Changing stations

What’s new after a year spent preparing to renew Charter Communications’ franchise with the city of Reno

Better customer service may be the only benefit to come out of the city of Reno’s cable franchise renewal talks with Charter Communications.

Better customer service may be the only benefit to come out of the city of Reno’s cable franchise renewal talks with Charter Communications.

Photo By David Robert

It’s been a bad year for consumers. Astronomical gas prices. Skyrocketing housing costs. Increased electric bills and reports of coming water rate hikes. So it’s no surprise that, while we were kicking around at the lake this summer, cable rates zipped upward. In June, cable subscribers began paying from 8 to 13 percent more to have a few dozen stations routed to that 25-inch Zenith in the living room.

Not that service has improved, say some customers who feel plagued by outages and annoyed that programming options seem to be decreasing. Charter Communications’ broadband digital Internet service also has a spotty record, say users, who complain that the service frequently goes away at inopportune times—like near the end of a long file download.

The city of Reno is in the mid-stages of renegotiating its franchise agreement with Charter Communications. The company’s franchise expires in October.

“The advantage of the franchise renewal process is that it allows the city a window of opportunity to address issues or changes in the law,” says Stephen Wright, public-info guy at the city of Reno. “[It can] improve the ability of the city to regulate customer service standards.”

About a year ago, the city of Reno spent some $53,000 on an audit of Charter. The city formed a cable TV franchise oversight committee, held hearings and passed revisions to its Master Cable Ordinance.

Despite all this, it’s not likely that much will change when Charter officials and Reno’s elected ones shake on the new franchise deal. Rates won’t get any lower. The city has some control over basic cable rates, but not over expanded services. And Charter’s rates haven’t yet reached the allowable limit set by the business-friendly regulators at the Federal Communications Commission.

Programming won’t be improved, as that’s also outside the city’s purview. (The city can prohibit the company from broadcasting “obscenity,” but that’s the end of its influence over what channels are made available to which subscribers at what tier of service.)

And as for Charter’s digital Internet pipeline?

The city has no jurisdiction over Internet service at all.

The city has a say in only a few cable matters because the actual cable itself takes advantage of a right-of-way provided by the city. Just what can the city ask of Charter, the company that’s seeking another, say, decade of monopoly on cable services in the Truckee Meadows?

That’s a good question. Unfortunately, the answer might be—not much.

Controversial, gregarious Chairman Andrew Barbano arrived a few minutes late for the start of a Citizens’ Cable Compliance Committee’s meeting last week. Barbano is known as a loud, proud consumer advocate of the sort who’d like to see real competition in the marketplace, especially where large corporations reign like drug lords over utilities such as power and water. He’s been tagged as an “adversary” of Charter Communications. He’d counter that he’s just trying to improve the company—and improved services should result in more customers and a better bottom line for Charter overall.

A couple of items on the agenda looked promising, like a report on management tools that could be used “to track cable outages” for consistent reporting.

Committee members wondered if monitoring cable outages might make it possible to require the cable company to award credits to consumers for periods that the cable wasn’t available. Richard Kelsey, owner of a local firm that develops software applications, told the committee that it would be relatively easy to develop a system that could monitor outages to provide better reportage to the city’s oversight committee and to offer credit to customers.

“I’d be surprised if there isn’t software already available that does this,” Kelsey said. “Anything that has a signal can be monitored, measured and managed.”

Barbano said he’d like to see cable metered like a utility so that if it’s off for six hours, the customer would get credit for the six hours of no service.

“It’d be equivalent to a power meter—so that if nothing comes through, you don’t pay,” Barbano said.

Deputy city attorney Jon Shipman reminded the members that Charter would have to voluntarily participate in any tests of such a system.

In a later phone interview, Wright noted that cable TV is not a utility. It’d be difficult to convince the private cable operator to engage in such a monitoring system.

“It’s an idea that somebody could look at,” Wright said. “I don’t think there’s any way it would happen, but that’s just my opinion.”

One big victory on the part of the committee was the compromise on Charter’s part to clearly list franchising authority information on its bills. In the past, Barbano said, the company has listed the city of Reno as its franchising authority in tiny print on bills—without telling consumers that this is an entity to which they may lodge a complaint.

Wright told the committee that the company (via FCC regulation) didn’t really need to do anything further than list the information—no matter the size or readability of the type.

Could the city ask Charter to include as a bill-stuffer the “Cable Television Complaint Process Flowchart” created by committee member Noel Thornsbury?

Well, the city could push for this during negotiations. But Charter might be able to pass the cost of creating and printing the bill insert on to the consumer, Wright said. He promised that the flowcharts would be made available on the city’s Web site—eventually—and that they’d be distributed at such events as annual senior citizen festivals.

Could the city ask Charter to increase the size of the type used to list the franchise authority on bills so that people could read it?

Well, as it turns out, Charter uses a standardized billing system that’s just too hard to change, Wright said. But as a compromise—"to show the committee that [Charter is] interested in complying [with committee requests],” Wright said—the company offered to allow the city to use an area of the bill reserved for marketing messages in order to print the name and phone number of the franchising authority.

“They’ll even include a catchy icon, like a smiley face or a frowning face,” Wright said.

Barbano seemed willing to accept the solution.

“If we can put whatever we want in that section, that strikes me as a reasonable compromise,” he said.

When the $53,000 audit of Charter was complete, it reported a dramatic failure on Charter’s part to provide decent customer service. The 200-page report by Action Audits of North Carolina listed programming outages, less-than-adequate service technicians, billing snafus and discourteous employees manning the phones.

Charter had been required to file performance reports to the city of Reno, but it hadn’t done so—and no one at the city of Reno was keeping track. No one kept track for 15 years.

“We know the city was falling down on the job,” said city councilman Dave Aiazzi. That’s why the council created the cable compliance committee. “We said, ‘You guys tell us how to fix our end of it.’ “

Perhaps the one positive thing to come out of about a year of finagling on behalf of consumers is that the city seems to be paying attention. So is Charter, Wright says.

“They’ve made some changes over there,” he said. “There are some great opportunities for improvement. There’s a new general manager, a new executive vice president, a new director of the call center.”

Wright wasn’t sure when negotiations with Charter will be complete. The city could extend Charter’s franchise on a month-to-month basis until an agreement is reached. Wright is optimistic about the city’s revised Master Cable Ordinance, which he said “added consumer protection with more teeth in it.”

The ordinance would require the company to track customer complaints, answer its telephone and promptly deal with new installations.

However, the reporting requirements would compel Charter possibly to add staff, a cost that could be passed on to customers.

At the recent meeting, members expressed concern that the city’s new attention to the cable company’s service record could fall by the wayside again.

Committee member Thornsbury said he’d feel better if the role were codified as part of someone’s job—like the director of community relations, aka Wright.

“I’m afraid it’ll fall through the cracks again,” Thornsbury said.

Barbano agreed.

“This needs to be etched on a monument somewhere so that when we’re retired to Bermuda on our lottery winnings, there’ll be somebody minding the store," Barbano said.