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Freedom is Only an Illusion: Why Cutting the Cable Cord is Much Harder than You Think

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | October 7, 2014 |

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | October 7, 2014 |

October was supposed to be an amazing month.

If my wife is reading this, she probably thinks I’m about to dedicate a thousand words to my kid being alive for five weeks. Nope. OUR GIRL WILL GET IMPORTANT INTERNET MENTIONS WHEN SHE STARTS PULLING HER WEIGHT AROUND THE HOUSE INSTEAD OF POOPING AND SLEEPING! Also yes, I suppose I will sleep in the basement indefinitely. Please make sure the blankets are extra scratchy.

No, I was excited because after two relatively satisfied years as a Verizon FIOS customer, my contract was set to expire on October 1. Meaning I could shrug off the coaxial chains that have shackled my privileged ass for so long and abandon cable for a cordless Valhalla where I pay only for content I want to consume.


Here’s what I needed: network television plus HBO, Cinemax, ESPN, Sundance, Comedy Central, and FX. Replacing the networks was easy - a $30 digital antenna provides all the networks plus PBS in crisp HD. Glorious.

The rest was harder than explaining metallurgy to Rosie O’Donnell.

We should talk price before continuing the story, because costs are the main driver behind cord-cutting. Prior to Wednesday, I paid $89.99 a month for what FIOS calls their Double Play package - 215 channels (about 10 of which we actually watch) and 15 mbps Internet speeds. I also had HBO and Cinemax for $26.99 a month because I like boobs and great television and don’t mind paying for the privilege. After taxes, fees, surcharges, box rentals (ask your sister; she knows all about that), and rustproofing, I gave Verizon $136.47 per month to watch “Flip or Flop” in HD and enjoy buffer-free porn on demand.


One hundred thirty seven bucks a month seemed pretty damn expensive. That price covered just one HD box without DVR. Do you know how difficult life becomes when you can’t pause live television? Verizon’s exorbitant prices means my kid doesn’t get her diapers changed during Baltimore Ravens games. Oh, I can afford the diapers. What I can’t afford is to miss a play. THE TEAM NEEDS ME! HOW ELSE WILL THE PLAYERS KNOW THEY’VE DONE SOMETHING STUPID UNLESS I SCREAM AT THEM THROUGH THE TELEVISION?!?! With streaming, though, I can manipulate media any way I choose. Hell, just the other day I talked Netflix into letting me drink the last beer in the house and break up with its annoying girlfriend even though it totally didn’t want to.

Lower prices, more control, fewer extraneous channels. I was about to get one over on cable companies, and I couldn’t have been happier.


Here’s the thing about cable companies, though: they didn’t become pseudo-monopolies through sheer stupidity. They understand that anyone born since Jesus was in short pants has considered transitioning to streaming entertainment. And because cable companies are almost always your ISP, they can get away with offering Internet-only options that look like this:



“Choose the offer that’s right for you.” Fuck you, smartass FIOS webpage. Remember, I already paid $89.99 a month for a substantial cable package with Internet included. The cheapest standalone option saves me all of $15 while eliminating 215 channels. Verizon was kind enough to generously waive the already arbitrary activation fee, though.

To be fair, even the cheapest package offers faster Internet speeds than what I had. And you can make the case that avoiding the two-year contract is worth a higher monthly cost. Let’s see what a two-year agreement looks like:


OK, that’s a little more palatable. Fifty dollars is less than $90. So I’ll just go ahead and order that wait what the price jumps to $70 after a year? And I can’t cancel without a paying crippling fee because I’m locked into a two-year contract?


Fifty dollars a month for Internet isn’t outrageous. It isn’t cheap, either. Especially when all this gets me is the pipe. Anything I want delivered through it - Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, Google Play - is extra.

And I’ll need those services to build a true cable alternative. Because there’s another major barrier to cord-cutting that’s rarely mentioned: It’s nearly impossible to legally access popular content in a timely manner without a cable subscription. It’s true that most major channels now offer streaming options. HBO has the fantastic HBOGo app. FX recently introduced FX Now. You can stream live sports through WatchESPN. Awesome! One femur-shattering hurdle, though: these streaming options are only accessible if the channels are already included in your cable subscription.


Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime all have massive content libraries. Most TV series, however, aren’t made available for weeks or months after a season concludes. If you want to watch the final season of “Justified” as it airs without a cable subscription, you have to cough up two bucks for an episode on iTunes or Google Play. All 13 episodes will set you back around $25. Multiply that by 10 or 12 shows, and cord cutters are shelling out several hundred dollars annually. Pricey, but at least an option exists. College football and basketball, the NBA, MLB, and the Barclays Premier League all list cable as their primary residence. If you want to watch any of these sports live, you better pony up for cable or walk your ass down to the bar.

Here’s where I ended up after days of comparison shopping: in order to rid myself of cable - and ostensibly lower my bill - I’d actually have to pay much more than I currently do for far fewer options and less convenience. Breaking up with cable isn’t supposed to be this difficult in 2014. Yet it is. And it’s unlikely to get easier any time soon.

Cable companies have absolutely no incentive to improve the viewing experience, provide more flexibility, or their lower prices. The symbiotic relationship between local governments and cable companies - the latter provides kickbacks to the former in exchange for guarantees that competitors will not be allowed to enter the market - coupled with old-fashioned collusion and consolidation means media companies hold every card. The online viewing silver bullet, once a legitimate threat to these burgeoning monopolies, has been rendered fundamentally ineffective due to the cable companies’ considerable investments in broadband infrastructure.

Check out this map. A cable company is the largest ISP in almost every state. If the their merger with Time Warner is approved, Comcast would provide Internet to over half the country (28 states if you count the joint venture with Mid-Continent Communications in North and South Dakota).


Sure, there are workarounds. You can torrent “Game of Thrones” or find a friend with cable and use their login to stream the Alabama-LSU game. But the former is ethically and legally sticky, and the latter keeps some other unfortunate sap tethered to cable box. Transferring the burden isn’t the same as cutting the cord.

By Saturday, I was so discouraged with the entire process that I re-upped with Verizon for another two years at a cheaper monthly rate. Even though renewing was the best financial decision, I still felt like the leader of a failed coup, humbled before a mighty enemy I never really had a chance to dethrone.

Whatever. At least I can watch porn in my cell.

Brian Byrd doesn’t understand why Ravens coaches refuse to heed his advice. Follow him on Twitter.