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If Comcast doesn't want tougher net neutrality rules, maybe it should be less terrible

This guy is a Comcast executive. Everyone hates him.
This guy is a Comcast executive. Everyone hates him.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As the Obama administration seeks to reclassify the regulatory status of the internet to defend network neutrality, pushback from both Republican politicians and industry players has been intense. As the fight continues, the broadband industry will have two key advantages. One is a lot of money to spend on defending their interests, and the other is an American political system that generally makes it a lot easier to say "no" to proposals for change than "yes." Proponents of the change will also have some lobbying money from internet companies who favor net neutrality. But the real ace up their sleeve is more fundamental than that — people really hate telecom and cable companies.

Specifically, internet service providers and cable companies are the two least popular industries in America. Which naturally raises the question: why, given how acutely aware these companies are of the importance of political influence, don't they bother to invest some money in improving customer service?

Dealing with Comcast on the phone is, after all, a totally misery-inducing experience.

Do it once and you think okay, maybe I just got a bad rep on a bad day. But if you've had the pleasure of a years-long relationship with Comcast, including multiple moves and outages and so forth, then on a gut level you're going to side against them in any public policy dispute, regardless of the merits. If you want fast home internet access in my neighborhood, you have no choice but to buy it from Comcast. But that doesn't mean you can't get angry at their bad service. If anything you get angrier because you feel helpless about it.

Susan Crawford, former Obama adviser on technology, talks to Ezra Klein about why the government should provide internet access.

So why doesn't Comcast fix it? If not nationwide, why don't they at least fix it in the DC area so maybe congressional staff and political journalists and FCC personnel would have a positive impression of them?

The answer may be that as a monopolist, Comcast actually can't provide more effective service. In a highly competitive marketplace, the company would get instant feedback in the form of cancellations. That feedback would help managers see which workers were doing a good job and which were doing a bad job. It would help reps themselves see which tactics were effective in pleasing customers and which weren't. Competition doesn't ensure high-quality customer service. Some firms just decide that, in the scheme of things, investing heavily in it doesn't pay off. But competition at least lets you see what's working. By contrast, in a non-competitive marketplace, all you really learn is that, in a neighborhood with no competition and lots of highly educated people moving in, you can sell a lot of high-speed internet access.

But if they know what's good for them, cable and telephone companies will scramble as quickly as possible to at least try to do better. Popularity matters a lot in politics, and right now the broadband infrastructure owners don't have any.