Kingsport mayor wants committee to look at Charter Communications complaints

Matthew Lane • May 5, 2007 at 11:57 AM

KINGSPORT - Mayor Dennis Phillips plans to meet with city officials about re-establishing a cable committee to address customer service complaints with Charter Communications.

Phillips made this comment during a Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting last week where city leaders voted to approve a new franchise agreement with Charter.

The new agreement comes from action taken by the BMA in August in which Telecommunications Consulting Associates (TCA) of Waynesville, N.C., was charged with conducting a franchise fee audit on Charter and assisting in the renegotiation of a franchise agreement with the cable provider.

The results of the audit came back in April, with TCA reporting Charter had $191,000 in unpaid franchise fees between 2000 and 2005, mostly from Internet service and some digital products. Under the terms of the contract, TCA and Kingsport split the $191,000 settlement from Charter. Last week, the BMA voted to earmark its portion to the city's home rehab program.

TCA was slated to receive $125 an hour from the city for its assistance in renegotiating the franchise agreement, but instead the company chose to waive the fee and include the services in with the settlement.

According to Jim Demming, finance director for Kingsport, new terms exist in the franchise agreement with Charter - the franchise is non-exclusive, the term of the agreement is for five years instead of 20 years, and Kingsport receives one government channel with the ability to receive another.

Charter pays Kingsport 3 percent (about $300,000) of its gross revenue annually for the right to operate within the city. The new agreement calls for the fee to increase to 4 percent this year and then to 5 percent June 30, 2008.

The agreement also includes customer service standards and a rule noting if Charter fails to comply for three consecutive months, then the cable provider would have to pay damages.

During Tuesday's BMA meeting, Alderman Ken Marsh raised the question of what remedy Kingsport has if Charter continues what some consider to be an inadequate service level.

"What do we do about the obvious poor service?" Marsh asked.

Phillips said he plans to meet with City Manager John Campbell and City Attorney Mike Billingsley to see if Kingsport could re-establish its cable committee.

"We receive more complaints about Charter than anything else in the city. The service they provide is totally inadequate for this city. It's embarrassing. They're lucky to find your subdivision much less your house," Phillips said. "I plan to come back and ask that we appoint a cable commission - if we can require representatives of Charter to meet with us on a bimonthly basis, to have a place where citizens can register complaints and go over these complaints."

Phillips said if Charter does not cooperate or fails to cooperate, then Kingsport could make the decision to start its own cable company.

Billingsley said Charter is not unwilling to meet with the city and discuss these types of issues.

"We are going to do more starting right now to ensure this community gets better cable service than they've got in the past," Phillips said. "Nothing prevents us from starting our own cable company."

According to Billingsley, Kingsport could create an ombudsmen to collect and shepherd complaints about Charter's service and ensure compliance with the limited areas of local control governed in the franchise agreement.

However, Billingsley said Kingsport has no authority over Internet service or complaints, and federal law exempts Charter from providing a local contact for service and other complaints.

Nick Pavlis, spokesman for Charter, said the company looks forward to living up to the terms of the contract and adds it would be "awesome" for the company to participate with a cable committee.

"We welcome at any time open dialogue, no matter what business, it's great to have that and certainly we'd be welcome to attend those meetings and answer any questions people have about Charter," Pavlis said, adding the company does similar things in Blount and Loudon counties every month. "Many things fester and we don't hear about it. It'll be a good chance to get to the Tri-Cities. It's an excellent idea."

Within the past year Charter closed its call center in Kingsport as part of a nationwide closure of seven call centers, in turn switching to virtual call centers. Kingsport's call center had 130 employees and handled calls dealing with customer service, technical issues and billing.

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