Let’s Complain About Cable: Hidden Fees and What You Can do About Them

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In moving off my university’s campus, I experienced one of today’s newest and least revered rites of passage into adulthood: frustration with my cable provider. Aside from my appointment being rescheduled twice and the representative on the phone trying to convince me that bundling my services was a matter of life or death, I found there to be a surprise or two in my bill. Cable companies advertise a certain price, but then upon receiving their bill consumers learn of the staggering number of fees that are often tacked on.

Misleading Advertising Promotions

Let’s draw up an analogy here, as although I was outraged, it was really only slight outrage -- this practice of cable companies ripping off consumers has become fairly normalized in today’s society. So, it’s Monday, you are pushing your grocery cart down the aisle, speedily picking up your items. You have your list in hand, incorporating everything that you need perfectly into your budget for the week. But, once you reach the checkout the cashier tells you that you’re over budget: There is a fee for temporarily renting that shopping cart, a fee for the quality selection of food in the store, and a fee for the store to maintain the FDA’s food and health code standards. This seems rather ridiculous, yet these concealed fees are exactly how cable companies have hoodwinked consumers for the last several decades.

One of the most absurd and common fees from cable providers is the HD fee. Since June 13, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that television stations broadcast only in digital format. In fact, manufacturers don’t even make Standard Definition TV’s anymore -- so why are consumers charged for today’s norm?

The next fee that should be on cable companies’ chopping block is one Public Knowledge has adamantly protested for years: the set-top box fee. Consumers are forced into renting a set-top box (the hardware that allows you to watch cable) from their cable provider and do not have access to “unaffiliated” devices. The FCC proposed opening up the set-top box marketplace, and the proposal received widespread public support, but the new administration has not moved on it. As I write this, the amount of money American consumers have lost due to unnecessary set-top box fees during this time sits at a jaw-dropping $41,517,406,262.95 (check out how this number has only grown in real time here).

Communications Oligopoly

So why do consumers put up with these fees? The answer is simple: Cable companies live in a world sorely lacking in competition. These cable companies are also no longer just cable companies; most companies now provide consumers with bundles of cable, internet, and phone services. When consumers tend to have the same cable and broadband provider this grand lack of competition becomes even more menacing. According to the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Progress Report, the majority of consumers only have one choice of broadband providers in their area. A joint report done by Consumer Federation of America and Public Knowledge found that cable providers overcharge by around 20 percent in areas that lack competition. It turns out “areas that lack competition” is most of the United States. For instance, Comcast and Charter control more than half of American cable broadband connections -- and they operate in separate regions.

What Now?

So, how can we escape this seemingly inescapable web of fees and avoid letting the cable companies act as hungry spiders waiting to gobble up all our money? First these companies need to be transparent. Our friends at Consumer Reports recently created a petition that you can sign demanding your cable company stop sneaking hidden fees into your bills. The goal of this petition is to force cable companies to eliminate hidden fees and instead advertise the full price of services, so consumers can effectively compare prices before they buy any packages. Next, you can share your story with Consumer Reports showcasing the most outrageous fees you’ve received from your cable provider.

After exposing the real price hidden behind your cable company’s curtain, write to your representatives asking them to say no to anticompetitive policies that drives cable fees up. It is time to call out these cable providers and to put an end to the all too normal practice of hidden fees.


Image credit: Flickr user sfxeric

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