Cable company promises changes

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/21/01.

Amid a flurry of complaints about cable television service in Paynesville, a Mediacom representative acknowledged the need to improve performance and pledged to do just that.

Those promises were welcome, especially since they were made in person. At the public hearings a year ago, Paynesville's previous cable provider, Triax, was notably absent. But the latest promises were met with some skepticism, based on the past performance in town.

The city's and township's cable contract is set to expire on June 1. Mediacom is the current franchise holder, having bought the franchise from Triax.

Cable law dictates a regulated procedure for renewing cable contracts, with cable companies having a number of guarantees to offset the capital cost of investing in expensive cable infrastructure.

The hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 13, was a part of the city's and township's information gathering on the current cable service. Surveys have also been sent to people living in the cable service area (all of the city and the densely populated portions of the township), and 130 have been returned to city hall.

Complaints at the hearing ranged from price, to channel selection, to choice in package offerings, and to response time. Residents wondered why Mediacom's prices in Litchfield could be so much lower than here, why popular channels get replaced, why there aren't more options between the basic cable package and the expanded basic, why channels 10, 13, and 36 come in so poorly, and why company response is so slow.

Kari Dziedzic, Mediacom's governmental relations manager, noted that competition will always lower prices, that programming contracts with individual channels can affect their prices and their availability, and that changes had been made to improve service.

When Mediacom bought Triax, the entire region - including Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin - was lumped together, which led to too much red tape and too many delays, Dziedzic said. Since then that region has been split in three, with Paynesville in the central and northern Minnesota region.

Marvin Kunstleben, who waited three months for cable installation at his new house in Paynesville Township, also complained about waiting 20 minutes on the phone to talk to someone with the company.

"I'll admit that's not acceptable. I don't like to wait that long," said Dziedzic, who stressed that the new organization will make the company more responsive.

Mayor Jeff Thompson noted that recent response times when he has called have been better.

The selection of channels and cable rates are under Mediacom's control. Dziedzic said that one of Mediacom's goals is to wire each community with fiber optic cable (which was started in Paynesville last year) and ultimately link smaller communities together, thus providing more options for both while minimizing the cost.

Dziedzic said that high-speed Internet and digital television would be offered in Paynesville within 12 to 18 months.

City officials expressed considerable skepticism in asking for assurances that these promises would be kept. "I guess I question the basis of these statements since last year's promises turned to nothing," said Dennis Zimmerman, a council member who also serves on the cable committee.

Zimmerman said that after Triax, where he couldn't even get a response from the governmental relations manager, Mediacom sounded really good a year ago. "I must tell you I've been very disappointed over the past six months as things have fallen back to their old ways," he told Dziedzic.

Both Zimmerman and Thompson asked Dziedzic what assurances the community will have that promises will be kept and that needed improvements will be made over the life of a new contract.

Dziedzic responded by noting that other technologies can provide cable-like services. "As technology changes, more competition will come," she predicted. "If we don't keep pace, if we don't change, we'll lose customers to our competitors. So there are checks and balances."

New contract
Because of the strict laws regarding cable contracts, the city and township have little hope of changing cable contractors, though Bertram did suggest that no television service would be preferable to being taken advantage of.

Don Torbenson, who also serves on the city's cable committee, suggested that changes need to be made in cable law to give communities more leverage in negotiations.

One of the key aspects of a new contract will be the length of time. A shorter contract would need to be renewed faster, giving the community another chance to negotiate. But that comes at the expense of putting all the upgrade costs over a shorter period of time.

Mediacom would like another 15-year deal, and Dziedzic said that a shorter contract would lead to higher rates to pay for the infrastructure improvements.

While the company's management drew criticism, its actual service personnel got several compliments. Dziedzic suggested that contract provisions could be used to hold the company more accountable. For instance, public hearings about cable service could be held on a quarterly basis, thus giving customers an opportunity to talk to a company representative in person.

Another provision could possibly deal with package offerings, as several people thought the basic package was very limited while the next option was rather expensive. An ala carte option where people could buy specific channels was suggested.

Mediacom has already sent the city and township a contract proposal. The city has hired an attorney who specializes in cable contracts to work with the regular city counsel on writing their own contract proposal.

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