EDITORIAL: Who needs email, anyway?

THE TYRANNY OF EMAIL was briefly lifted off the backs of many county residents in the last couple of weeks. It lasted long enough to let folks say with a straight face: I never got that email. But instead of dancing in the streets, this short interlude of screen-free time prompted complaints and frustration. Imagine that.

The problems arose late last month when the email service of Fairpoint Communications slowed to a crawl and then ceased to function for more than a day; some say much more.

Fairpoint provides telephone service and Internet connections to most of the eastern half of Columbia County, and it offers customers email addresses too. Neither the Internet nor the phone system was affected. The Columbia Paper is a Fairpoint customer, but we use another email service, an option available to any Fairpoint customer, and we didn’t notice.

By the middle of last week the company said people who’d lost their ability to send and receive email had their service restored. One customer said over 150 messages suddenly arrived at her inbox. But another cited a message that had disappeared into bit heaven.

It didn’t help that Fairpoint said the email was working while we hearing from customers who said it wasn’t. A press spokesperson for the company also said Fairpoint had installed more servers to get the system back to “normal.” Perhaps this is the new normal?

Was it a spike in email traffic that led to the bottleneck? Does Fairpoint have enough servers now to prevent future slowdowns? The communications company might want to improve the way it communicates.

Just when Fairpoint looked like it had finally gotten its email house in order, Time Warner, which delivers cable TV and Internet service to Kinderhook and nearby communities, had a brief Internet service outage nationwide due to a “maintenance” glitch. Add to that the difficulty of making a cell phone call in Ghent once the Columbia County Fair began last week–a problem not attributable to Fairpoint or Time Warner–and it began to seem like our local digital infrastructure couldn’t cope with the relatively modest demands we make on it.

What’s the solution? It sounds logical that the bigger the company is, the more resources it can bring to the task of upgrading and maintaining communications services. That’s distressing because Fairpoint emerged from bankruptcy three years ago and still loses millions every year. It can’t keep up with the likes of Time Warner. And if bigness is a virtue, then everybody wins if the federal government allows Time Warner to merge with Comcast to become by far the largest cable TV/Internet service this country has ever seen.

But instead of solving our problems, this merger would result in a near-monopoly that will be too big to fail and way too hefty to care about small communities, if past experience is any guide.

Judge the proposed Time Warner-Comcast merger for yourself based on the records of the two firms that want to get married. Last week, for example, the Federal Communications Commission announced that Time Warner Cable will pay a fine of $1.1 million for its failure to report service outages (many involving Internet phone service). And as the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “Both Time Warner Cable and Comcast routinely rank at the bottom of customer service rankings.”

Neither Time Warner nor Fairpoint needs to get bigger to improve performance; those companies need to get smaller. G-tel, the privately owned service provider in the Germantown area, has won awards for its customer service. Mid-Hudson Cable in and around Hudson offers true high speed service.

That said, there is no formula for the ideal size and scope of Internet, phone and cable companies. There can’t be–technology is changing so fast that those businesses may not exist in a decade or two.

The big companies that want our business today tell us they offer the most advanced services available. That’s nonsense. Developed countries all over the world have more sophisticated and accessible systems than all but a few U.S. communities. The companies here count on consumers forgetting their anger once the immediate problem is fixed. They’re used to giving us vague excuses and no accountability with each new crisis. They foster a culture of substandard expectations.

The antidote is using restored email service to contact the state Public Service Department, the Federal Communications Commission and our senators and representative to let them know that what we have now is not the service we’re entitled to.

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