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Cable gets thumbs down

Oak Harbor will soon be sending a report to Comcast, the city’s cable franchise provider, intended to show that customers are unhappy with aspects of the current service, but would be willing to pay more for higher-quality service.

Nearly all of the 250 comments collected in an Oak Harbor residential survey about cable service were negative. The comments were especially critical of cable programming, content and rates.

The comments included:

“By far the worst channel selection I have seen.”

“We do NOT want any more shopping channels or music channels.”

“This island and city is LONG OVERDUE for broadband.”

“High-speed Internet is a must.”

“My customer service experience with them several months ago was very very very poor.”

On the plus side, residents gave the cable company mainly positive marks in a series of specific questions about subscriber needs and interests.

The report, which was recently approved by the city council, is part of the city’s ongoing negotiations with the cable company. Comcast will have 120 days after receiving the report to make a formal proposal to the city, according to Assistant City Attorney Allison Cumberbatch.

Steve Kipp, spokesman for Comcast, looked over the report this week and said “the lion’s share” of the customer concerns are already being addressed. He said the company, which took over from AT&T Broadband last fall, plans to upgrade the system — including adding fiber optics — in Oak Harbor by the end of 2004. That will allow them to offer more channels, high-speed internet and all-around better service.

Kipp said Comcast is spending millions of dollars each year to upgrade to fiber across the state. He said the upgrades will be in high-density areas first.

Currently, Kipp said Comcast offers 127 channels in Oak Harbor for customers with the most complete and expensive service. He concedes that other areas have 300 or more channels, but he said they also pay more. Extended basic cable, the most common service people choose, costs $30.99 a month in Oak Harbor while the state average is $36.

“Once we get those additional channels in,” he said, “a lot of the programming issues will be addressed with that.”

Also, Kipp said Comcast is improving the way customer service is handled. Under AT&T Broadband, most of the customer service was out of the state. He said Comcast is hiring 500 new “local” customer service reps.

Yet city officials say they want to get these promised improvements set in concrete within a new franchise agreement with Comcast.

The process of negotiating with a company for a cable franchise agreement is often long and complicated by federal law. The city can’t legally require a cable company to add fiber optics or high-speed internet access, for example, but the city can negotiate and offer incentives for service upgrades.

The city had to notify Comcast of the intent to proceed with formal negotiations last year, even though the current contract doesn’t expire for three more years.

The city’s consultant, Richard Li of Seattle-based Metropolitan Communications Consultants, recently told the council that the first phase of the process, which is to investigate whether the cable company has been supplying a reasonable level of service, is now complete.

Li said the negotiations phase is next. He explained that the city could use the “adverse findings” in the report to cancel the franchise agreement, but the real intent of the investigation was to find out what citizens want and to gain leverage in negotiations.

Also, Li said the city can use the survey that shows people want certain services, like high-speed internet or more channels, to convince Comcast that there’s a market in Oak Harbor for the features.

“A very high percentage of responses indicated a need or interest in broadband communications capabilities,” he said, “particularly high-speed Internet.”

John LaFond, a former council member, complained during the meeting that he felt deceived by the cable company. He said the cable provider promised to add 70 channels, but it turned out the new channels were mainly shopping and pay-per-view channels, or channels only available to those who subscribe to the most expensive service.

“Hopefully, you’ll get a little teeth in this new go-round,” he said.

Current council members also complained. Paul Brewer said he was upset when the company switched FOX News for a shopping channel, so he got a dish. Bob Morrison said it seems unethical that Comcast is advertising services that it can’t even provide in Oak Harbor.

A representative from Comcast said he didn’t have any comments until after they receive the report.

In the report, Li concludes with a set of recommendations “for inclusion in a new cable franchise ordinance.” Li recommends that the city “aggressively negotiate” with Comcast in order to get a broadband infrastructure, as much fiber optics as possible and high-speed Internet access.

On the other hand, Li also recommends that the city should be willing to extend the franchise term, reduce the fees or benefits the city receives from the company and even invest resources as incentives to Comcast.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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