updated 11/12/2007 4:02:51 PM ET 2007-11-12T21:02:51

Imagine the cable guy waiting for you at your doorstep rather than surrendering to a day of house arrest for your setup. Imagine getting customer support on the line as easily as you could your mama. Better yet, imagine never needing to ring your cable company because your service just worked 24/7.

A new regulation could bring this fantasy cable service closer to reality. The Federal Communications Commission approved a rule last month that opens the door for competition among video services. And the commission plans to go further, with new regulations that will rein in the giant cable companies, according to reports over the weekend. That promises change in an industry that's long had its way with customers.

"The FCC, at least, is taking one step in the right direction," says Claes Fornell, a business professor at the University of Michigan.

The regulation bans exclusive agreements between cable companies and apartment buildings. That could switch up the game for people living in multiunit dwellings, about 25 million households, from a landlord-selected service provider — to let the best video service win. This new competition could push prices down and boost customer care as companies vie for business, experts say.

That could spare some cable customers from unnecessary tantrums. Enter 75-year-old Mona Shaw of Bristow, Va.

She waited all day for a no-show cable guy, who waltzed in two days late and left before finishing the installation. Frustrated, she and her husband, Don, headed to the local Comcast office — and waited two hours for a manager before learning he went home for the day. Enraged, the churchgoing woman returned to the office with a hammer.

"I smashed a keyboard, knocked over a monitor ... and I went to hit the telephone," Shaw said. "I figured, 'Hey, my telephone is screwed up, so is yours.'"

Although an extreme case, she isn't alone in her frustration with cable companies, which have become the poster children for poor customer service. Long waits, puffed-up prices and spotty service combined to give the cable and satellite TV industry the worst customer-satisfaction rating of any industry, according to a May report by the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Despite being disgruntled, customers tend to stick with their cable providers because they face slim or no pickings — or they don’t want to deal with switching video services.

“If they don’t have a choice, they have no power,” Fornell says. “They can complain as much as they want to no avail.”

Tony Ciniglio of Torrance, Calif., was locked in with Adelphia Communications Corp. for two and a half years because it was the only available cable provider at the time.

The sports writer lashed out at customer support several times when his favorite channels, CBS and ESPN, started flickering. Adelphia, which has since gone bankrupt, told him they were looking into it. But CBS never worked reliably, he says.

"My daily life is stressful enough," Ciniglio says. "I don’t need to deal with unresponsive customer service from a cable company."

Despite their bad raps, cable companies continue to add subscribers and raise rates, 93 percent over the past decade, because of limited competition, Fornell says. And low satisfaction and high prices apparently pay off: Industry leader Comcast Corp.'s customer-satisfaction score sank from 60 percent to 56 percent this past year — as its revenue soared 12 percent, according to the University of Michigan index. But Fornell warns that cable companies can’t keep this up forever.

"They’re playing a very risky game," says Fornell, who created the customer-satisfaction index.

The FCC ruling could put the ball in consumers' courts. Increased competition allows customers to vote with their feet, says Bob Williams from the Consumers Union.

"You get better customer service when you have the ability to go down the street to get a better deal from somebody else," he says.

But just because the free-market move allows competition, it doesn't guarantee it. The cable companies, which invest heaps in technology, often choose to stay off each other's turf because it's more cost-effective to operate in areas with little or no competition, Williams says.

"They don't choose to compete all that often," he says.

But the cable industry's lobbying group maintains that competition exists between video services. Besides cable companies, consumers can pick among satellite services such as DirecTV Group Inc. — and even phone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., which are beginning to offer video services. Almost 30 percent of households that subscribe to video serviceshave a provider other than a cable operator, according to statistics by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

"Unless they can't install a satellite dish," there's competition, says NCTA senior vice president Dan Brenner.

That's a real obstacle for apartment dwellers. Before Ciniglio moved into a new complex, he had to sweet-talk his new landlord into accommodating a satellite dish.

But since switching to DirecTV, he swears by satellite, which has a slightly higher customer-satisfaction rating than cable. Could better customer service lure him back to cable?

"It would take a huge deal from the cable company for me to go away from DirecTV," he says.

Cable providers say they're always trying to boost customer service.

Comcast plans to add nearly 6,000 more support staff and field technicians, after hiring 6,500 last year. And to cut back your wait for the cable guy, the company employs mobile devices and GPS systems to speed up communication between support centers and technicians. And No. 2 cable operator Time Warner Cable hopes to get you in touch with customer support faster by bringing in staff and using technology.

"We feel that customer service distinguishes us from competitors," says Time Warner Cable spokesman Mark Harrad.

But you might be waiting for the cable guy for a while. The NCTA, the industry's lobbying group, called the FCC ruling "legally suspect" and is considering legal options to fight it.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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