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Watching the Cable-Telco Wars Firsthand

It’s been fairly fascinating watching the subscription TV wars going on where we live in Westchester County, just above NYC limits. Westchester was forever Cablevision country, so that’s what we signed up for when we exited the city for the northern ‘burbs five years ago.

A few years later, Verizon got the OK to build out FiOS in the region. (Of course, the satellite TV operators are there too; my neighbor has both main providers’ dishes on the roof, which may have something to do with his fascination with cricket.) FiOS offered BBC America, and Cablevision at the time did not. When BBC America scored the rights to the Six Nations rugby tournament, an elite competition that includes England, France, Ireland, etc., and FiOS hit us with an aggressive marketing pitch, we made the jump to FiOS for the triple play.

I should say I made the jump. My wife didn’t care about the Six Nations rugby, but liked that FiOS was about 20 bucks cheaper than Cablevision each month for the first year (around $125) before climbing up to a comparable monthly cost in year two.

My only reservation about switching was, in my opinion, the only true, tangible differentiator between the two: Cablevision’s News 12. (”Never on phone company TV,” as the Cablevision ads sneer.) Hey, I cover local news for a living. And I genuinely enjoy it–especially when we were brand new to the area.

But we made the switch nonetheless.

I was having lunch at the B&C/Multichannel Hispanic Television summit two months ago and got to talking with a guy from Cablevision who said that they too offer BBC America now. I kept this nugget in the back of my mind.

Then, a few weeks ago, a Cablevision salesman, armed with a list of area residents whose deals with FiOs were coming due, knocked on our door and pitched my wife: Eighty bucks a month for the triple play, plus an iPod touch for signing up, free movie tickets at participating theaters on Tuesdays, discounts at Garden and Radio City events (which we may never use), and some other incentives. If any of these pot-sweeteners existed when we signed up in 2005, no one mentioned them.

It was an aggressive offer, to say the least, and surely a big driver in Cablevision’s marketing talking point about 45% of Fios customers switching back to Cablevision in the endless TV commercial wars between the two. To be honest, he had us at the 80 bucks a month–down from our current $128, which was $145 before we dropped HBO last month.

Furthermore, Cablevision would cover any breakup fees if FiOs chose to implement them.

We liked FiOS. Whenever I called to try to get the bill reduced a bit, they complied, and twice threw in free Showtime (and other channels) for three months, helping us get to know the inimitable Gallaghers from Shameless. The customer service reps were always pleasant, and spoke English perfectly well. We found FiOS’s news and weather widgets pretty useless, and the rewind function on the DVR never quite worked smoothly. But the service was otherwise fine.

But Cablevision’s deal was too good to pass up on, and we agreed to switch back.

I found myself starting to looking forward to our hookup date with Cablevision, when I could watch News 12 after a nearly two year hiatus.

When I called FiOS to break up, I prepared for a full-throated effort to retain me. The man on the other end of course tried, but once they hear that Cablevision has already hooked up its service (and disengaged FiOS), there’s not much left for them to say.

Cablevision’s deal sounded too good to be true and, well, it wasn’t a seamless switch. The new phone service didn’t work; presumably the tech didn’t check it before departing, or he would’ve noticed there was no dial tone.

When he came back two days later, he said the only place he could hook up the phone is in the living room, through the modem on the computer there-actually pretty darn inconvenient for us, as it’s on the other side of the house from the family room and kitchen, where we spend most of our waking hours. So if we hear it ring, it’s a pretty good sprint to the other side of the house to pick up before it goes to the machine. And we may not hear the ring if the radio or TV is on on the family room either.

The Cablevision tech said the phone had to be hooked up to the modem because the phone line leading into the family room had been cut, and suggested it may have been the FiOS guy who did so when he installed our phone two years before. We didn’t fully understand what he was saying, or why the FiOS tech would cut the line. A Verizon spokesperson checked in with people on the tech side today and told us there would be no reason for a FiOS tech to cut the phone line either.

Over the weekend, and after the tech came a second time, we had more trouble with the phone. My wife’s family called her cell, saying repeated calls to the the land line did not work. Other times it worked fine. Hopefully we don’t need the guy to come back.

The tech also left without hooking us up for wi-fi. To be fair, we didn’t think of asking him to do so, despite my wife using it for her laptop and iPad frequently. But one would think it would be brought up at some point by Cablevision’s reps.

On the bright side, the tech did leave a beautiful drill behind, which came in handy when I was installing a door for the cat heading down to the basement. He claimed it when he returned two days later to fix the phone.

News 12, for its part, hasn’t changed much. The day of our Cablevision hookup, I saw awful traffic on the highways I passed over heading home from the train, which made my jones for local news that much greater. (When you live in the tri-state area, with a city of eight million 15 miles away, you don’t get much hyper local news from the broadcast stations.) The talent, headed by Janine Rose and Brian Conybeare, along with Joe Rao (weather) and Walt Fowler (sports) is still there. (Do they ever leave?)

Now they’re in high def. There’s a 24/7 crawl with local, world, entertainment and sports news, which drives me crazy. (I do remember a crawl, but not a 24/7 one, when we had News 12 two years ago. When will operators allow us to turn off crawls if we prefer-especially ones about Lindsay Lohan or the Kardashians, which have nothing to do with local news?)

I’m still curious to see that first bill, which better not be more than 80 bucks, or I’m calling the salesman immediately to complain. [UPDATE: The first bill was like 78 bucks.]

We have to drop our FiOS cable box and remote and router at a Verizon office nearby. The huge Verizon terminal box, however, remains fastened to our basement wall.

I’m sure the FiOS guys will make a strong offer to bring it back to life for us in a year or two.