Cutting the Cord (the Saga Ends)

Four weeks ago, we began the convoluted process of breaking away from Comcast, the cable TV giant that is one of America’s least admired companies. We had a package deal for television, internet and phone service with Comcast that wasn’t worth the monthly fee, especially since we weren’t watching much live television. With the arrival of Verizon’s fiber optic internet service in our neighborhood, it was a good time to consider alternatives.

First, I called Comcast to see if there was a way to lower our monthly bill. They told me that was impossible. Even if we completely eliminated our cable TV service, we wouldn’t save money (the combined price of Comcast’s internet and phone service bought separately would be almost as much as what we were paying for internet, phone and television as a bundle). 

Like Comcast, Verizon offers its best deals to new customers. Unfortunately, most of these deals weren’t as good as they first appeared. For example, to get TV through Verizon, you pay an additional fee for every television you hook up. That makes sense, except that Verizon assesses this additional fee even if you’ve only got one television! I believe this is known as “chutzpah”. (“Since you don’t actually have a television, you can get Verizon cable TV for the advertised price!”)

It turned out that even with an introductory offer, we’d pay Verizon almost as much as Comcast if we got Verizon’s phone and television services in addition to the internet. So our best option was to buy as little as possible from Verizon. That meant getting their internet service and nothing else. The good news was that Verizon offered a faster internet connection than Comcast for the same amount of money (and installation was free).

Not wanting to give up our current home phone number, we then signed up with Ooma, an internet phone company. Ooma doesn’t charge a monthly fee. You buy one of their boxes up front. You also pay a fee if you want to keep your old number. After that, you pay Ooma a few dollars each month (in our case, $4) to cover federal and state taxes. 

Finally, there was the television problem. Many people don’t realize you can still get a lot of channels free with an antenna connected to your TV, kind of like the old days. It’s called OTA (“Over The Air”) television now. The bad news is that the broadcast signals aren’t as strong as they used to be. I looked at a Federal Communications Commission website to see which channels are available where we live. There weren’t very many. even though we’re only 20 miles from a big city. A quick experiment with a borrowed antenna confirmed that we would need an expensive antenna up on the roof to get more than one or two channels. 

That led us to Roku, an internet streaming service. Like Ooma, our new phone company, you buy one of their boxes up front. If you stick with the free channels, there is no monthly fee. And the free channels could be sufficient, since Roku has more than 2,000 of them. The bad news is that maybe 1% of Roku’s free channels are worth watching. For example, about 1/3 of them are devoted to religious programming, and looking at their many “special interest” channels didn’t reveal anything interesting.

The Roku website isn’t very clear about it, but what you get free is easy access to loads and loads of videos that can be played whenever you want. Very few channels have live feeds. For instance, you can watch videos from PBS and the Smithsonian Channel. You can also watch video segments from the network news shows.

For live news, you have the BBC and Sky News (also British) and a strange collection of American stations (in case you want to watch the local news from Sacramento or Little Rock). If you want to watch much live television or so-called “premium” cable channels, Roku says “the service may require additional fees”. However, so far as I could see, the “may” in that sentence always means “does”. If you already subscribe to something like Netflix or Showtime, you can access those channels through the Roku device.

In conclusion, we’re happy so far. We may eventually spend a bit more to add some live television (some sports, in particular), but for now our total monthly payment is $90 less than before. Taking into account the Ooma and Roku boxes we bought, the Ooma phone number transfer fee, and some new internet security software (Verizon doesn’t include security software in its standard package like Comcast does), and then spreading those costs over two years, we’ll still be saving $75 every month.

One other note: I didn’t have to tell Comcast that we’re moving to Iceland in order to easily disconnect our account. Fortunately, once I told them we’d already switched to Verizon, there wasn’t much to talk about.

Cutting the Cord (Thanks to a Hard-Working Man)

The Verizon website said their technician would get to our house around 9:30 pm to do our installation. The anonymous dispatcher said it would really be around 8:15 (only three hours after the original 5 pm deadline).

So it was a pleasant surprise when the technician called at 6:30 to say he’d be at our house in fifteen minutes. He arrived as promised and quickly got to work.

Four hours later, he was done. Among other things, he’d had to string 350 feet of cable from our basement to a telephone pole two blocks away, working in the dark on a hot, humid night. It was an impressive performance.

