EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 7, 2008

Focus: These days, choice abounds for cable, phone, Internet

By Shawn Regan

No longer do cable customers have to worry about catching their favorite sports teams live on television, missing the latest episode of their favorite shows or sitting down in front of the TV at a specific time to watch a movie or special event.

On the Internet, the ability to download larger files, such as movies and music, is becoming easier as telecommunications companies compete to provide faster and better service.

And as more people are choosing one company for their Internet, cable service and phone, they can check voice mail and e-mail all at the same Web site home page and pay for it all on the same bill.

Today, millions of consumers are now getting their phone service from the same company that provides their cable and Internet — so called bundled packages where all three communications vehicles are provided by the same company at a discount.

And when it comes to content, the options for consumers are multiplying exponentially.

High-definition, original and local programming are seeing the most growth, industry officials said. Everything from dating services and cooking shows to reviews of local restaurants and tourist attractions to rebroadcasts of local parades and major sports contests to network shows and premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime are available by the hundreds whenever the consumer wants them.

In the battle for the hearts, minds and entertainment dollars of consumers, companies are offering a dizzying array of programs, products and services. Or, as they would perhaps rather see it put, they are dedicated to providing something for everyone — and at the customer's leisure.

Better customer service, lower prices, faster Internet and more original, local and high-definition programming are among the perks of the battle being driven and promoted locally and nationally by companies such as Comcast, Verizon and DirectTV.

Just watch the commercials — Comcast has its famously patient and slow-moving turtle couple, Verizon has its precocious young boy who appears puzzled and then enamored by the FiOS installation man with the "nice truck," and Direct TV has a beckoning Jessica Simpson and a not-so-beckoning Kathy Bates.

The latest wave in telecommunications promotion and industry warfare is bundling services, which allows customers to pay for their cable TV, phone and Internet on a single bill. Comcast and Verizon are leading the bundling charge, promoting discounted deals on TV and on glossy mailers that seem to arrive in the mailbox on a weekly basis.

Comcast, which has six North of Boston field offices including one in Lawrence, prides itself on being "community-based," said Dan Blakeman, area vice president for northern Massachusetts.

The company is focused on improving what hasn't always been a stellar customer service reputation. A program called E-care includes an improved customer service call center in Chelmsford and a Web site where customers can exchange instant messages with technicians and customer service representatives.

"And our technicians are trained to spend enough time in the home to make sure our products are working properly," said Blakeman, adding that the company's popular On Demand feature now offers more than 10,000 programming choices each month.

"Our customers are starting an On Demand program more than 100 times every second," he said.

Of course, each of the major providers says it is the best and offers the most programming.

"A consumer should choose DirectTV over the others because we offer more HD, we deliver programming that's not available on any other pay TV service, and we're a leading provider of sports programming that combines both HD and interactive technology," said Robert Mercer, DirectTV's public relations director.

Stan Usovicz, Verizon's external affairs regional director, said the company's fiber-optic network, called FiOS, offers the best sound and picture quality and the fastest Internet.

Verizon, which offers the FiOS service to 63 communities in Massachusetts — including Methuen, Lawrence, Andover, West Newbury and Rowley — is looking to grow by modernizing its phone lines to bring its fiber-optic network to many more North of Boston communities, Usovicz said.

Meanwhile, the company has partnered with DirectTV to offer its own version of the triple-play bundle in those communities where FiOS isn't yet available. The company also offers a "four-play" package in some areas of the country that includes a cell phone plan from Verizon Wireless, Usovicz said.

Comcast serves 238 communities in Massachusetts including most cities and towns in the region. Direct TV, which is powered by satellite, is available everywhere in the state.