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Cable critics channel their anger into letters

CLARIFICATION

An article on Page 1A of the Jan. 11 editions of The Sun about local cable television service described a Baltimore County couple's complaint over a $304 charge from Comcast for movies they said they never ordered. The quote, "This is mind boggling," and other comments critical of Comcast were made by the complaining couple. Attribution of these comments in the article was ambiguous and gave the impression the comments had been made by a county worker. In addition, the article did not carry the cable company's explanation for the disputed bill. Comcast said a subsequent review showed that the movies had been ordered from the customers' residence and the customers in fact owed the money.

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The letters from Marylanders unhappy with their cable service are windows onto tortured souls.

The TV signal morphed into blue.

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The cable guy didn't show up for a service call -- five times in a row.

The technicians nearly ruined the carpet twice and broke the freezer, with the stench of rotting salmon and beef permeating the house.

"What kind of people are you?" demanded Marylouise Roach, a Derwood homemaker, in a complaint last year to Comcast. She said the cable giant's workers tracked mud on the carpet and left the freezer unplugged, creating an unyielding odor of decomposing fish. "My, this is not a decent way to run a business, not here, not anywhere, probably not even in Iraq."

The number of complaints about cable service in parts of Maryland has been on the rise in recent years, regulators say. Specific numbers are elusive because local governments don't always keep track of the figures.

Cable companies say any increase in complaints is temporary and owed largely to bugs that arise as systems are modernized and services, such as high-speed Internet, are added. They also say the volume of complaints remains small relative to the hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Whatever prompts the complaints, a review of the correspondence that pours into government offices makes clear that cable problems elicit passionate rants in a class all their own.

Like a champagne bottle just uncorked, the letters bubble with frustration and sarcasm, frequently employing exclamation points for emphasis. Some are handwritten with bold, angry strokes.

Pondering the dish

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Monica Krieg, a Rockville grandmother, typed hers, but her torment was evident nonetheless.

"Is there any chance at all of ever getting upgraded service from Comcast or should I continue to shop for a satellite dish?" Krieg, a nursing home administrative assistant, said in an October complaint.

Krieg needed expanded service -- which required installation of a cable box -- so her 4-year-old grandson, who lives with her, could watch his favorite cartoons.

The cable guy missed the first appointment, her complaint said. The company rescheduled the second appointment and missed that one, too. She decided to try again.

"That morning at work everyone roared with derisive laughter when I announced ... that I'd be leaving early once again for the Comcast cable servicemen! Needless to say, no one showed nor did anyone call!!" the complaint said.

By then, she said in an interview, her grandson "was asking every day, 'Did Comcast come today?' He'd be in the back yard slaying dragons with a big stick, and I'd ask, 'Is one of those dragons named Comcast?' and he'd say, 'Yes.'"

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Comcast is Maryland's dominant provider, with 1.1 million customers in 15 counties and Baltimore. A handful of smaller companies -- including Millennium Digital Media, Adelphia Cable and Antietam Cable -- have carved out niches around the state, mostly in areas where Comcast does not compete.

'This is mind-boggling'

The company has no competition in Baltimore County, where one couple complained they had no success convincing Comcast that they didn't really watch $304 in pay-per-view movies that showed up on their monthly bill.

"This is mind-boggling," said a county worker's summary of the complaint. "There were times when the movies were on the bill and she and her husband were out of town."

Comcast, the worker wrote, "refuses to even give [the couple] the time of day."

In most Maryland counties, people who don't like their cable companies have three choices: deal with it, move, or get a satellite dish.

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Jane E. Lawton, the cable communications administrator in Montgomery, the state's largest county, said the letters seem to have a sharper edge than those of several years ago.

"The complaints we get now have a greater intensity because the services offered, like e-mail and the stock market and weather reports, are more integral to peoples' lives," Lawton said. The county is among those served by Comcast.

Complaints in Montgomery soared to 1,435 in 2002 from a low of 221 in 1998. The figure dropped to 1,213 last year -- when Comcast was assessed more than $11,000 in fines by the county for not answering customers' phone calls fast enough.

"If Comcast spent half the money they spend on PR and schmoozing on customer service, they'd be better off," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, a frequent critic.

Relatively few

But Comcast spokesman Brian Edwards said complaints were "minuscule" compared with the number of subscribers who are satisfied with their service. He said there are about 220,000 Comcast customers in Montgomery and about 100 complaints a month. He said that the company offers far more services -- archived movies and shows, for example -- than it did five years ago, which means there is potentially more for people to complain about.

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The complaint totals reflect figures received by the county. Some people complain directly to Comcast -- Edwards said those are not available for public inspection -- and others gripe to the Federal Communications Commission.

Montgomery and other local authorities have limited authority over their cable franchises. For example, they can't regulate pricing of premium channels; that is the purview of the FCC.

Some counties devote minimal resources to cable regulation. Baltimore County, for one, has no full-time cable officer.

The city, which has a cable administrator, is in the midst of negotiating a new, multi-year franchise agreement with Comcast to replace one expiring this year. Complaints in the city, which had averaged less than 500 annually, rose last year to 690, according to Cedric Crump, the administrator. He attributed the increase to inevitable glitches arising from upgrades allowing city residents access to high-speed Internet service.


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