COMPLAINING ABOUT cable service is a favored sport, so it's no surprise to hear complaints about cable Internet service. It's unreliable and goes out several times a day, say some dissatisfied customers; a few complain about losing a connection for days at a time. Some residents of Montgomery County are so angry that they are determined to force an improvement in service. Their solution? Have the county threaten to fine cable companies if they don't provide Internet customer service to a certain standard. The County Council is poised this week to be the first local jurisdiction in the nation to place any kind of regulation on cable Internet service. But in an industry that's becoming increasingly competitive, writing more rules doesn't seem like the most effective strategy for getting customers better service.
It may be tempting to think that mandating how quickly an outage needs to be repaired or how long a caller can be put on hold will force companies such as Comcast and Starpower to beef up customer service. But dissatisfied customers have a better way to punish the cable companies -- they can take their business elsewhere. High-speed Internet service can be obtained through DSL lines and by satellite. True, as regulatory proponents argue, DSL service is not as ubiquitous as cable Internet service, but the range of DSL has significantly increased over the past few years. It now covers more than three-fourths of Montgomery County, according to Verizon. There are plans to install a high-speed fiber optic network in the coming years, which would make it easier for DSL Internet providers to begin providing digital television and telephone service. There's also a potential future in wireless networks covering business and residential areas.
Customer service regulations are generally useful to protect consumers in true monopolies, but that's not the case for high-speed Internet access in Montgomery County. The few people who don't have a choice will have one soon. With technology improving so rapidly, it would be shortsighted to develop regulations for a "monopoly" that does not really exist and may lose dominance over time. Remember: In the days of dial-up access to the Internet, it was robust competition that resulted in better prices and service, not threats of fines.