MEMORY LANE: A Moving Story

Mon, 03/31/2008 - 8:15pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

Now that the telecom world is far more combative, one call increasingly does it all

When the war ended, America got moving.

Stewart SchleyWith prosperity rising, developers developing, cars becoming more affordable and roads becoming more accessible, the percentage of U.S. citizens who changed residences after the end of WWII did what most elements of the post-War U.S. economy did: It grew.

The numbers track a nation on the move: In the five years leading up to WWII, about 13 percent of U.S. residents moved each year, according to U.S. Census records. But after the war, U.S. residents began to become significantly more mobile. Beginning in 1946 and for 24 more years, roughly one in five U.S. citizens, or 20 percent of the population, moved to a new home every year. The steady pattern of migration produced a wellspring of commerce for home developers, moving companies, retailers and other benefactors.

It wasn’t until 1985 that annual geographic mobility rates began a steady downward slide. As home-ownership levels rose (owning a home tends to diminish the likelihood of moving), the percentage of Americans who packed up boxes and moving vans began to decrease. Slightly more than 18 percent of residents moved from 1985 to 1986, and the numbers have shrunken ever since. In 2005 to 2006, which is the last period reported by the Census Bureau, fewer than 14 percent of Americans changed addresses – nearing the pre-War level of 1935-1940.

The net effect has been a diminished pool of movers. Steady annual increases in the total U.S. population (which reached 290 million in 2006) haven’t been enough to counter the effect of a reduced percentage of movers. In 2005 to 2006, for example, the Census Bureau counted 39.8 million total movers, well down from the record 46.7 million who moved from 1984 to 1985.

The shrinking universe of movers is one reason the stakes are running higher than ever for telecommunications companies that smell opportunity every time a “For Sale” sign goes up in somebody’s front yard. People who move represent a fertile population of potential converts for cable TV, telephone and Internet-connection services. And as cable and telephone companies encroach on each other’s historical service categories – cable MSOs are selling phone services and phone companies are selling video – they’ve intensified efforts to sway new movers to subscribe to their services.

The cable industry collectively has made vast improvements in its ability to keep a grip on the millions of families and individuals who move. Through a sort of handoff program orchestrated by CTAM and CableLabs and involving most large MSOs, the industry has a mechanism to try to exchange customers from one provider to another (or, depending on the territories involved, to keep them in the fold) as people move. Some regional telephone companies, too, have banded together in similar alliances, according to Citizens Telephone Chairman Maggie Wilderotter. In the company’s second quarter, 2007, conference call with financial analysts, Wilderotter shared some details of a “national moves and transfers” program, saying AT&T, Verizon Communications, Embarq and Qwest Communications were “committed” to the effort.

Satellite television providers, of course, have a special advantage in the new-mover game, because they beam their services over a national footprint that transcends territorial distinctions. The latest gambit from DirecTV offers new movers a housewarming gift: three free months of the premium video services Starz and Showtime for current DirecTV customers who move to a new home and agree to keep their DirecTV service. “Pack up your receivers and remote and take them with you to your new home. That’s it. We do the rest,” says a promotion running through April 30 on DirecTV’s Web site.

Preserving relationships with movers doesn’t always mean traversing state lines, however. Most of the people who move remain close to home. Of the 39.8 million people who moved in 2005 to 2006, for example, two-thirds stayed in the same county, and 80 percent stayed in the same state. Only 5.7 million people, or about 14 percent of all movers, moved to a different state. (The remaining 1.3 million movers tallied in 2005 to 2006 came from outside of the U.S.)

Until the last few years, moving residences meant arranging for telecommunications services from at least two providers. Telephone companies hooked up dial-tone service, and the cable or satellite TV company installed access to multichannel video. Now that the telecommunications world is far more combative, one call increasingly does it all – meaning a new-to-the-neighborhood customer is apt to get most telecommunications services from a single provider, and leave its rival outside looking in.


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