My Little Corner of the Net

Goodbye Cable TV–Don’t Let the Door Hit You In the Ass on the Way Out

I can still remember how excited I was when we first got cable TV as a kid.  My grandparents had had cable for a while, and I loved watching Nickelodeon when I’d visit them, so I was psyched that I’d now be able to watch it whenever I wanted.  Our first cable box was one of the slider boxes made by Hamlin.  It was about three inches thick, probably weighted 10 lbs, and permanently sat on the shelf under the TV.  When you wanted to change the channel you got up and used your finger to slide the little white switch to another of the 42 positions available (numbered from 2 to 43), though not all of them actually carried content.  (The lack of a channel 1 was a carryover from broadcast TV, where the frequencies allotted to channel 1 turned out to be unsuitable for television broadcasts.)

The channel guide for the cable service we had when I was in high school, found on an old TV I got rid of when we moved.

Early cable was interesting.  I remember sometimes “watching” HBO, even though we didn’t subscribe to it.  The picture was unintelligible because of the scrambling they used at the time, but the sound was usually OK enough to understand what was going on.  When you added HBO to your service, the cable guy had to come to your house and install a little filter, known as a descrambler, to the cable line before it connected to your cable box.  I distinctly remember HBO was channel 2 back then, Nickelodeon was 19, and because the FCC hadn’t yet regulated where local channels had to be placed, they were kind of interspersed all over the dial.  I also remember that subscriptions were per-TV, too (though I guess we’re kind of back to that now, given that most carriers require a digital decoder box nowadays), so most of my friend’s houses had cable in the living room and, if they had a second TV, like in the basement or in a their parents’ bedroom, that one usually had rabbit ears. 

Cable was a magical thing back then, not the monstrosity that it has become today.  A couple weeks ago, I was just as excited to get rid of my cable as I was to get it some 35 or so years ago.  While I don’t know how much we paid for cable when we first got it back in the 80’s, I do know that the $215/month that I was paying is well more than a 100% increase over the roughly $90 I was paying when I signed up for cable TV and Internet service in my first apartment after college in the early 2000s.

So what does $215/month actually get you?  Well, who knows, because Spectrum packages their plans in such a obtuse way that it is nearly impossible to understand.  When we moved our current house a few years ago, Time Warner had just rebranded to Spectrum, and they upgraded me to their latest package which included all the non-premium TV channels, 50Mbps Internet, and phone.  I told the sales rep that I didn’t need phone (I was already using a VOIP provider I liked, not that I really need a home phone anymore), but he told me it was cheaper to give me a bundle that included phone than one that didn’t.  OK, whatever.

According to my bill, I had “Starter TV” and “Standard TV.”  So what channels does that come with?  Well, I’m not sure, because if you go to the channel guide on Spectrum’s website, the options you see are “Spectrum Select,” “Spectrum Silver,” and “Spectrum Gold;” nowhere on the site does it talk about “Starter TV” or “Standard TV.”  Likewise, my bill said that I had an “Ultimate Internet Upgrade,” but nowhere on the bill or on Spectrum’s website could I find what that actually meant.

At some point, Spectrum increased the speed of their Internet plans, upping the lowest plan to 100Mbps.  At the time, they said that anyone on a Spectrum plan would get the increase automatically, but customers on legacy Time Warner pans would have to call and switch to a Spectrum plan to get it.  I noticed the speed of my connection jump to somewhere between 60 and 70Mbps around this time, so I assumed that my modem, now several years old, was just incapable of going any faster.  I made a point to see about getting a new one, but it wasn’t a huge priority, and I never did.
Since the TWC/Charter merger had already happened when we moved, I assumed that I was on a Spectrum plan: the guy who came to set up service in my new house was wearing a Spectrum shirt and driving a Spectrum truck, and the work order I signed when he was done said Spectrum at the top of it.

When the pandemic started, and I started working from home, I decided it was time to get the Internet speed I was actually paying for.  I had a second modem, that Spectrum had given me for the phone service that I wasn’t using, that was sitting in a box on the shelf, so I took it out and tried to set it up.  I couldn’t get it to work, so I called tech support for help. After sitting on hold for more than an hour, I found out I was on a Time Warner plan with Internet capped at 50Mbps.  I was transferred to sales to see about upgrading, spent another 45 minutes on hold, and was then told I had to call a different number to get upgraded.  I called that number, stayed on hold some more, started talking to a rep, but got disconnected.  Then I gave up.

A few weeks ago, we decided it was finally time to get rid of cable.  We made a list of all of the channels we regularly watch, and I started looking at what streaming services would be the best match.  We finally decided that Sling TV’s Blue plan, along with Hulu, got us access to most of the shows we like.  Philo was a close runner up, with a ton of channels for only $20/month, but its lack of news channels was a dealbreaker.  I also signed up for Frndly TV because someone also needed the Hallmark Channel (I could have added Hallmark to Sling for another $5, but Frndly also gives us Up, which she also likes, and the Weather Channel, as well as a couple other channels that might be interesting, for just a couple bucks more).  We already had Netflix and Amazon Prime and I installed an antenna in the attic to get local channels, piped through an HDHomeRun into my Plex server.

A couple days later, I happily cancelled my TV and phone services, returned all of my equipment, and finally got my Internet upgraded to 100Mbps.  I asked about getting a new modem, but the sales rep insisted that I just keep the phone modem, which she activated because, apparently, it never had been activated, which is why I couldn’t get it to work.  Oddly, she said she was doing a check to make sure the modem would be compatible with my router before she told me keep it.  “Well, it has an Ethernet port on it so, yeah it’ll work with my router,” I thought, “and how can you tell what kind of router I’m using, anyway?”

Back in the Time Warner days, when they decided to start charging a monthly fee for their modems, I went out and bought my own, which I was still using, 10 or 12 years later.  Spectrum no longer charges that fee, so rather than buying an upgrade, I figured I’d just let them give me a modem again.  My neighborhood will hopefully be getting Greenlight fibre soon, so why waste the money?  The phone modem turned out to be a piece of shit, though, that would stop working roughly every 18 hours and would need to be reset.  I also hated that it was four-times the size of my old modem and took up most of the space on the board in my cellar where my network equipment is mounted.  Out of frustration, I ended up buying a new modem, a Netgear CM500, for about $60.  It’s not a top-of-the-line device, but it’s one of The Wirecutter’s favorites, and it’s good enough for my needs.  The only downside for me is that it’s not wall mountable–I ended up sinking a couple of lag bolts into my networking board to rest it on, then used wire ties to hold it in place.  It works, and I haven’t had an outage since I got it up and running.

As far as cost savings go, Sling, Hulu, and Frndly run me about $40/month.  Internet-only service from Spectrum is about $70, so altogether I’m now dropping about $110, or just over half of what I was paying before.  All three services work fine on our FireTV Sticks and video quality is as good as it was with cable.  Sling does freeze up every once in a while, but it can usually be resolved with a quick press of the back button on the FireTV remote, and then selecting the channel again.

Now if only Greenlight would get here faster… 

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