Charter to Missoula: Screw you, we have a monopoly

The high-speed internet market (artist's conception)

The market for high-speed internet (artist’s conception)

I work from home, so when the internet stops working, I have a bad time. One such bad time was had throughout Missoula yesterday, when Charter internet service went down for the whole damn town.1 The Missoulian confirms the outage, but it doesn’t offer much else. Maybe that’s because even reporters can’t communicate with Charter except through their customer service call center, where a representative from the company would not say why the outage happened, when it would be fixed, how many customers were affected or what her own name was. Later in the day, a company spokesman declined to say most of the same things, although at least he offered his name. I hope the negative publicity from this failure doesn’t affect Charter’s busine—oh, right. They have a monopoly.

Technically, Charter is not the only internet service provider in Missoula. You can get DSL from CenturyLink, a service I know only by report of people who used to complain about Charter and now complain about the absence of a third option. But even reliable DSL is slow compared to cable. My work requires me to send and receive text files throughout the day and stream Cheech and Chong movies at night, so I need reliable bandwidth and plenty of it. Charter goes out often, and when they come to my house to fix it, their record of doing so on the first try is below .500.

Why should it be any higher? They are the only vendor from whom I can purchase their service. When my internet goes out, why shouldn’t I wait on hold a half hour and then let the person on the phone walk me through the process of shutting down my computer, turning off my wireless modem, unplugging my cable modem, counting to 100, et cetera—even after I assure him I have already done that? Why shouldn’t my service appointment be scheduled for between 8am and 8pm on two consecutive days? The market has no answer for these questions, because I want fast internet, and Charter is the only entity in town that sells it.

I am not an expert on anti-trust law, but it’s my understanding that Charter can legally operate this monopoly because it is regulated by the Public Service Commission. For a taste of the PSC’s work, try calling one of Missoula’s two taxi cab services. The PSC gets an enormous amount of pressure from the industries it regulates and little from consumers, whose resources and interest are necessarily divided. The regulation that is supposed to make the monopoly not act like a monopoly is toothless, so the monopoly acts accordingly.

This seems like a lot of complaining for one 24-hour period without internet. But yesterday, I considered what I would do if my Charter cable internet went out for, say, a week.2 I would definitely complain. I would use up all my data tethering my phone. But I would not stop giving Charter money, because the alternative is to never have cable internet again. Charter could raise its rates and give me worse service, and I would probably just have to suck it up. This is not how market capitalism is supposed to work. Anyway, I look forward to Charter’s merger with Time-Warner Cable, the only internet provider I’ve ever experienced that was actually worse. Hope this service I keep paying for doesn’t stop working tomorrow.

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