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Big Cable's "nightmare" scenario looks a lot like dealing with Comcast now

Yesterday I wrote about my unpleasant experience visiting a Comcast customer service center to return a cable modem. The scene looked like this:

The Comcast customer service center on Michigan Ave. in Washington DC, around 2pm on Saturday, September 13. (Vox)

I noted that I was far from the only customer who was frustrated by the slow service. "Just tell yourself you're going to the DMV, and you'll be pleasantly surprised," one disgruntled customer wrote last month on Yelp.

John Bergmayer of the liberal group Public Knowledge points out that last week, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association posted this hilarious tweet:

For the last decade, the Federal Communications Commission has classified broadband internet service in a way that exempts it from common carrier regulations that apply to other utilities such as traditional phone service. Advocates such as Bergmayer have been pushing to change that, arguing that classifying incumbent broadband providers as common carriers is the only way to fully protect network neutrality.

In this tweet, the cable industry is warning of dire consequences if the FCC follows this advice: our competitive, dynamic broadband market will become as bureaucratic as a DMV! The problem is that to many people, it already seems like Comcast and other large broadband providers are acting like arrogant monopolies.

At the heart of the network neutrality debate is a disagreement about the relationship between regulation and monopoly. The liberal view is that big broadband providers are de facto monopolies, and that regulations are needed to prevent them from abusing their monopoly power. The conservative response is that regulations cause monopolies. More regulations will make the problem worse, while deregulation will promote competition and innovation.

A decade ago, a lot of people were persuaded by the conservative argument. I made it myself for a number of years. During the Bush and Obama years, the FCC has exempted broadband providers from common carrier regulations in hopes of promoting competition and innovation.

Liberals say that experiment hasn't worked. With a handful of exceptions, there haven't been new companies entering the residential broadband market. And critics say the incumbents, insulated from competition, are behaving more and more like monopolies.

The NCTA's tweet provides a tangible benchmark for what a monopoly looks like: a monopoly is a company whose offices look like a state department of motor vehicles. The DMV is famous for long lines, slow service, and representatives who don't seem very interested in putting the customer first.

Judging from the reader response to yesterday's article, a lot of people feel like Comcast fits this definition perfectly. Several readers emailed to say they had similar experiences with Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable company. If people already think dealing with their cable company is like going to the DMV, the NCTA's argument that regulation will turn them into the DMV isn't going to convince them.

Update: The NCTA's Brian Dietz responds:

So the idea isn't that customers would have to wait in line at the "Common Carrier Internet Office," but that cable company employees would have to do so before they could offer customers new services.

Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, the parent company of Vox.com.

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