A bundle of confusion

If you own a horse, you have to let it run regularly. If you own a sports car, you should take it on a racetrack occasionally for the pleasure of being smashed into your seat while you accelerate. Similarly, if you have a high definition television (HDTV), you do not buy it to watch interlaced analog TV signals with only 473 lines of resolution. You want content that will make you appreciate the fact you just spent $699 on a high definition TV.

That is how much we paid for our HDTV. It is an Olevia 37 inch HDTV that comes with more ports and options than we will ever use. Our TV room is small but despite its relatively modest screen size, it still seems enormous to us. The TV it is replacing worked perfectly fine. It is now sitting in our basement queued for a likely donation. While only about seven years old, it was doomed soon after it was bought. The FCC declared that on February 19, 2009 TVs like ours will be obsolete unless we buy a conversion box. Even if we did our picture quality would not have been improved. Neighbors would laugh at us for being so 20th century.

Both our cable provider (Cox Communications) and our phone company (Verizon) have spent years tempting us with their all-digital services. We have our Internet and cable TV service with Cox and an old-fashioned POTS line with Verizon. On a typical month, I pay Cox $93 and Verizon $32. Both Cox and Verizon have been luring us with bundled services. If we bundled all our communications needs with them, we were told, we could save some money.

Verizon has its fiber optic FiOS service. In addition to providing high-speed Internet access, you can also receive a lot of other content, including their version of movies on demand. Cox offers essentially these same services for roughly the same price. How do I know? Well, it is hard to tell. Masters of voodoo marketing are putting together their sales brochures. They excel in obfuscation. Yet they refuse to leave me alone. Roughly once a week I get a solicitation from each company. Typically, they come in the mail, but now and then, they also come attached to my door handle. Verizon has lately been very uppity, sending salespersons to my door to pitch their FiOS service. That was one strike against them; I hate door-to-door salespersons and by implication any company that would send me one. Moreover, I have an unlisted phone number. You would think Verizon would take this as a signal not to call me. You would be wrong. They have given me several calls pitching FiOS. Cox at least has neither knocked on my door nor solicited me over the telephone.

Now that we are HDTV owners it was time to consider their various offerings. As we soon discovered, analog TV on a HDTV looks ridiculous. Either much of the screen is black or if your TV is fancy like ours is, you can put it in a zoom mode. The screen fills up, but suddenly the picture looks fuzzy.

Both Verizon and Cox had mid-tier bundled service packages for $99.99 a month that combined telephone, digital TV and Internet service. At $99.99 a month, either looked like a good deal. Either deal appeared to be about $25 less than we were currently paying. The question became which one to choose? Which was better?

Naturally, both providers claimed they had a superior network, superior content and lower prices. Both though delight in obfuscating the consumer’s real costs. It is almost impossible to determine what you are actually buying and how much the service will cost you. I spent a couple hours on Verizon’s site trying to pick through the details of their bundles. Eventually I gave up. There is probably no way to know for sure without hiring a lawyer to decipher the fine print. Verizon though did have three strikes against them. First, they annoyed me by having salespersons knock on my door and call me unsolicited on the phone. Second, was their stance on network neutrality. Third and probably most importantly, like with their cell phone service if you select one of their bundles they want to lock you in for a couple years. I mean for such a steal as they are giving you they have to make up the difference somehow! I am old fashioned enough to think that if their service is that great it will be obvious to me, so I should not have to be locked into it.

Cox Communications had a few strikes against them too. About a year ago, I inquired about one of their bundles. I asked many questions and I did not like what I heard. I politely said no thanks, not at this time. A few days later one of their digital receivers arrived on my doorstep. That raised my dander. A phone call confirmed that I had not subscribed to their bundle. However, I still had to take an hour out of my life to return the box they sent me. They would not pick it up.

Nevertheless, between their latest brochure, reading their web site and a long conversation on the phone with their sales office, I was able to get a sense of what my bundle would actually cost me. Still, the devil is in the details. Did their $99.99 a month bundle include the rental cost of their digital receiver? Negatory. That was $4.50 a month, so the bundle was really $104.49. Did it include any HD channels? No except for the local HD broadcast signals. However, they did offer 31 HD channels. If I wanted them on top of our digital cable, they were $1.44 a month. What is this free digital tier that comes with the bundle? Apparently, the ones listed in the brochure were incorrect, but I could get the equivalent of their Variety Tier. This is what my wife wanted because she wants to see the latest Torchwood episodes on BBC America. Would there be an installation charge? Not if I install the digital receiver myself. They have to come out to the house to install the telephone interface, but there is no charge for that. Can I get extended local long distance like I have with Verizon? In other words, can I call my father who lives across the Potomac River toll free? No, but you can call the District of Columbia for free. Oh, and to get the bundle you have to choose Cox as your local long distance, long distance and international provider. Long distance rates are fifteen cents a minute, or more than three times what I pay Pioneer Telephone, my current long distance provider. However, this is not much of an issue since we hardly ever call long distance. We do email instead. Moreover, to maintain my unpublished telephone number I have to cough up another $1.71 a month. All totaled with taxes my $99.99 a month bundle would cost me $123.09. Hey, but at least I will only have to cut one check.

In short, I may save a few bucks a month but I will not be supplementing my retirement income with their fabulous bundled savings. On the plus side, we will no longer be stuck with analog TV signals. Digital signals will no longer be interlaced. The picture on these channels will not make them much bigger, but will make the picture smoother. Their 31 HD channels are expected to double soon and there will be no extra fee. We will get channels we do not get now, but that does not mean we are likely to watch them. In addition, as best I can tell I am not locked into a two-year contract.

In fact, the differences between Cox and Verizon are rather marginal, but I chose to go with Cox for these reasons. I may end up regretting my choice. Their eight-hour battery will keep my landline working during a power outage, but what if the outage lasts nine hours? While many of our TV channels will soon be in HD, I am still not sure I will watch any more TV. I largely gave up TV years ago. On the other hand, our daughter will be pleased.

Our next purchase will probably be a Bluetooth compatible DVD player. Apparently, regular DVDs are not good enough for a modern HDTV, which means that we will want to buy some of our favorite DVDs again so we can have a more proper theatrical experience.

Well, someone has to pull this country out of recession.

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