Should I Ride The Free Internet Gravy Train?
February 25, 2010 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Moved into a new place. Should I accept this free Internet service while it lasts?

We recently moved into a new (rental) house. We weren't planning on getting cable or internet service, as we pretty much only watch broadcast/network TV. Also the landlord lives next door and said we could piggyback on his wireless network, which kinda-sorta works, but it's slow and unreliable.

At some point, we decided we needed to put an antenna on the roof. Before going through all the effort, though, we tried plugging the TV into the wall to see if it would improve reception. It sure did!

After a week or so, I got to thinking that maybe the reception was a little TOO good. I borrowed a friend's cable modem and plugged it in. Eureka! Super-fast cable internet service.

A couple of questions, then:
(1) am I putting myself in any legal peril if I, say, get a second-hand cable modem and use this "free" Internet service?
(2) How ethically wrong is it to use these free services while they last? (When they go away, I probably won't reactivate them.)

The previous tenant, whose service we're presumably still getting, worked for the telecom in question (but got axed, so he moved), and he said it's probably fine to ride the gravy train as long as we can. But I'm worried about the karma and the theft-of-service lawsuit.
posted by sportbucket to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd personally worry more about karma than theft-of-services. But, hey, maybe it's good karma coming your way for getting crapped on by internet providers in the past. (TINLA)
posted by jabberjaw at 11:58 AM on February 25, 2010

This isn't really an answer to the should-you-or-shouldn't-you question (although I think if you aren't doing anything to deliberately steal the service, like using a splitter or something like that, then you're probably fine), but I know that some companies won't allow you to hook up just any old modem. A few years ago my modem died so I tried replacing it with my boyfriend's identical modem, and I couldn't get an IP address. I called the ISP and they told me that when I hook up a new device I have to call them and give them the MAC address.'s possible that they might see the device on their network and yank the plug.
posted by cottonswab at 12:10 PM on February 25, 2010

[comments without lulz please, it's a big internet]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:12 PM on February 25, 2010

Here's the thing about the cable modem... The reason it is working for you right now is because your friend has a registered cable modem on the cable system. If you buy a cable modem (new or used) the first time the cable network sees it, it will want to register it and if you're not a customer. No internet for you. A hot cable line does not give you cable modem service or everyone would just sign up for the $17 bare bones cable and get screaming fast interwebs.

Your too good TV reception is pretty much all the channels you can get w/o a box? Depending on how long it has been since the other tenant vacated, it could just be a case of the cable company not getting around to disconnecting the wire at the street. To save money, they'll often to the disconnect then next time they have to roll a truck in your neighborhood. If no one has problems with their cable around you and everyone is paying their bills it could be several days before they get around to it.

And karmically, they'll get around to this just as soon as there's something on TV/the web that you really wanted to see. OK, that's more of a Murhphy's Law thing than karma.
posted by birdherder at 12:16 PM on February 25, 2010

FYI this happened to me when my husband and I moved into the house we bought. (It was a big surprise because we bought the house from an elderly couple who had moved away, and the place had actually been empty and on the market for months and months.)

We felt ethically clear on it since we hadn't done anything to set it up. (I'm sure others would argue that point, but that's what we decided.) About a year later, a cable guy showed up at the door and said he was unhooking it, and unless we paid some exorbitant fee right that very second he'd strip the wires out. I said, "No," so he did.

The only bummer was that a bunch of the exterior wiring was lined against the side of the house and had been painted; when he stripped the wires off it left unsightly unpainted strips along the exterior wall. I figured that was our karmic payback and left it at that.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:21 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your friend's cable modem works because your friend pays for service. This plot will not work!
posted by bensherman at 12:25 PM on February 25, 2010

I actually made do with cable TV this way for a couple of years once. (not internet - this was back in the days of dial-up only for that.) The only real downside was that whenever the service went out I could never be sure if it was just an overall area outage, or if they'd "noticed" I was connected and cut me off specifically. And I couldn't call to ask because I had no account.

The plus side was one time all the pay-per-view movie channels came on live for a few days somehow.

