Friday, May 18, 2007

Living with Comcast

I realize that I have selected a Title with pejorative connotations (like "Living with Cancer"); so let me start off by asserting that this will not be an entirely negative account (nor will it be entirely positive)! Thus far in the cable business, the customer has very little (if any) choice. Indeed, the only alternatives may be to go with a dish or manage with whatever your antenna can pull in "from the air."

When my wife and I moved to Palo Alto, the cable feed was provided by a local cooperative. They provided what, at that time, was a broad variety of options for the many tastes and preferences that make up the Palo Alto demographic. They also provided a feed for FM radios, through which one could hear BBC World, as well as a few stations from across the country. Since the only option for classical music in the Bay Area was KDFC (which, for anyone who actually listened to the stuff, was the moral equivalent of no option at all), I found it a real treat that, after many years of hearing about it, I could now actually listen to WFMT, coming out of Chicago.

As just about anyone could guess, Palo Alto Cable Co-op was not a particularly profitable undertaking; and eventually they had to throw in the towel. They were bought out by AT&T Broadband, and gradually most of the good things started evaporating. It turned out that the AT&T guys knew nothing about the FM feed, so it sort of managed on its own for a while in a closet. However, when the system "went digital," everything changed. I cannot remember if this took place before or after Comcast swallowed up AT&T Broadband; but, in terms of our family viewing habits, they were both turkeys of the same order. Not only had I lost my best radio feeds, but also I now had a set-top box that could not longer accept channel-changing signals from my VCR! These were the new semantics of "progress."

By the time we bought the place in San Francisco, Comcast had ironed out many (but not all) bugs. They had launched On Demand, which was a royal pain to use but was usually preferable to what was actually being broadcast an the times we were viewing. Also, the Homeowners Association for the San Francisco place (originally purchased for weekend use only) offered the Comcast analog feed at no charge. Since we would bring videotapes up from Palo Alto, this was fine. I also thought that the San Francisco place would give me an opportunity to compare Comcast broadband with my SBC service in Palo Alto. As I recall, I gave them about half a year from the time we moved in. At the end of that half-year, they were less certain about when broadband would be available than when we first set up the San Francisco place; so I ditched the opportunity to compare and called SBC.

Once we sold the Palo Alto house, I braced myself for upgrading my San Francisco Comcast service. It turned out that, due to San Francisco having a different "tier system" than Palo Alto, I would pay less for what I wanted, enough less to cover the fee for one of the boxes having a VTR. This was when I realized that Comcast did not want a box that would communicate with a VCR, because their longer game plan was to wean customers away from that VCR. On the whole the VTR service has been pretty good. Also, while KDFC is as bad as it ever was, I now have XM to satisfy my radio needs; so I no longer am mad at Comcast for taking away my FM feed (even if they were not immediately responsible). Besides, KDFC reception is really terrible in our neighborhood. That would be a moot point, except that I have a neighbor who wants to record the Opera broadcasts that KDFC now provides once a month. The good news for her is that she can now get a cleaner signal through her Comcast box. All she needs to do now is direct the audio feed from the box to her recording equipment.

The one problem with the VTR is that we can only watch it where its box is, which happens to be the bedroom; so, once again, we have gotten interested in On Demand for when we want to watch in the living room. Sometimes I want to check to see if something I have already recorded can be seen through On Demand. The On Demand menu system makes this a real pain; and, as more items are available, the greater the pain. This is why I was so glad to discover that Comcast now has a Web site for all of the On Demand content. The site has a disclaimer that what is has is "a sample of programming available from ON DEMAND;" but I think that means that only the nationally-available content is covered. This should not matter much, since I am not that interested in the local content.

This Web site is definitely an improvement over the set-top box interface. It is broken down into separate pages for each letter of the alphabet, but there is also a reasonably flexible search window. You cannot do phrase search; but, given the limitations of the content, you can find stuff. There is plenty of room for improvement, but the bottom line is that is looks as if Comcast is inching their way towards more manageable ways to take advantage of their services. Furthermore, the providers are starting to take advantage of On Demand. The last season of The Wire released new episodes through On Demand before they were broadcast on HBO. Showtime is currently doing the same with The Tudors and released all of the second season of Sleeper Cell while the episode-by-episode broadcasting was taking place. (My wife loved that one; life came to a screaming halt while we watched the whole thing over two evenings!)

On the whole I am far less negative about "living with Comcast" than I was when they invaded my house in Palo Alto. I have heard mixed reports on how well their broadband service is doing, so I do not particularly care one way or the other about missing the opportunity to compare them with DSL. Meanwhile we have friends who have become Slingbox advocates. This leads me to wonder if, having already bundled a VTR into their box, Comcast now has plans to do with same with a Sling-like service! That will give us one more way to "amuse ourselves to death!"

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