Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cutting the Cords - All of Them

Image result for cutting the cord

ATT U-Verse is expensive, slow, and buggy.  Why bother in this day of wireless communications?

When we first moved to the island, there were a total of two cell towers on the island.  We had old Motorola analog flip-phones, and I had to use a 4-watt cell phone amplifier with an outdoor flat-plane antenna mounted on a pole, just to get decent voice reception.  Data and texting were not even in the picture.

But technology changes - rapidly these days.   When I was a youth, you could count on technology being static for a decade or more.  Sure, they introduced "touch-tone" phones shortly after I was born, but that didn't really change the fundamental nature of the phone system.  You could still use your old dial phone to make calls, even if you couldn't navigate these newfangled DTMF e-mail menus that came about in the late 1970's.   That being said, dial phones still work - I hooked one up to my PhoneLabs Dock-n-Talk and took cell calls from a dial phone!  (of course, I couldn't dial out).

But those days are long gone.  Technology cycles are churning faster and faster, and tech of only a few years ago is now being tossed on the junk pile.  Or maybe I am just getting older and these cycles seem to go faster and faster.   Our BMWs had cassette decks in them - including one from 2002!   My old Ford F-150 was "fully loaded" because it had power windows and door locks and that extravagant option - air conditioning.

Today, those options are now all standard equipment, and options today include things never heard of years ago, such as panoramic moonroofs and air-conditioned seats.  And while my 1968 Chevy made do with a two-speed transmission (and my 1995 Ford had an amazing four speeds), today, Ford and GM offer (the same) 10-speed transmission on a number of vehicles.   A 2016 Ford is now "obsolete" with its lowly 6-speed transmission!

When we moved to the island, the only choices for Internet service (besides dialup) were DSL from AT&T or Cable Modem from Comcast (boo! hiss!).  Actually, Comcast was just in the process of wiring the island - and the island was abandoning our home-grown cable system, which had its charms, but was woefully outdated.   DSL was replaced with something called "U-Verse" a few years ago, which I was given to understand was fiber-to-pole, with the "drop" remaining as twisted pair.   I was sort of forced to "upgrade" to this service, although I saw no real benefit to it in terms of internet speed.

The main reason they wanted us to upgrade was to ditch analog phone service for landlines.  U-Verse offered VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) which digitized your phone signals.   In a way, it was a reverse of DSL, which used the "broadband" signal from your house, on the twisted pair to the local switch, to send data, while reserving a narrow analog "POTS" (Plain Old Telephone Service) band for traditional analog phone service.  I was also told (by some) that the new service was managed by non-union employees, as well.

The service worked OK, for a while.  I quickly ditched their U-Verse landline, as it cost an astounding $30 a month.  I used netTalk's service instead, which was less than $30 a year.   But over time, problems kept mounting up that made me want to ditch the U-Verse entirely.  Problems, and also the rise of wireless.

1.  Cost:  The cost of DSL kept ratcheting up, and U-Verse offered a cheaper solution, for a while at least.  Over time, I had to ditch the landline (VoIP) part of U-Verse to keep the cost reasonable.  But AT&T kept raising the rates, to the point I was paying $62.50 a month for basic internet.  They offered a television service, but that went by the wayside very quickly as it simply didn't work in many areas.  That didn't keep them from harassing me with DirectTV offers (five months of mail to go through when I got home, and half of it was from AT&T with DirectTV offers - and let's not even talk about the SPAM in my e-mail inbox!). 

$62.50 might not seem like a lot, but as I noted in this blog, recurring subscription services are a real drain on your finances.  I paid over $300 to have U-Verse service for five months this summer, and I wasn't even home!   We had some houseguests use the house while we were away, so I kept U-Verse activated.   Now, granted, I spent over $200 on lunch at a fancy restaurant in Malibu, so $300 might not seem like a lot of money.  But I could choose not to spend as much at the restaurant, go to a lesser-priced restaurant, or eat in our trailer.   Recurring subscription expenses go on and on, forever, if you let them.  Keeping your monthly "nut" low allows you to save money, or indeed, splurge occasionally on something stupid like a $200 lunch.  You have choices, at least.

But of course, my monthly charges pale in comparison to others.  I know folks who pay for cable telvision (over $100 a month), several cell phones (including the latest iPhone), as well as a land line.  They spend hundreds of dollars per month for communications charges, and wonder where their money went.  Our cell phones cost $40 a month, each.  And if I piggyback off Mark's data plan, it could cost even less than that.

Speaking of Malibu, we got to experience the Santa Ana winds firsthand.  PG&E actually shut down the power, to prevent sparks from igniting a fire.  People got all pissed off, and the traffic up 101 was a nightmare as all the signals were off (Californians, oddly enough, actually drove with some courtesy through all of that).  A neighbor's trailer, which was not properly chocked, nearly rolled off the cliff we were camped on.  I had to rappel down the cliff to retrieve metal chairs and a table that blew off, overnight.   It was pretty amazing.  Take a wet towel, hold it in the breeze, and it almost instantly dries.   It is no wonder they have these staggering fires.  But I digress.

