My older brother can detect unfulfilled global consumer demand, then use his Mandarin fluency to navigate the complex web of Chinese manufacturing to build a product, and his MBA knowledge of global logistics and retail channels to get it onto store shelves.
He reads prodigiously and is capable of arguing anything from politics to college football vociferously. Seriously, the dude won’t let you talk.
We phone chat and vent with one another often these days, frequently discussing our broader geopolitical situation. “Much of the world lives in a banana republic,” Andy often assures me, culling an adult lifetime spent largely abroad. “They still manage to be happy.”
Yeah, unlike his darker, more neurotic younger brother, who he used to affectionately refer to in the lighter mood of the pre-Me Too movement as “Woody Allen, Andy’s a pretty happy guy.
He doesn’t know—or care—that much about his residential telecom services. Just set him up for that FaceTime chat with his older daughter in Chicago for their daily workout together. Or do that Zoom call with his factory people in Guangzhou. Or make sure he can watch that UCLA game on the Pac-12 Network on Saturday afternoon come fall. Andy’s fine.
Soon-to-be former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s championing of a ruinous corporate tax bailout aside, Andy and I haven’t talked too much about the telecom business, which is one of the few topics I know more about.
Having ditched all AT&T services myself last year, I recently needed to see Andy’s U-verse bill for a little reporting project I was working on. My brother snapped an iPhone image of his latest monthly statement and texted it to me.
I was shocked.
My brother is rollin’ in the scrilla, as the kids say—his household finance advice to his price-sensitive (OK, cheap!) younger brother isn’t to clip coupons. It’s bring in more revenue!
“But come on,” I admonished. “You’re paying $189.86 for U-verse TV, a service AT&T no longer even sells. That can’t stand, man.”
I mean, his TV bill is crazy expensive. He’s paying nearly $33 a month in surcharges, including $9.60 for a “broadcast TV fee” and $9.74 a month for a “CA local video service franchise fee.”
As part of a triple-play, he’s paying only $45 a month for “internet,” but it turns out that it’s effing DSL—yeah, that stuff is still out there—in a plan offering 24 Mbps speed—it doesn’t even reach the FCC's very minimalist definitional threshold of “broadband.”
In my phone call urging Andy to let me liberate him from what I perceive to be the exploitive shackles of a Dallas-based communications monolith, he blithely concedes, “Yeah, my internet has been glitchy lately.”
What a dream consumer—he’s dutifully paid nearly $300 a month for over decade, requiring nary a truck roll or CPE upgrade. If only all of AT&T’s customers were UCLA graduates! But I digress.
This Texan carnage ends today.
Andy isn’t ready to quit linear pay TV. But he doesn’t want to pay three times the market rate. And he wants faster internet.
He wants to go into marriage counseling with AT&T.
I mean, hey, my wife kept me. It could work.
So after a brief detour to what sounded like a far-flung Sub-Continental call center, we embark on a three-way call with a U.S.-based AT&T customer retention rep. A place of healing? Of asking the tough questions and doing the real work? Together? You’ve got to want the relationship to get better, right?
I suggest setting Andy up with a bundle that includes 1-gig fiber internet and the new AT&T TV service. At least for the first year of the two-year commitment, Andy’s bill will be less than half of what it was. He’ll have actual “high-speed internet,” and he’ll be paying market rate for a pay TV service that’s actually still supported.
The rep hems and haws. There’s no fiber or 1-gig service yet available in the sleepy Orange County hamlet that spawned the late Richard Nixon a century ago, a place one of the disgraced ex-President’s most pugnacious critics, my older brother, also calls home.
The rep has a rather anachronistic suggestion—maybe AT&T can downgrade Andy’s U-verse TV plan into something more affordable? Maybe also replace the ol’ rotary phone with one of those swanky push-button models? Tack on a case for his Motorola flip phone? Add a second landline so he doesn’t get kicked off AOL every time the phone rings?
I mean, come on.
“No,” I tell the rep. “We’re going to talk,” And I abruptly end the call.
So what are next steps?
Andy’s only real= HSI option is Charter Communications—it’s what I deploy here in my home office near downtown Los Angeles. I typically wring out around 40 Mbps, according to SpeedTest.net, on a $75-a-month plan that’s advertised to deliver 200 Mbps.
Like my national leadership these days, I don’t expect my telecommunications service provider to be perfect. Basic competency will have to do.
My 40 Mbps is still about seven times faster than what my brother gets. It’s enough to conduct a Google Meet video call with the boss, while the wife does a Zoom meeting, and my 14-year-old plays Call of Duty and my 17-year-old streams The Office—again—in 4K. (Hey, it’s 1:30 p.m. The boys are up!)
I’m advising Andy to buy good ol’-fashioned DOCSIS 3.1-powered cable broadband, and enjoy a first-year promotional price. Charter sends me—and the folks I bought my duplex from four years ago—physical mailers every couple of days, advertising lower promotional prices for internet, as well as dirt-cheap first-year loss-leader prices for pay TV plans. (I often wonder how much lower my cable bill might be, or much bigger the yachts Tom Rutledge and Chris Winfrey might buy, if they didn’t waste so much on poorly targeted marketing.)
One thing’s for sure, based partly on the $197 a year I’d pay Charter in broadcast TV fees alone, I’m not buying Spectrum TV services. And I’m advising Andy to steer clear of them, too.
I’ll train him in the dark art of cord cutting.
I’m advising him to sign up for Netflix and good virtual pay TV provider—I’m pretty happy with Sling TV, which delivers major sports networks and cable channels, and has pledged to keep its price point at $30 a month for the next year. I’ll also advise purchase of a Mohu Leaf antenna to fill in the blanks on the broadcast TV schedule. Andy and his wife can buy additional SVOD services later as they get more comfortable with the whole direct-to-consumer freedom thing—I think Sling International has Mandarin language options they might enjoy, for example.
For connected TV hardware, I’m probably going to hook him up with Roku boxes in his three TV rooms, given that he has only one smart TV, and it’s a little older. I might also consider instead going the Android TV route, with something like a TiVo Stream 4K, given that Roku doesn’t support either Peacock or HBO Max.
If Andy really must keep that landline phone no one ever calls on anymore, he can cut the monthly bill in half and still keep his number with a $15-a-month Vonage plan.
When we talk on that Vonage line, Andy still probably won’t let me get a word in edgewise. But the whole “communications” piece will be priced in half, and my brother won’t be getting used anymore by a Dallas telecom … one that pledged back in 2016 to create jobs with a corporate tax cut, only to end up laying off thousands of people, including some of my friends.
Perhaps this little weekend project will render me at least a fleeting feeling of justice and control in a world that seems to sorely lack both right now.
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