Monday, September 14, 2015

Maslow's Internet Service Provider

I recently explained to a commenter on my blog that he need not apologize for a “diversion” because we thrive on diversion here at the Retirement Cafe´. This is, after all, my hobby. To prove my point, I'll devote today's post to psychology and the “dismal science.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow introduced the “hierarchy of human needs” in which he more or less noted that people dying of thirst don't focus much on hamburgers, while even thirst tends to get moved to the back burner by people whose air supply has suddenly been cut off. There's a lot more to the theory, of course, and my college professors would have suggested long ago a bit of independent study at the library (a large building where physical copies of books were organized by index cards and stored), but which nowadays entails an effortless hop over to Wikipedia.

We studied Maslow in business school to understand discretionary and non-discretionary products and services, a concept that is also quite important to retirement planning. The idea was that in bad times some businesses do better than others because they fill genuine needs (food, water, medical care and the latest iPhone, for example) rather than discretionary desires like marble tile in the bathroom.

The scope of this theory was driven home to me several years ago when I visited my sister, who lived in Honolulu at the time. A hurricane had devastated Kauai and volunteers were loading emergency supplies onto a boat headed for that island. A KHON TV reporter interviewed one of the volunteers as he loaded the boat.

“What supplies are you taking them?”, she asked with the keen insight of a veteran journalist.

“Beer, rice. . . just the essentials,” he answered with absolute solemnity as he lifted another case of Primo onto the boat.

(Alcoholic beverage manufacturers are, in fact, considered non-cyclical, “defensive” stocks.)

This concept is important in retirement planning because in the worst possible outcome, you want to make sure that you can afford food, shelter and the latest iPhone. That's why we recommend that you carefully protect your non-discretionary spending.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with Internet Service Providers and I will now reveal that my Time Warner Cable internet service was knocked out by a storm last Thursday. Had I led with that, I would've lost you by the second paragraph because – let's face it – a Time Warner Cable service outage isn't exactly a rare, newsworthy event.

Despite much yelling and screaming at some poor customer support representative speaking to me from Bangalore in the middle of the Indian night (the wrong person for me to blame, for sure), I was informed that the earliest a repairman could possibly visit would be Tuesday, which would mean a nearly 5-day outage.

TWC's monopoly here is quickly eroding. AT&T offers fiber service to my neighborhood, but when I tried to get it installed a year ago, the installers couldn't figure a way to avoid running a cable up the outside of my house and drilling a hole through the brick into my kitchen. I told the guy to come down from the ladder and go away until he could figure out a better solution. Though he never came back, despite my making two more appointments, AT&T began billing me a few weeks later for the service they were never able to install. I somehow felt better paying for TWC service that sometimes works than for faster AT&T Internet service that couldn't be installed.

The other option is Google Fiber, which will soon be available in my Chapel Hill neighborhood. A few months back, Google promised to send me a free #FiberIsComing T-shirt if I signed up to receive occasional updates on their progress by email. Not only did I sign up for the T, I offered to help them dig up my street and lay the fiber. “Just paint a spot on the pavement,” I told them. “I'll bring my own shovel.”

So, where does Internet service fit on my personal version of Maslow's pyramid? The past few days have been enlightening.

TiVo sort of works in that we have stored several hours of TV shows that will easily hold us over for  4 or 5 days, but many features don't work. The guide is now outdated and we can't, of course, use TiVo to download Hulu or Nextflix without an Internet connection. My Nest thermostats are limping along but performing adequately, if not optimally, in their current “dark” mode. My Dropcams are frequently and annoyingly pinging my iPhone to tell me that they have no Internet connection. They are useless without it.

Our cell phones text and make voice calls easily, but don't have adequate signal to download email unless I walk upstairs to the northeast corner of the house. My son's bedroom, on the other hand, is in that corner and he has downloaded videos onto his iPhone non-stop for the past three days. I received a text message warning last night from Verizon telling me that he has used three fourth's of our entire family's monthly cellular data allocation in just three days and the month isn't half over.

(Exceeding our data plan will soon fix the problem with all those annoying apps telling me they can't access the Internet. I won't pay for more data so I can get more messages telling me that my Internet service is down.)

My son's online college class will require him to drive down to the library on Monday (the index cards have been replaced by Wi-Fi to download Kindles) to upload a paper that I hope he has written. Why they still call them "papers" is a mystery to me.

Without Internet service, I was able to finish an excellent novel with paper pages, an upside, of course, but my retirement research has been dramatically curtailed by the lack of collaboration tools. I found myself describing graphs over the phone to a co-author (my older son). “The three curves kinda goes straight for a while and then shoot upward and the lines split apart, ya' know what I mean?” I could print the graphs and mail them to him. USPS would deliver the letter before the TWC guy shows up.

I had forgotten that you have to turn book pages manually. I kept touching the right margin without result. Oh, and remember that you don't have to turn off hardcover books. Apparently, they time out and turn themselves off after you've gone to sleep. Battery life is amazing.

My wife sheepishly admitted yesterday that, without access to her weather app, she had needed to step outside to realize that fall temperatures had arrived.

What does this mean for Internet service and the retiree budget? When I list non-discretionary expenses, food and water are still going to be pretty high on the pyramid. My iPhone is a pretty poor substitute for Wi-Fi, but I'd hate to live without it. On my version of Maslow's pyramid, Internet service is high, but lower than food, water, shelter and the latest iPhone. Though an electric outage would be far worse, interruption of Internet service to our home is surprisingly disruptive.

I'm still thinking about where to rank beer.

The most enjoyable part of this experience? After I hung up on the TWC customer representative (politely), I walked down the hill to the mailbox and there it was – my free Google Fiber T-shirt.


  1. Unless you're an isolationist, I would certainly put media access on a list of needs for retirees. I have found that many of my clients use Facebook and email regularly to interact with their Family and friends and I use video conferencing to work with them as well.

    1. Mark, personally, I agree with you, but it is currently a very personal issue. I have retired friends who can't live without FaceBook, retired friends who would rather shave their head with a cheese grater than log onto FaceBook, retired friends who are scared to death of the Internet but text message with the best of middle-schoolers and would rather chew aluminum foil than lay down their iPhones.

      On the other hand, I think as more and more of our lives require Internet service (thermostats, lawn sprinklers, alarm systems), more and more retirees will consider Internet service a necessity.

      But, we're not all there, yet.

      Thanks for writing!

  2. Please let us know how the Google Fiber works out. I really enjoy your Blog.


  3. Beer? Think of it as a safer version of water. Less bacterial risk.