2.  Service:  The service was faster than dialup, but that's about it.  On occasion, it would slow to a crawl, and videos on Netflix would refuse to load.  There was no rhyme or reason to it, it just would slow down.  The advertised speeds were rarely reached (according to various internet speed measuring sites).  But they have an "out" on that - it is like EPA mileage - your mileage may vary, and if you paid for 6MIPS, then 4.5 is considered "within range" or whatever.

3.  Reliability:  For about five years in a row, I had to go through a painful process every fall when we returned to the island.  With the router/modem shut off for more than a month, the service would deactivate (but not the billing!).  I was told by a tech that the system automatically shuts down accounts that are not active, to prevent piracy (not sure how that works, but that's what they said).   In some instances, this meant hours-long phone calls with AT&T, explaining my life story several times, before being shunted to someone who actually could do something about it.

In some instances, they could re-activate the modem electronically.  In others, they had to send someone out.  In other cases, they had to ship me a new modem, and I had to return the old one to AT&T by going to UPS and having it shipped back. 

The first time this happened, I assumed it was a fluke.  The second, a pain-in-the-ass.  The third, I realized it was the "threshold of pain" of doing business with U-Verse.  One reason I left the modem ON (with a backup power supply, to boot) this time around was to prevent such an occurrence.  But the modem deactivated anyway, and I decided this time, to just pull the plug, rather than spend hours on the phone being connected to technical support (hearing Sanjay tell me to unplug the modem and plug it back in, before he transfers me to a "supervisor" who says the same thing).

Having to re-install U-Verse annually was just not worth the hassle.

4.  Liability:   In addition to these other problems, one big problem with U-Verse was my liability for equipment and wiring.  House wiring can go bad, and it can mess up your signals.   In the old, old days, the phone company would come to your house and wire a phone.  If something broke, including the phone, they fixed it.

With deregulation, the phone company was responsible for everything up to the "network interface" which was a new creation that came out in the late 1980's.   This box sat on the side of the house and demarcated the line between what was the phone company's responsibility and yours.   For an additional monthly fee, you could buy "line insurance" and they would agree to fix inside lines.

I had an intractable problem with our phones in Virginia - for several years - and out of desperation bought this "line insurance" and the replaced all the lines in my house, to no avail.  It was only several years later that a tech found out the problem was a squirrel (damn squirrels!) had gnawed through the company lines, nearly a block down the street, such that every time it rained, the water would short my lines, causing a scratchy noise on the phone.  Since I had cable modem, it didn't affect my Internet (I suspect it would have killed it).

With U-Verse, AT&T has moved its responsibility further up to the pole.  The "drop" from the pole to the house is now your responsibility to pay for, even though you are not allowed to fix it yourself, if it breaks (which you could do, with the lines inside your house).  I found this out after one of our "near miss" hurricanes dropped a branch on the "drop" and severed it.  Again, I had to call AT&T and explain this to several people ("did you try unplugging and plugging-in the modem?") until I could get a tech to come out and fix it.  Imagine my chagrin when they sent me a bill for this.  And apparently, I am not the only one to experience this.

And if you think about it, they could have charged me $5000 for this, and I would have little recourse but to pay it.  It is one thing to say you are responsible for the lines in your house - you can fix these yourself or hire an electrician or tech guy to fix them, or call the phone company and pay their rates.  Even the power company will fix the "drop" - up to the rain hood.  But to have a piece of hardware (the drop) that only AT&T can fix, at their rates, determined by them, and paid for by you, seems kind of unfair.  It would be like owning a car that you could only get fixed at the dealer (and yes, the car companies, and the dealers in particular, are trying that move as well).

So you have all this equipment, and you are responsible for most of it, and if it breaks, your service goes out, and it is a pain to get fixed.  Contrast this to a cell phone.  I paid $99 for mine, and if it breaks, I simply buy a new one, move the SIM card and memory card to it, and move on with life.  The nice folks at the wireless store will even do this for free.

5.  Improvements in Wireless:   The other half of the equation is how wireless is taking over the world.  Instead of two antennas on our island, today there are dozens.  Each water tower is ringed with antennas today, and I no longer need a cell phone amplifier to get a decent signal.  There are a few "dead spots" on the island (such as the club hotel) but for the most part, even with two bars of signal, I can stream videos, even.

(After the Vietnam war, they had to rebuild the infrastructure including the phone system, which wasn't much to write home about.  Rather than lay out all those land lines, they went wireless, from what I understand, which seemed extravagant at the time, but makes sense today.  Why invest in a bunch of wires that can be damaged by weather and whatnot, when the coming technology was wireless?)

With most modern televisions, you can "mirror" your phone (sometimes called "Miracast" on some televisions - see your setup menu) so that the video you are streaming appears on your flat-screen television.  Maybe this isn't HD, but we don't watch much TV anyway.   It is bad for your mind, even the stuff on Netflix (how many movies and shows are about crime, the end-of-the-world, or how corrupt and venal our government is?   Think about this and why people today are so unhappy and ready to overthrow our Democracy on a moment's notice).