I think they maybe did figure it out eventually. After getting no service for, I think it was a whole day or so, I figured they'd noticed somehow and simply shut me off. I caved and called in to order service. But then the service came back on within a couple hours of my call, days before the official installation, so I don't really know - it's possible I jumped the gun and could've kept on the free train for a while longer.
posted by dnash at 12:31 PM on February 25, 2010

All I can say is that when I moved in to my apartment 5 years ago, apparently the cable was still on. Since I hadn't had cable since 1983, I had neither a cable, or an old cable box, so it never even occurred to me to try it. How did I even know I had free cable? About 4 or 5 months after I moved in, I got a knock on the door. Apparently it was someone from the cable company. All she said was that if I wanted to continue the cable service, I'd have to pay for it. I told her that I hadn't even realized that it was on, had never tried to hook up the cable, and wasn't interested. It doesn't sound like like the cable rep cared one way or the other as to whether or not I'd been riding the gravy train of free cable (indeed I never let her into my apartment so for all she knows I was lying). That could be just how one cable company handles it.

Karma, that's your call. I always try to err on the side of being ethical, but on the other hand, I don't believe in karma. I know too many assholes who never seem to get their just desserts.
posted by kaybdc at 12:34 PM on February 25, 2010

I would think it quite far-fetched for you to be in any legal trouble for utilizing internet or TV service that is hooked up in your home. You didn't ask for it, install it, or pirate it in any way. It's the cable company's responsibility to keep tabs on who's paying and who isn't.

Now, the "black boxes" of yore, that's a different story as one was actively pirating service.

This is not legal advice.
posted by jckll at 12:36 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a data point, when I moved into my apartment six years ago I attached the TV to the cable outlet and found that I got about fifteen channels, most of which were Spanish, sports, or public access, but also HBO and Showtime. Two years later, all of a sudden I lost the premium channels but suddenly had the full basic cable package. It's continued that way without any problem, even though I pay for the Internet from the same company.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 12:54 PM on February 25, 2010

Your friend's cable modem works because your friend pays for service.

Well, crap.

Okay, any secret negotiating tactics I can use to get them to waive the $100 installation/activation fee? My discussions with the help desk have been fruitless.
posted by sportbucket at 1:10 PM on February 25, 2010

Often if you call with the previous account-holder (I.E. your friend who moved out) you can just transfer the account to your name and there won't be a charge. YMMV on that one though.
posted by jckll at 1:22 PM on February 25, 2010

Often there's a self install kit that has free or cheap activation. Unless that rate includes the actual modem. Clearly you know how to set up the hardware.

Tell the cable company that the DSL offered free activation. They'll say they're faster than DSL and blah and you tell them you're not going to pay $100. Since the line is hot, and it will be you setting up the modem, that's just free money to them and should be totally negotiable. So they either match the possibly non-existant offer from the phone company or you walk. You might want to see if Fios, Uverse or something else spiffy is offered at your address in addition to cable. And of course, the drop dead option you have is your landlord's wifi which is free.

Also, when I moved to San Diego, and signed up for cable+internet they had many offers online only that weren't available to people to call into the call center. They sent me the boxes via UPS and I was all set up in a few minutes with $0.00 paid to install/activate.
posted by birdherder at 4:45 PM on February 25, 2010

If it's a service that a company can actively see you using (internet, gas, electric, ...) then it's probably in your best interest to sign up. I would imagine that if you did not it could theoretically be shown that you actively were using a service you knew you didn't pay for, and thus stealing. No different than if you discovered a gas pump that charges $1.50 less a gal than others so you always use that one.

That being said, it is a moral and a risk-taking question on your part. Do you want to use a service you aren't paying for [think karma here], and are you willing to risk the fee(s) or actually being charged with a crime at the end of it if they can prove that you've been using it for a long enough period of time? I say "crime" because if you didn't pay for it for long enough it could potentially hit a point where it's actual legal trouble.

I'm no lawyer, or cop, but I usually like to take the safer route when it comes to Me vs. Company B's team of lawyers. And if I ran a company that sold a service like this and found out someone was stealing it I would do whatever I could within the law to deter people from doing that in the future, i.e. if the service fees they knowingly skipped around amounted to grand theft then that is exactly what I'd spend about 10 minutes down at the police station filling out papers on.
posted by zombieApoc at 8:23 PM on February 25, 2010

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