Have you ever been in the middle of purchasing an appliance, when the salesman suddenly leaves to take a 10 minute “personal call,” and then returns without remembering whether he was trying to sell you a television or a toaster oven? Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where the waitress starts clearing your table before you’ve even begun to eat your main course? And have you ever been charged $15 for a “super wash” at a carwash station only to discover that your car is dirtier than when you brought it in and your antenna is broken?
While the above scenarios may sound ridiculous, all of them have happened to me in New Haven. Although this town may be famous for its pizza and Ivy League University, it has also become notorious for its bad customer service. I realize this issue is not unique to New Haven, but for some reason it has found its highest level of exacerbation here.
The chief reason for this appears to be a severe lack of competition. There is only one local newspaper, no choice in utilities, and just try eating a donut around here from a shop that doesn’t have the word Dunkin’ in its title.
No recent issue has brought these problems to light as well as Comcast Cable’s monopoly on local television service. For people who live off campus and desire more out of their television sets than the 800th rerun of Friends where Joey gets his privates stuck in the doorjam, subscribing to Comcast has traditionally been the only option. For reasons unclear to those of us not working in local government, no other cable company has been allowed to operate in this city for quite some time, if ever. And Comcast is currently fighting to extend this reign for an additional 15 years.
This would not be such a problem if Comcast actually offered decent service and reasonable prices, but it doesn’t. The company charges the highest rates in the state, and a recent consumer poll indicates that almost a third of Comcast customers evaluate their service as “poor” or “fair.” People have complained, but thus far Comcast has simply responded by raising fees an additional 5 percent and by reducing funding to the local public access station.
While it may seem like there is little one can do to escape the Comcast juggernaut, other options are available. Satellite TV is finally gaining a foothold in New Haven and charges almost half of what Comcast does. And for those of you who never thought you would associate AT&T with anything but annoying commercials, the company is preparing to introduce its own digital cable service into the area.
Of course, patronizing alternative businesses is a solution that can be applied to areas beyond cable television. If you are sick of having to deal with that slacker at Blockbuster who tells you to look for “Ghost World” in the horror section, make the extra trek to Best Video. If the sterile atmosphere and overpriced beverages at Starbucks are making you feel downright frappy, give Koffee a try. And if the jokers at Circuit City try to sell you a Betamax video player because “it’s going to be the next big thing,” take off — there are other electronics stores on Boston Post Road.
Overall, the best way to defeat the monopoly system in New Haven, as elsewhere, is to explore your options and voice your complaints. By accepting things the way they are, we give the monopolies free reign to charge and treat us however they see fit. If this trend continues, someday soon you may find yourself reading a New Haven Advocate that looks suspiciously like the New Haven Register. You’ll take a sip of your $5 double-decaf Snickerccino, and wonder why it was the only thing you could purchase at Banana Republic. And you’ll turn on your TV to find your friendly Comcast representative staring back at you — telling you where you can stick that cable wire the next time you have a problem with their service.
David Grimm is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Genetics.