So the "need" for high-speed wired internet is starting to disappear.   We figured this out while on the road, having to rely on one smartphone with a data plan.  We were able to set it up as a hotspot and then stream data to an $85 pad device and watch YouTube and even Netflix - while in Canada!  And needless to say, I could link my laptop to it (as I am doing now) and type my stupid blog entries and balance my checking account.

And of course, over time, wireless will continue to get better and better, and I suspect that wired solutions will start to lose money (if they already haven't) and eventually, wires running all over the place will start to disappear.  They won't disappear, actually.  We still have old wires from our obsolete home-grown cable system here on the island.  They run through everyone's back yard, buried, and the pedestals are slowly turning over, one by one (I dug mine up and threw it away - most homeowners are unsure what it is, and leave it alone).  A few wires are hung from poles, and after every hurricane near-miss, more and more fall down, and the phone company and the power company want nothing to do with them.  Apparently, the scrap value of all that coax isn't worth the cost of union labor to remove it.   So in parts of the island, you see sad cables hanging down, beneath the new fiber optic cables above them.

Maybe some day, Elon Musk's wet dream will come true, and we will all have solar panels and battery banks in our homes, and even the need for power drops will fade.  One by one, the utility poles will rot and fall down, and the nest of wires over our heads (which most people don't notice, unless you are in a beach town) will disappear for good, much as the cat's cradle of telegraph and telephone wires (and trolley wires) that you see in old city photos of the turn-of-the-century (the last one, not this one) did.

But, I suspect, that is a long way off.

One lesson from this, though is that an unexpected expense in retirement is equipment upgrades.  Like I said, I despise being forced to upgrade equipment against my will.   Often, they tempt us into these upgrades by offering lower prices - at least initially.   U-Verse was cheaper than DSL when I switched, thinking I was saving money and being clever.  But over time, the cost ratcheted up.  And I am sure wireless will do the same thing.   You want internet, you want to stream videos, you have to pay.   That is, unless you want to go to the library or internet cafe and log onto someone's WiFi account, and watch over-the-air television with a flat-plane antenna.

Or, merely choose not to consume online content at all, which frankly, seems more and more attractive these days.  Everything, it seems, online, is designed to get you to click, to get at you at a visceral, reptilian-brain level.   You are baited and they want you to be outraged over this and that.  Or to share a cute cat video on Facebook, while you barf up the most intimate of demographic data to God-only-knows who.  Already, a lot of the younger generation is simply walking away from Cable TV - it simply isn't worth it.  Even if they paid me to watch, I think I would decline.

The interesting thing about cutting this last cord (or second-to-last, if you count Georgia Power) is that now I have to decide what to do with my landline phones, my VoIP account, and all those wires in my house.   I could sell the phones at a garage sale (resale price:  $5 each, if that) or continue to use them with my Dock-N-Talk as a "landline" with the cell phone.   There is some advantage to that - a real phone provides side tone and is more comfortable to talk on.  Plus, you don't have to "run for the phone" before it goes to VoiceMail, when it rings - you just pick up an extension.

But then again, who talks on the phone anymore?   Every phone call, it seems, is a fraudster.   Maybe we call friends or relatives once in a while, but for the most part, people text or e-mail today.  So maybe the phones (and I have about eight of them, AT&T small business model 945) will go away, too.

After being away for five months, I come home and think to myself that I have a lot of old and obsolete shit in my home - crap that needs to be thrown away, quite frankly.  We see this at old people's garage sales - appliances and technology that is woefully outdated, and yet they cannot part with it.  Things like tube televisions and CRT monitors - "I paid a lot of money for that!" they think, so they cannot merely toss it in the trash.  And increasingly, the trash man won't even pick that sort of thing up.

So, while you add up the cost of utilities, insurance, taxes, food, gasoline, phone service, and whatnot, and think, "this is how much I need to retire" - think again about things like technology upgrades.  Maybe my retired 3rd grade teacher could rely on driving her 1965 Mercedes until the day she died or turned in her license.  Today, it is likely you'll want to upgrade technology periodically - or be forced to do so over time.   Factor that into your retirement calculations.

For the time being, cutting the cord on U-Verse will save us some money - and headaches.   I suspect I will put my old PC into storage (my second-to-last, actually a better machine, died and was thrown away).   What I will likely do with my last PC is transfer the data to portable hard drives (or the cloud?) and throw it away as well (the video card is starting to go, and it is a decade old - not worth fixing!).  It seems the laptop and cell phone are the new norm, at least for me, now that I am retired.

In a way, it is liberating.  My "Office" will be a lot less cluttered, and I will have less technology to deal with.  Less is more as I am realizing over time.   Less technology, less hardware, less stress.

It looks like we'll have to have another garage sale - yet again.