Satellite radio. Cell phone. High-speed Internet service. Matt Botwin, a Washington consultant, has it all -- and the bills that go with his growing bundle of technology.
With each new service, more of Botwin's monthly income is spoken for. A generation ago, mortgages, utilities and newspaper subscriptions made up a short list of payments due each month. Now Americans pay an average of 12 bills a month, including fees for a broad range of services such as television programming, home security-system monitoring and online gaming Web sites. And each individual bill may increase as consumers add incremental improvements such as Internet access to their cell phones and premium channels to their satellite radio service.
Botwin figures that he spends at least $250 a month on his subscription services. "I'm not happy about it. It's a lot," Botwin said. But he also feels that his digital devices and services are necessities. The Sirius satellite radio is indispensable for his frequent drives to New York and Philadelphia. "It's like any luxury. I didn't think I needed a microwave [oven], but I'm sure glad I have it now."
Economists and academics are beginning to grow concerned about Americans' willingness to cede a regular chunk of their monthly paychecks to new conveniences and services, saying it is taking a serious bite out of discretionary spending, a key driver of the nation's economy. They also worry that new services are contributing to a growing divide between consumers who have the means to secure special treatment, such as access to free-rolling highway lanes, while others are stuck in bumper-to-bumper standstills.
This lock-'em-in-and-keep-'em-loyal routine has roots going back 100 years, with King Camp Gillette, who at one point gave away his innovative safety razor, then made his fortune selling the disposable blades. High-tech companies have found a way to raise the stakes. The foundation of their new business model may have been pioneered by the cable industry in the early 1940s when it began offering consumers, for a small monthly fee, access to a better television picture. In its early stages, cable charged less than $5 a month for a service that was nothing more than retransmission of local TV stations. Now the industry has become a telecommunications and entertainment behemoth that offers hundreds of channels, high-speed Internet access and telephone service, among other things. The monthly cable bill for millions of subscribers now totals well over $100.
Michael Mazis, chairman of the Department of Marketing at the Kogod School of Business at American University, said the cable industry followed a classic marketing pattern of getting a foot in the door with a basic service and then methodically increasing the consumer's dependence on the product.
A Cox cable customer who subscribes to the so-called "triple play" -- television, telephone and Internet -- will have a monthly bill of about $140, according to company officials. If a customer subscribes to a full tier of products, including digital cable channels and high-definition television service, then adds a digital recording device, the monthly bill could approach $200.
David Pugliese, vice president of marketing for Cox Communications Inc., said the larger cable bill does represent savings for customers, who would pay more for the various services if purchased separately. He also argues that the popularity of the product proves that consumers are willing to pay significant fees for entertainment and convenience. "We've always been concerned about whether sticker shock is a concern for consumers," Pugliese said. Cox offers consumers the option of receiving a separate bill for each service.
Mazis contends that all the earmarked spending on new conveniences raises concerns for other products competing in the marketplace. "It reduces the amount of disposable income," Mazis said. Ultimately, shopping malls, restaurants, even catalogue merchandisers may find that they are taking a back seat to services that are billed to consumers on a regular basis. "I think it is really affecting the purchase of clothing, for example," Mazis said.
But larger market and competitive forces make it unlikely that the trend will reverse anytime soon.
Wireless phone companies are following cable's lead, initially selling a basic service that allows people on the go to communicate. Now cell phones regularly provide Internet access, and some even allow users to watch TV and play video games. Each service a customer adds gives the company a new revenue stream of a few dollars a month.
Wired phone companies are competing with their own bundle of services. The regional phone giants, including Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., offer telephone, high-speed Internet service and television channels. The phone companies have no television programming of their own but are able to offer consumers satellite TV service through partnerships with DirecTV and Dish Networks.
Cable, telephone, Internet and other subscription services are also benefiting from changes in the way people pay their bills. Many consumers have fees -- for their gym membership, their online professional journal, their newspaper delivery -- directly applied to their credit cards, which they in turn pay on a monthly basis. Others take advantage of automatic-debit programs that allow companies to pluck money right from the customer's bank account. After they sign off on the first bill, some consumers may not notice the monthly fee unless they take a close look at their bank statements or credit card bills.
Cox initiated an automatic debit system 21/2 years ago. Cox's Pugliese estimates that 12 percent of the company's customers use the system. "Obviously this takes the late payment and the nonpayment out of the way. These are great customers for us. It takes all the hassle out of paying the bill," Pugliese said.
But there is also growing concern among some economists that the introduction of expensive new technology services is dividing the nation into digital haves and digital have-nots.
One often-referred-to example is the introduction of variable toll roads -- so-called Lexus lanes. On highways in and around San Francisco and San Diego, special lanes are set aside for cars that carry devices that can be read by electronic tollkeepers. The cost of driving on the road varies based on the number of cars that have passed through the toll. The tolls regulate the number of cars by increasing the cost as more enter the lanes. Signs warn drivers they have a choice between paying a higher fee to use highway lanes largely free of congestion or sitting in traffic and watching the other cars speed by.
"We are creating a two-tiered society, not just the way we pay bills or drive on the highways," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation of Economic Trends, author of "Age of Access," a book that argues the world is being transformed into a pay-as-you-go society.
Rifkin points to the proliferation of tree-lined gated communities where 40 million Americans now have, in effect, their own private parks with swimming pools and bike paths. Until the mid-20th century, parks were largely viewed as public spaces. Rifkin claims that the move away from free radio and free television toward subscription models is just one example of a broader trend, with more Americans finding themselves paying premiums for traditional services such as education and health care.
The barriers are highest for consumers on the lowest economic rungs, those without credit or credit cards, according to Rifkin. "Credit cards are what open the door for those who can afford to live in this society," Rifkin said.
The number of consumers who have access to credit cards and electronic bill-paying services is large and growing. According to Synovate Inc., a research firm that follows the credit card industry, 75 percent of all households have access to a credit card. And more than half of people under 35 have paid at least one bill through online banking services.
Lynda Maddox, a professor of marketing and advertising at George Washington University, said consumers do get benefits from new services and the various electronic gadgets that are landing in our pockets and on our desktops and set-tops. "These are electronic maids and butlers," Maddox said, noting that services such as the TiVo digital recorder allow users to record television shows without fumbling with cassettes or programming a VCR to turn on at a specific time. After initial purchase of the TiVo machine, the service costs subscribers $12.95 a month.
Maddox recently acquired a phone that not only makes calls but also sends and receives e-mail and serves as a personal organizer. "I wanted to be able to access e-mail at any time, anywhere. That gives me great freedom," Maddox said.
Maddox's phone retails for more than $400, but even the most expensive digital devices are often sold at subsidized rates. The value of a two-year contract that requires a user to pay $50 a month is more than enough to make up for the discount on the device.
There is nothing unique about technology companies that are able to boost their revenue by adding services to basic products. Maddox said that just last week, she went to a sandwich shop owned by a national franchise. She tried to order a plain sandwich with no trimmings. "The person behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy." The bottom line, said Maddox: "We are becoming the add-on society."