When we thanked him and said good-night, we assumed he’d be dropping off his van at some Verizon garage and then get home by midnight or so. No, he’d actually be driving to Newark to do some work for another customer. He explained that Verizon is forcing their previously-unionized technicians to work 60 hours a week.

We didn’t ask what time he started work yesterday. But on a good day, if all goes well, he puts in 12 hours. That’s not 12 hours in an air-conditioned or heated office. That’s 12 hours of driving around, in good and bad weather, carrying equipment, going up and down stairs, climbing on roofs, drilling holes, stringing cable, attaching electronic gizmos to inside and outside walls, while also dealing with people like us. Sometimes in the dark. 

Do you think it would be a good idea for Verizon to hire and train more technicians, so their employees wouldn’t have to work 12 hours a day (or more), five days a week? We all know the corporate business model is to get as much work as possible out of workers while providing as little compensation as possible, but there are lots of Americans who could use a decent job. It would be good for the country and even good for the corporations if they’d spread some of the wealth around.

Cutting the Cord (the Saga Continues and Continues)


Verizon told us they’d be at our house between 11 am and 2 pm to install our new fiber optic connection (good-bye, Comcast!). The installation was supposed to take three hours and might require work on the outside of our house.

After a while, I checked our order status on the Verizon website. A note had been added. The technician will arrive between 1 pm and 5 pm. Ok, whatever.

The afternoon wore on. No technician. No word from Verizon. No email, no phone call.

But another visit to their website reveals an updated note: the technician will arrive between 7:45 pm and 8:45 pm. Really? To do a three-hour job that might involve working outside? In the dark?

Ok, let’s contact Verizon. First, a brief online chat. Second, a phone call to “customer service”. Third, another phone call to “customer service” after the first call disconnects.

The Verizon representative is surprised to hear that Verizon technicians do installations at night. So am I. I ask her to confirm that this is actually going to happen. Or will the technician actually show up tomorrow morning? Or never?

She contacts the dispatcher, who confirms that the technician will be arriving tonight. I’m not convinced.

Meanwhile, the website has a new note: the technician will arrive between 9 pm and 10 pm:

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I find this new promise even less believable than “between 7:45 and 8:45”. Our technician will be working past midnight to finish this job? I express my skepticism and repeat my request for confirmation.

Yes, the dispatcher still says the technician will arrive between 7:45 and 8:45 pm, even though the website disagrees. I express an opinion or two to “customer service” and we say good-bye.

Comcast, I already miss you and you haven’t gone away!

After a Major Event, Life Goes On, But Surreptitiously

gnote1A major event? Yes, finally replacing my aging but handy Blackberry with a new Android smartphone (good-bye, Verizon, you bloodsuckers!).

Some might say it’s only a phone. It feels more like a lifestyle. You can’t do that anymore. Do this now. How do I do that? Guess! Or download an app. Which app? That app! Wait, what did I just do? I must have touched something. Oh, no!

Come on, why do you zoom in on Google Maps by pinching your fingers together instead of spreading them apart? Isn’t spreading them apart a more expansive gesture? And why can’t I spread my fingers apart in the prescribed way? It’s probably a genetic defect. Those of us who can easily carry out the correct two-finger spreading motion are now better-suited to getting around and finding mates. The rest of us will tend to stay put and die alone. If only I could remember the Alternate Zoom Technique:

In addition to pinching the screen to zoom, you can also double-tap on your map, hold, and then scroll down to zoom in, or scroll up to zoom out.

Coincidentally, the New York Times reported more from the Snowden Files today:

When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.

In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up….

[Among] the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.

Fortunately, I don’t play with angry birds. But Google Maps is said to be one of the best sources of information for the intelligence agencies. The Times quotes a secret report from Britain’s G.C.H.Q. suggesting that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system”. Thank you. No problem.

We know that corporations collect whatever information they can about us. Now we know that the NSA and GCHQ are doing the same.

But assuming that we don’t want to stop using our phones or the internet and we can’t get our governments to stop this spying, we can take some solace in the fact that these people are collecting so much data, they don’t know what to do with it. Most of us will never stand out in the crowd.

However, if you happen to be planning a terrorist attack, or want to tell the President he or she is a jerk, you should definitely avoid Angry Birds. Or communicate the old-fashioned way: