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Paynesville Press - August 21, 2002

Residents express frustration, again, about cable television service

By Michael Jacobson

The company line might sound good, but residents have heard it before and are still dissatisfied with the price, package offerings, and service of the city's and township's cable franchisee, Mediacom.

Fifteen members of the public, along with the city council, met with John Varvel, a governmental relations manager with Mediacom, at a public hearing on Monday, Aug. 19. The hearing provided feedback to the company from its customers and allowed the council to hear from residents before it decides whether to approve a new 15-year franchise agreement with Mediacom.

"Mediacom has invested $80 million in system upgrades and equipment in 2001 in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. Mediacom has committed $300 million to upgrade cable systems in this area over the next two years. This investment includes building over 1,600 miles of fiber optic cable to link systems such as yours with master signal distribution centers," wrote Varvel in a letter to the city council. "These investment dollars have literally been plowed into your community in underground facilities or hung from poles in your rights-of-way."

"Mediacom's commitment to provide great programming means adding channels that customers want and keeping the channels customers already enjoy," he continued.

"The Mediacom commitment to customer service requires employing great company representatives and supplying them with the training and technology to take care of customer needs," he added.

In June, Paynesville was hooked by fiber optic cable to a new master head end (where the programming enters the distribution system) in Benson. By linking seven communities - Atwater, Clara City, Cosmos, Granite Falls, Grove City, Maynard, and Paynesville - the system should have more offerings, including digital television, and better service, said Varvel.

But city and township residents complained about service interruptions, package offerings, and poor customer service during a 90-minute public hearing.

"If I may say, we've had other people from Mediacom over the years making these same promises," said council member Dennis Zimmerman, who also serves on the cable commission. "They have been difficult, if not impossible, to find once they left Paynesville," he added."The rates are getting so bad," said city resident Shirley Sand. "If you're on a fixed income, boy, it's tough."

"Why not ask us which ones we want to see and charge us accordingly?" asked city resident Noleen Stanger, in a written statement to the hearing.

City resident Bev Voss agreed that residents should be surveyed to determine which channels they liked and which they didn't, something which Varvel said he wrote down to suggest in the future.

Offering an ala carte service is not possible, said Varvel. One problem in increasing the basic is that the most popular channels are also the most expensive, he added. Mediacom does receive a "revenue stream" by having the shopping networks, admitted Varvel, which helps keep the basic package affordable, he said.

City resident Harriet Carlson said the Broadcast Basic offerings were "woeful." While having 20 channels, three were public broadcasting stations, two were shopping networks, and two pairs offered the identical network broadcasts (two CBS stations and two ABC).

The duplication of these stations, said Varvel, was due to viewer demand for the CBS and ABC affiliates from Alexandria as well as their respective network affiliate in the Twin Cities. In addition, Mediacom now links broadcast offerings for several communities, requiring a great deal of commonality in programming.

City resident Linda Stelling, in another letter, said the programming had gone from bad to worse since Mediacom took over for Triax, leading more and more people to buy satellite dishes. The basic offering was very limited, and the next cable option was significantly more expensive. "Is the company trying to force people to purchase the expanded basic to get the programming they want?" Stelling asked. "I hope not."

Cable subscribers had a short time with a basic package that offered a few popular channels and liked it, noted council member Dennis Zimmerman. The problem, he said, was the large gap between Broadcast Basic (which offers 20, mainly broadcast, channels for $15.50 per month) and Family Cable (which offers nearly 50 satellite channels for $40.95 per month).

"The next step is so huge," said Zimmerman about choosing between the two packages. "The cost is so high to get any sort of programming they like. You put subscribers at a dilemma."

When Varvel said that Mediacom doesn't even offer Broadcast Basic in many communities, Zimmerman responded that it doesn't appear that the company wants to offer it in Paynesville since the offerings are so poor.

City resident Jackie Braun wondered how Mediacom could offer lower rates in other communities and wondered if the higher rates in Paynesville were used to subsidize these cut rates in places where the market is competitive.

When Varvel asked about any current service problems, the audience listed the sound on Channel 2, on Channel 17, and on Channel 33. Township resident Bruce Nockleby noted that if a new TV set can compensate for sound, then the cable company's equipment should, too.

Township resident Harry Thielen brought documentation of 20 contacts he had made with Mediacom since April in an effort to get hooked up to cable service. He stayed home one day, as he was told the installers were coming, but they didn't show. Then he was told they wouldn't be there for two weeks, and they showed up unexpectedly. "I just don't understand how you can run a company this way," said Thielen.

"Your service leaves a lot to be desired," agreed city resident Don Sumner.

"I pledge to you: the city staff knows my number. If you're not getting results, they'll contact me, and I'll do whatever is necessary to get results for you," said Varvel.

Residents with reports of service interruptions should still call Mediacom first at 1-800-800-CABLE. If that doesn't yield results in a reasonable amount of time, residents should then call city hall at 320-243-3714, where staff will document the problem and the response, as well as passing along the information to Mediacom again.

The cable commission has tried to get the best franchise agreement it could, said Zimmerman, noting that they even hired an attorney who specializes in cable contracts to help. All the continued dissatisfaction with the service, though, makes it hard to pass the agreement, he said.

The cable commission searched for a competing cable company that would be willing to enter the market in Paynesville, added Zimmerman. "The fact of the matter is no one else wants to come in," he said.

City resident Jeff Bertram said he has dropped cable service and gone to satellite due to dissatisfaction with the cable service. He urged the city not to sign an extended contract with Mediacom. "The community can do better than that," he said.

He added that the city should be aggressive in looking at its options, and even suggested residents hitting Mediacom in the pocketbook - either by cutting back on their package or switching to satellite - as possibly the only real ways to force the company to improve.

Bertram said that several hundred people could have attended the meeting and to air griefs, but many have an attitude that nothing will change. Those that did come, he said, did so out of great frustration. Varvel emphasized that he knew from experience that Mediacom is better than Triax, the former cable franchise owner in Paynesville.

Council member Dave Peschong was the only one at the hearing to grant even some improvement to Mediacom, saying, "When you go from terrible to bad, that's not...a lot of improvement."

The township board should consider the cable franchise agreement at their next meeting on Monday, Aug. 26. The city council could make a decision on the new cable contract at their next regular council meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28.

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