Area group tunes into cable-TV concerns

Report reveals limits on what government can, can’t address

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Trying to get the best cable-TV deal for Clark County residents is no easy task for local government regulators. Boxed by federal law, court rulings and the cable industry’s daunting economics, local regulators can only nibble at the edges of concerns raised by some of the county’s 83,500 Comcast cable-TV customers.

The disconnect between public unease and political realities was apparent at Wednesday evening’s meeting of City/County Cable Commission at Vancouver City Hall. The commission heard results from public opinion surveys conducted as part of franchise renewal negotiations between cable operator Comcast Inc., and the city of Vancouver and Clark County. While 85 percent of respondents to a scientific telephone survey said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with Comcast service, a two-page summary prepared by the City/County Cable Office made clear the limited role of government in addressing specific concerns that spilled out of the report’s details.

That document described the five primary complaints or concerns about Comcast service that surfaced in comments of some 1,500 area residents, both Comcast subscribers and nonsubscribers, who responded to telephone or online surveys. The commission’s cable-TV manager, Jim Demmon, said the top three issues were outside local government control. Topping the list: a perception that Comcast is a monopoly in need of competition.

While Comcast is perceived as a monopoly and is the only cable provider in Clark County, that’s due to market forces, not regulation, Demmon said. Competition is welcome, although Demmon said he expects few takers because of the high cost of creating a cable system.

On high rates — the second biggest complaint raised in customer comments — Demmon noted that federal law prohibits local government regulation of service rates. A third complaint — that many customers want to chose programs a la carte rather than purchasing a full programming package — is again in Comcast’s court, Demmon said. It’s up to the company, not government, to determine how programming is packaged.

The commission does have authority over two other issues on the survey’s top-five list, Demmon said: It can set service standards to address complaints about such issues as uneven sound volume, poor picture quality, and slow installation and repair service. The commission also can enforce Federal Communications Commission standards for a swift response to telephone calls to Comcast.

While the cable company said it meets those standards, a large number of survey respondents said they had experienced long waits on hold before being connected to a live person. Demmon speculated that the discrepancy might be due to poor recollection of the respondents as well as a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes a response; Comcast says it is responding when an automated voice begins asking questions to narrow the reason for a person’s call, while callers might consider that time spent talking to a recorded voice to be part of the waiting period, Demmon said.

Only a handful of people showed up for the hearing, and none offered comments or asked questions.

The commission focused its questions on issues under its authority: public, education and government channels that Comcast provides as part of the franchise agreement. Thomas Robinson, president of cable-industry consulting firm CBG Communications Inc., described some possibilities to upgrade the public-access offerings and facilities — but at a cost to customers.

Robinson suggested that the commission look into the possibility of collaborative programming with Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver; creating a “local on demand” service for public-access programs; and encouraging high-definition and potentially 3-D technology for local programming. He raised the possibility of trying to negotiate for the costs of a new public-access production facility and equipment, costs that could potentially increase the current $1 cable access billing to customers by 34 cents per month. All of those ideas would require commission support and are subject to negotiations with Comcast.

Negotiations between the commission and Comcast are ongoing, and the commission is tentatively scheduled to meet again July 20. Since the current cable-TV agreement runs through 2012, the discussions are well ahead of schedule, Demmon said.