Amid escalating complaints by residents who can't get wired for cable TV, City Hall has issued an ultimatum to Baltimore's cable company to improve its service.
In a letter this week, the city told United Artists Cable of Baltimore that it has failed to provide installation of cable converter boxes within the seven days required by the company's franchise agreement.
If United Cable does not correct the problem within 45 days, or present an acceptable plan for doing so, the city will declare it to be in default of the agreement -- a declaration that can lead to fines of up to $1,000 a day.
The city's letter comes just as the cable industry is launching a nationwide campaign to counteract widespread complaints of poor service.
In the campaign, announced last Friday and launched this week, participating cable systems, including United Cable, are guaranteeing $20 refunds for missed repair calls or free installation when they fail to keep appointments.
"We've had a number of complaints of people not being able to receive converter boxes," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "The complaints about not being able to receive equipment have increased significantly in the past few weeks."
Joyce Jefferson Daniels, director of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, said she has received approximately 50 complaints in recent weeks about delays in getting converter boxes, which are used to descramble cable signals.
"The next appointment is March 16," twice the time provided for in the agreement, Ms. Daniels said yesterday.
A spokeswoman for United Cable conceded that the company had not lived up to its franchise agreement in installing the converter boxes within seven days, but she said it began taking steps this week to correct the problem. The steps include placing some employees on overtime and hiring independent contractors to reduce a backlog of orders, said Kathy Roberts, the company's marketing manager.
"We want to ensure we are putting converters in people's homes; that's how we make money," she said.
"We know that this system has not always properly served its customers," she added.
The irony that her company was being cited for poor service at the same time it was part of a national campaign to improve the industry's image was not lost on Ms. Roberts.
"Ideally, you'd like more optimal timing," she said.
That's what Edgar Brandt would have liked when he called United Cable to have his Hampden home wired for service five weeks ago.
Four times, the 29-year-old photographer said, United Cable missed appointments -- including one time when the company claimed that it didn't have any converter boxes available and another when a serviceman simply did not show up.
Mr. Brandt finally got the three converter boxes he requested Monday -- but only two of the remote control switches.
"It was just very much a pain," he said.
But not as much a pain as that experienced by Richard Pollock, who first called for service to his Federal Hill home about the same time -- and still hasn't been hooked up.
In addition to a five-week wait, Mr. Pollock's horror story includes four times that he could not even get through to a t representative; a 20-day delay in getting scheduled for a converter box and a botched service call.
For Mr. Pollock, Washington producer for ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" who moved here in January to be with his fiancee, television is business, not pleasure. "Watching TV is important for me for more than social or entertainment reasons," he said.
Instead of calling United Cable, Mr. Pollock, 43, called the city's cable office Wednesday to see if it could help resolve his complaint.
"I am not going to spend another 45 minutes of my time waiting, listening to a tape recorder," he said, referring to his difficulty in reaching a company representative.
"I am disgusted."
Ms. Roberts of United Cable said the company installs about 1,800 converter boxes each week. Those include orders for new subscribers and replacement of defective boxes for existing customers, she said.
United Cable has been hampered in its efforts to comply with its franchise agreement by a manufacturing shortage of new converter boxes; theft of boxes and its own inefficiency in collecting boxes from customers who have let their service lapse, she said.
United's franchise agreement with the city runs through 2004. The company has 97,600 subscribers and pays the city about $2.5 million a year for the right to operate, according to the city's cable office.