gave me an AARP discount that lowers to price to less than T-Mobile charges for an equivalent package.


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