I made a big mistake this week.
It started Friday when I was trying to watch an online screener of a movie that’s coming out soon that I want to review. Instead of watching it on my laptop, I tried using Google Chromecast to view it on my big TV. I’ve done this before, but it has only worked about half the time. When it doesn’t, I stop “casting” and instead plug my laptop directly into the TV via an HDMI cord. That method has also not been reliable, a problem I finally realized was not in the equipment, but in the speed of the wi-fi in our house.
We’ve been AT&T customers for a very long time, all the way back to the days when we had a home phone line. Since then, they’ve been our provider for wireless service as well as U-verse television and internet. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an area where AT&T offers high-speed internet via fiber — instead, it tops out at 24mbps. That’s a very small pipe for all of our data to squeeze through. Nonetheless, it hasn’t impacted our ability to watch TV or streaming services (Netflix, Prime Video, HBO Max) in good quality. I also hadn’t noticed the speed problem during regular internet browsing on my laptop, iPhone, or iPad.
But on Friday, the screener I was trying to watch kept stopping and/or buffering repeatedly, to the point where my frustration boiled over. I told my wife that, while we would keep AT&T for our cell service, I was going to switch us to Spectrum TV and internet, which has much higher speeds. Instead of a 24mbps cap, we could purchase 400mbps service — a much broader pipe that should solve the problem. As with most things technology-related, my wife said, “Do whatever you want, as long as you explain to me in simple language how to use everything after the change.”
I called Spectrum and asked a lot of questions. I was disappointed that, unlike AT&T, it doesn’t offer one central DVR that does all the recording on multiple channels and can distribute any of its content to all the TVs in the house. Spectrum offers a single-room DVR, which does us no good. However, I was told, they do have a “cloud DVR” available with Apple TV boxes, which keeps recordings online that are retrievable from any of the devices in any room. That seemed okay, so I ordered it, then made an appointment for an installer to come Monday night.
Unfortunately, Spectrum sent the Apple TV boxes via UPS, and they hadn’t arrived by the time their guy got here. No problem, he insisted, they’re plug-and-play and you’ll be able to figure them out easily, and they require no special wiring because they connect through the wi-fi. He then went outside our house, ran some new cable through our backyard to the Spectrum junction box, and hooked it up to the same line our U-verse service had come through. Then it was just a matter of linking the Spectrum modem and wi-fi router in our living room. When he was done, I ran an internet speed test on my phone and laptop, and was thrilled to see the meter get up to 350mbps!
After the installer left, I had to change the wi-fi on every internet-connected device we own, including an Amazon Echo and some smart plugs we use to control lights. Then I tried to do the same for the new wi-fi blinds we had installed earlier this year (which we love), but that company’s device refused to play along. I followed the directions over and over and checked the website to see if I was doing anything wrong, but got nowhere. Argh!
On Tuesday, the Apple TV boxes showed up and I was glad to see they were just as easy to connect as I’d been told (thank you, geniuses of Cupertino!). Once they were plugged in and updated, I downloaded the Spectrum TV app, which would give us access to the non-streaming TV channels in the package we subscribe to. And that is when things went really sour, because this system doesn’t come close to offering the features AT&T U-verse does.
For instance, there’s no way to pause live TV or rewind if you missed something. The guide is a tremendous pain to navigate, and using it to set recordings is more than awkward. The remote is a slick little Apple device that doesn’t have a mute button — unlike, for instance, the rival Amazon Firestick (which we had been using to access streaming services), whose remote is much more user-friendly. Apple’s remote also has no channel up, channel down, nor last-channel button, so the only way to change stations is to go through the unwieldy guide screen. Also, Spectrum doesn’t group comparable networks together. With U-verse, I know that all the news networks (even the ones I never watch) are in the 1200s, while all the ESPN and Fox Sports Nets are in the 1600s and 1700s. But on Spectrum, channels with similar programming aren’t always adjacent, and hunting for them via the guide is an unnecessary step.
As I discovered all of this, I moaned and groaned so much that, from the other side of the house, Martha could tell I wasn’t happy, so she came into the living room to see what was going on. It took her less than a minute to agree that this was no way to watch TV. We’re not cord-cutters, and have plenty of shows we still watch on the channels in the cable package, so it was clear my provider switch, done in frustration, had not only created more anxiety, but robbed us of the features we’d come to know and appreciate.
I kept telling myself that this was all new to us and would take some getting used to, so patience was called for. Then, Wednesday morning, we called the company that makes our wi-fi blinds and explained to a helpful customer service agent that we couldn’t get their hub to connect to our new wi-fi network. After numerous reboots and repeated opening and closing of the app, she finally realized what the problem was. She said that our old router, from AT&T, offered both 2.4ghz and 5ghz networks, but the Spectrum router combined both of them into one, probably to save the company bandwidth. She said I’d have to call Spectrum and ask them to split the feeds.
Call Spectrum? Good luck! I dialed their service number and was immediately placed on hold. While waiting, I tried their online “chat,” only to discover it’s a bot, programmed to only deal with certain questions and provide generic answers. I could not get it to connect me to a human being. After an hour of getting through to no one on the phone line, I gave up and went to make a new announcement to my wife: “Fuck Spectrum!”
Since I still hadn’t cancelled any of our AT&T services (I wanted to wait until the replacement worked out), I called their tech support people — who actually answer their calls. I was told they’d have a technician here that afternoon to reconnect all the equipment, make sure the feed was still live, etc. Sure enough, he showed up on time and not only reattached everything, but also upgraded all the receivers and remotes to the latest versions, and stuck around to ensure everything worked and we knew how to use it. So, on top of everything, AT&T kicked Spectrum’s butt when it came to customer service.
Yes, it meant I was sacrificing the higher throughput speed, but that single upside wasn’t worth all the downsides. I had to go around the house and change the wi-fi network back inside all our devices, but I was happy to see that the blinds could once again connect and work like they had last week!
Meanwhile, my wife finally got through to someone at Spectrum to cancel the whole deal. We’re going to return their equipment today, although we’ll keep the Apple TV boxes and use them as the new conduit for the various streaming services — and it may even help getting those screeners from my laptop to the TV, although that remains to be seen.
This whole misadventure was because I made the mistake of acting in anger and not asking around first. I bet if I’d simply asked some of my readers for their thoughts on AT&T vs. Spectrum, I’d have learned to stick with what I had — even at the slower speed.
Thankfully, after 48 hours of digital misery, sanity has been restored in our house. Best of all, I don’t have to explain any new technology to my wife!