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Cable Contract Has Fines for Late Service Calls

Cable Contract Has Fines for Late Service Calls

The New York Times 9/14/10

By FERNANDA SANTOS

Besides perhaps a root canal or a tax audit, few things can be more frustrating than making an appointment to have a cable technician visit your home. You’re given a four-hour window and find yourself waiting and waiting, with no idea when the technician will arrive. Inevitably, it seems, he does not show up until just before the window expires. Or, despite the four-hour time frame, he arrives late.

But now, customers may finally get a small measure of justice for what many complain is unfair and just plain rude treatment at the hands of the cable-company giants.

Under the terms of a new contract negotiated with City Hall, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision will have to pay for failing to honor appointments. And they will have to do a lot more to make sure that subscribers are getting good service.

The contract would make cable customers eligible for a credit equal to a full month’s bill if a technician does not arrive on time. The penalty decreases to $25 after 2012, when Verizon Fios, a competing cable provider, is expected to have built its infrastructure in much of the city, negotiators said on Tuesday.

Customers could request notification by e-mail, phone or text message when a technician is heading to their home. And in most cases, after making a choice from an automated menu, a customer should have to wait no more than 30 seconds to speak to a representative.

“We’re raising the bar, and I’m glad that the cable companies seem to understand that,” said City Comptroller John C. Liu, whose office was briefed on the contract on Tuesday and who is a member of the commission charged with approving it.

Some people get so fed up with their cable company that they give up on customer service and complain to 311, the city’s help line. Almost 1,200 complaints have been received this year alone, most of them related to the quality of service, according to city statistics. But city officials believe that there are many more unhappy customers out there.

As Robert Porto, 38, a Time Warner Cable customer in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, put it, the new contract will be “the ultimate revenge for the little guy.”

Until Verizon Fios entered the picture, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision had essentially cornered the market for cable services. For the city, the competition from Fios turned into a great bargaining chip. Many of the customer service provisions contained in the contract are similar to those Verizon agreed to in the service deal it concluded with the city in 2008.

“Greater competition breeds better service, which breeds better terms,” said Carole Post, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Under federal law, municipalities are required to renew franchise agreements with cable companies unless signal quality has been a persistent problem, response to complaints is unsatisfactory or the companies have failed to honor the terms of the previous contract, among other things. The contract with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision expired in 2008.

The new contract with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, which city officials said included about 30 pages of customer service provisions, still has to be completed and then must clear some regulatory hurdles, but most of its requirements are expected to remain in place. One is an investment of about $10 million by the cable companies to provide wireless Internet service to 32 city parks, which have yet to be selected.

The service would cost users 99 cents per day, though it would be free for 10 minutes up to three times a month. Time Warner Cable and Cablevision subscribers would get it free, according to details of the contract that officials made available to The New York Times.

Time Warner Cable will also work with nonprofit groups to establish free Internet access in 40 community centers across the city, at a rate of at least 4 per year, the contract says.

A spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, Harriet Novet, said the company was “excited about a lot of the new features that come with this contract,” but she added that “we’re still working through some of the details.” She did not specify what those details were.

Jim Maiella, a spokesman for Cablevision, said in a statement, “We look forward to providing service in the Bronx and Brooklyn for many years to come.”

Bruce Regal, a senior lawyer at the City Law Department and one of the city’s negotiators, said the city expected to complete much of the approval process by the end of the year. The contract will be valid until 2020, which is also when the city’s agreement with Verizon Fios expires.

And, you might ask, when should New Yorkers expect to notice changes? Mr. Regal said most people would see much fiercer competition in the next year or two. “Our hope,” he said, “is that the level of competition will have an effect on service, programming, pricing and all aspects of cable television.”

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