Along with death, taxes, and an ever-growing assortment of Bravo reality shows, disenchantment with your cable TV service seems to be among life's certainties. As in previous years, Consumer Reports' new telecom service Ratings (available to subscribers), showed broad dissatisfaction among customers with cable TV and internet plans. The providers earned, on average, low scores for value and overall satisfaction.
But there were two bright spots, a municipal broadband service run as a public utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a fiber service run by Google in a handful of markets across the country. These innovative options both outpaced the conventional telecommunications companies when it came to value and customer satisfaction.
The new telecom Ratings were based on a recent survey of more than 172,000 subscribers reporting on their experience with home internet, pay TV, and telephone service.
Some of the country's largest cable TV companies—including Comcast, as well as Time Warner Cable and Charter, which recently merged—are among the bottom dwellers in overall customer satisfaction, though they actually don't score the worst. (More on that later.) And, when it comes to internet service, only three of 54 providers received better than a middling score for value. Subscribers opting for TV, internet, and phone bundles were just as unhappy. They didn't deem a single company worthy of more than the worst score for value.
The telecom survey included 30 pay TV services. Of those, 70 percent offered cable, while 23 percent had fiber, and 7 percent provided satellite service.
By and large, the bigger cable TV companies fared poorly. In fact, if it weren't for Mediacom Communications (which serves a little more than a half-million customers in the Midwest and Southeast) and MetroCast (New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia), Time Warner Cable and Comcast would have landed at the bottom of the Ratings for bundled packages and TV service. And Charter and Cox were each just a few steps up in that last category.
The results were ugly for value, too, with 28 of the 30 TV service providers earning our lowest score. The two exceptions—municipal broadband company EPB Fiber Optics-Chattanooga and Google Fiber—each earned high scores from the survey respondents. Both services offer super-fast 1-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) speeds.
EPB Fiber Optics-Chattanooga ranked highest in the survey for overall satisfaction, edging out Google Fiber and cable company Armstrong.
Only about one-third of the subscribers surveyed say they're very or completely satisfied with their service. Still, people seem to find it tough to come up with a better alternative. Only about 17 percent reported dropping or cutting back on their pay TV service in the past year.
EPB Chattanooga topped this list, as well, earning high marks for value, reliability, and speed in its role as an internet service provider (ISP). Another top performer was Sonic (Sonic.net in our survey)—a relatively small company that provides high-speed DSL service in Northern California and Los Angeles—which received top scores for value and reliability. Google Fiber earned kudos for speed, while Armstrong scored well for customer service and technical support.
Consistent with the Ratings in prior years, HughesNet was at the bottom of the chart, along with cable provider Mediacom, FairPoint Communications (DSL), and Dish Network (satellite). Of the three largest ISPs in the survey, Verizon (fiber) scored considerably higher than Comcast and Time Warner in overall satisfaction.
One bright spot across the board: Median internet speeds have reached 25Mbps, which is what now constitutes broadband accordingto the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.
Bundles Get Booed
You might imagine that bundled services—TV, internet, and phone in one neat little package—would make people happier, but think again. Every single bundle in our survey received a poor score for value. And fewer than one in three subscribers said they were very or completely satisfied with their bundles.
And yet, some companies stood out for being especially disappointing. The list includes Mediacom, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cox Communications. (The Cox result is a hybrid score, which we use for plans that combine services on different connection types or services from different providers.) Among the best bundled service providers, according to our readers, were Wave, SuddenLink Communications, and RCN. Suddenlink is in the midst of being acquired by Altice, a European telecom company that's also buying middle-of-the-pack Cablevision.
Many subscribers report having at least one negative experience with their bundle provider. Among the key complaints, 40 percent said the cost of a bundle jumped significantly after the promotional period expired. And 23 percent said extra fees and taxes made their bills higher than they had anticipated.
One last finding from the survey: It pays to negotiate. Subscribers report paying a median of $180 a month for their bundles, and more than two-thirds of those subscribers (70 percent) have tried to negotiate a better deal—either a lower rate or additional features. Not everyone succeeded, but nearly 40 percent of the negotiators were able to get a new promotional rate, 16 percent received additional premium channels, and roughly 12 percent got faster broadband speeds.
James K. Willcox
June 15, 2016