By Bruce Edwards
Comcast customers upset at recent channel changes will get a chance to air their grievances at a public meeting this month in Rutland.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., is hosting a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 14 in City Hall.
Sanders arranged the meeting after receiving numerous complaints from Vermonters "outraged" at Comcast's recent changes to its basic and expanded cable channel lineups.
The largest cable television company in the state and the country dropped several channels from its basic and expanded cable service without replacing the channels or reducing the monthly price. The channels were moved to the company's digital tier of programming.
"We think what is taking place is a rate increase," Sanders said Thursday. "If you are paying the same amount of money for less service, we see that as a rate increase."
Sanders met for about an hour on Thursday with Comcast officials, including executive vice president David Cohen, in Sanders' Washington office.
Sanders indicated that he and Comcast officials made little headway in resolving their differences. Comcast, however, did agree to waive its $16 set-top box installation charge for Vermont customers who upgrade to its digital service. The company also agreed to credit customers who already paid the installation fee.
Comcast has defended the relocation of the channels saying it's necessary to free space on the system for other services such as higher Internet speeds and additional digital channels. The company also waived the $4 per month box fee for a year for customers who choose to upgrade to the digital service.
However, when asked last week why the company did not lower its rate for customers who lost channels, a Comcast spokesman did not address the issue directly, saying only that the company was making the transition to digital easier by offering a free box rental for a year.
Sanders said it's not only the channel changes that have him and subscribers concerned.
In general, he said, it appears that Comcast — which has a near monopoly on cable service in the state — has rates that are higher than what other cable television companies charge in the state and nationwide.
He also said his office has received complaints about the quality of service.
Sanders cited a recent national survey on customer satisfaction conducted by the University of Michigan, that found Comcast tied for last among cable, satellite and television providers.
A Comcast spokesman said the company meets or exceeds state standards.
"Over the last two years since Comcast has been in Vermont, Comcast has invested in innovative products and services, expanding its Vermont work force, particularly in areas of customer care and local technicians," Marc Goodman said. "Virtually all of the Vermont cable-related calls are handled by our Vermont call center in Burlington."
He called Comcast's service and programming a vast improvement over the previous provider (Adelphia).
As far as rates, Goodman said, without knowing what other companies offer and charge he couldn't comment.
He did say the company offers a variety of programming options and customers who subscribe to multiple services such as phone and Internet save money.
Congress approved deregulation of the cable television industry in the mid-1990s — a move opposed by Sanders when he served in the House. As a result, states have limited regulatory authority over the industry.
Sanders said Comcast officials will attend the Aug. 14 meeting. Also present will be the Vermont Department of Public Service.
By Bruce Edwards
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