COLUMBIA — Columbia's cable television providers are doing a lousy job, but there's nothing the city can do about it, according to a letter to the Columbia City Council from the Cable Television Task Force.
The council discussed the July 26 letter from task force member Marty Riback at its Tuesday meeting. The letter came in response to a February request from former Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade that the group assess complaints about cable service from Mediacom and Charter Communications.
Those who want to comment on cable television service in Columbia can do so through the following agencies or state legislators:
- 19th District State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia: 751-3931.
- 21st District State Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico: 751-9458.
- 23rd District State Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia: 751-9753.
- 24th District State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia: 751-4189.
- 25th District State Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia: 751-1169.
- Missouri Attorney General's Office: 800-392-8222.
- Federal Communications Commission: 888-225-5322.
The council decided to follow through with Riback's suggestion that the city issue a news release explaining to the public its options for making complaints about cable.
The task force grouped customer complaints into three areas:
- Pricing and programming.
- Customer service and support.
- Lack of support for public access, education and government channels.
Riback said the assessment is "based on what we read, see, hear and experience ourselves."
"The issues are legitimate and the Task Force believes that Mediacom and Charter are not dedicating the resources to Columbia that they should," Riback wrote. "Unfortunately, this Task Force does not have access to any record of complaints filed with local cable companies if, indeed, any such records are kept. Nor is anyone in city government designated to receive or record such complaints."
The top complaint, according to the letter, concerns pricing and programming, followed by customer service and support.
“The record on promptly fixing outages, showing up on time and maintaining infrastructure is abysmal,” Riback wrote, "but the City has no legal authority to punish them for bad service.”
Mediacom and Charter also should provide more resources to public access, education and government channels, Riback asserted.
Cable companies respond
In an e-mail, Charter spokesperson Anita Lamont defended the company.
"I will say that we have not had an inordinate number of calls to our mid-Missouri office in Columbia, in fact, very few complaints," Lamont said.
Tom Larsen, group vice president of legal and public affairs at Mediacom, said he understands cable customers' frustration with pricing.
"The prices for the programming is probably the biggest complaint of our own industry," Larsen said. "We take the cost of Disney or Viacom or NBC Universal, and we have to pass those costs onto our consumers."
Larsen said Mediacom controls its Internet and telephone service prices, but it cannot control video pricing because it "resells other people's content."
Larsen said his company's efforts to upgrade service in Columbia might explain an increase in complaints. Upgrades, he said, typically bring temporary problems.
Larsen also said Mediacom takes complaints seriously.
"We have a pretty elaborate complaint tracking system. We have customer care centers where customers can call in," Larsen said. "We always take our customer feedback and try to figure out what areas need the most improvement."
No municipal authority
Riback's letter, which City Manager Bill Watkins said amounts to an argument that the task force should disband, said the city lacks any authority over cable companies.
“As council members may recall, in 2007 the Missouri General Assembly adopted legislation transferring whatever regulatory authority municipal governments had with regard to cable television to the state,” Riback wrote.
Wade said that given the lack of local authority, cable customers will have to take their complaints elsewhere.
“For individuals and for the ... task force, they need to contact state legislators and the Federal Communications Commission,” Wade said.
Nevertheless, Wade said the task force remains important for its ability to identify problems with cable.
“They need to find ways to express that in the public arena and political arena,” he said.
Riback recommended customers protest to the Missouri Public Service Commission, contact legislators and consider another source of television.
John Van Eschen, manager of telecommunications for the public service commission, said that agency can do little.
"The Missouri PSC authority over video service in Missouri is very limited," Van Eschen said. "It's limited to solely granting video service authorization to video service providers."
He added: "In terms of consumer complaints and who has the authority to address them, I would go to the Missouri Attorney General's office or the Federal Communications Commission."
Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley, who replaced Wade after the April municipal election, commended the task force report.
“The information is excellent,” Dudley said. “All I can say is that we can go by the recommendations that they have given. ... People who want it (cable) need service that works. They’re paying for service, and they’re not getting what they’re paying for.”