Robots building robots

A week or so ago, we ran a story about the number of broadcast customers the company that owns the local cable company has lost over the past year.

Charter Communications, which bought Time Warner Cable, changed the name and promptly jacked up its prices, losing 314,000 customers over the course of a year — including 122,000 in the first quarter of 2018. Cable cutters are abandoning broadcast services, at first in a trickle, I’ll acknowledge, but perhaps soon to be in a stream.

I am one of them.

When Time Warner ended my introductory $89.99 monthly promotional package, I wasn’t upset because that was what I had agreed to, and the roughly $130 for the regular price of the package was something I was aware of. Then Spectrum arrived.

My bill went quickly to almost $160. The growl started to build low in my throat. When it reached $175, I started assembling my new, personal TV plan. With a little research, I found I could use only internet-provided services and get a better lineup than Spectrum offered.

I was already an Amazon Prime member, so I had television through that service once I bought a Firestick. I signed up for Hulu Live, which gives access to all the networks I cared about (including a LOT of sports, if you’re so inclined), and Netflix, for its original programming and movie selections. And I finally gave in and took Showtime, because of its original programming and movies.

As I was building this package, Spectrum accommodated me by raising my monthly charges to a tad more than $200. That gave me the push to cancel phone and TV and subscribe only to the internet service.

The cost of my highly customizable, innovative-programming-rich television experience is slightly more than $125 a month. I bought a cable modem for about $60 and a strong Wi-Fi router for $75, and I’ll get that cost back in savings in two months. (Actually, the router is paid for already, and the Wi-Fi will be paid for with my June savings.)

At first blush, you have to say, Well, they brought it on themselves with high prices. And at the surface, that’s exactly what happened.

There is a sense of predatory pricing in the cable industry, of heavy-handed treatment and an all-the-market-will-bear, and more philosophy that is hard to dispute, especially with a 54 percent increase in prices in less than a year.

The money I saved in going off the cable grid will pay my county taxes in 2019. Or 62 percent of my gas and electric cost for the year. Or almost 30 dinners out. Or two round-trip tickets to Albuquerque. In other words, money that means something.

That is why people are cutting the cable, and they could save even more than me if they decided to cut out Netflix or Showtime.

But even a couple of years ago, this would have been clumsy and difficult to do and would have provided far fewer options. Cable providers really took it on the chin when live-streaming services like Hulu Live and Sling TV ramped up their offerings.

And there is some irony in the fact that the cable services help to hoist with their own petard by providing the high-speed internet that is available on their systems. Mine is 100 megabits per second — easily capable of live-streaming shows, music and movies.

But without that service, they might be in more dire straits. There is no winning outcome on the horizon.

Even cable systems’ attempts to climb onto more viewing platforms (Spectrum has an app that allows you to watch shows on everything from your laptop to your smartphone) are far behind the technology curve as other internet-based services have more experience and have built comfortable interfaces for those willing to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox on a 4-inch-by-2-1/4-inch phone screen.

And like many other mature industries (although cable TV didn’t hit my town until the early 1980s), the accelerated march of technology makes obsolescence at the speed of light a real factor.

Some of the challenged industries have been around for centuries. Newspapers face a real challenge; standard retail establishments must scramble; the telephone industry is losing the service of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of miles of quickly antiquated telephone lines as consumers dump their land lines in favor of all-cellular households.

The economic result of this is lives in turmoil, lives in limbo. The newspaper industry, as just one example, has lost almost 30,000 journalism jobs in the past decade. And other jobs in our field suffer as well; pressmen, delivery people, graphic artists, many others, have far diminished opportunities now and ahead of them.

Fast-food workers see a future of being replaced by smart machines. Store clerks might be replaced by robots as stores are replaced by fulfillment centers, warehouses for the distribution of online purchases.

Meanwhile, as jobs are lost, the economic fabric of the country — and the world, most likely — will be rent. The country largely has come to rely on the service industry for bread-and-butter jobs that keep people teetering on the edge of middle class. When relatively simple artificial intelligence devices take over the service industry, and the manufacturing world, a huge segment of the population could be squeezed right out of financial existence.

They will even have robots building the robots that replace the working men and women. How’s that for irony?

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Tmes.

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