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Comcast 'Opt-Out' Stirs Md. Concerns

A note Comcast sent to subscribers about its policy of resolving disputes via arbitration has irked local regulators in Maryland.

Officials in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties are questioning whether the arbitration notice met franchise terms for advanced notice to regulators before a policy statement is mailed to constituents.

Regulators say the notices constitute a “negative option,” or a policy that goes into effect unless a consumer takes action to stop it. The policy appears to preclude consumer class-action lawsuits against Comcast for alleged service breeches.

Beginning with the July billing cycle, Comcast sent out stuffers telling consumers that billing disputes are subject to resolution by arbitration unless a consumer opts out of the arbitration requirement, either by mail to Philadelphia or via e-mail at the corporate Web site.

Comcast has included arbitration notices in bills since 2000, according to senior director of corporate communications Jen Khoury. But the notices are new to the Maryland communities, which Comcast acquired from Prime Cable.

Comcast wanted to ensure a uniform policy across its systems, she said, and said arbitration can be a fast and cheap method of resolving disputes.

But regulators point out that Comcast claims the right to select the arbitrator, rather than via a mutual decision of the parties in a dispute. Would an arbitrator, who could handle multiple cases from the company, risk losing business by ruling against Comcast and for a consumer?

Because of concerns about the policy notice, the Montgomery County council has urged consumers to opt out before Comcast's 30-day deadline expires.

The rallying cry is being taken up on the Internet, where Maryland blog posts titled “Act Now: Comcast Can Sue You but You Can't Sue Comcast” are spreading to other Comcast service areas.

“We're not saying arbitration is a bad thing,” said Margie Williams, program manager for cable television in Montgomery County. “We do consumer protection,” she said, noting that many consumers would throw out the arbitration notice without looking at it unless an effort was made to draw attention to it.

“We don't like the negative option and we don't like the 30-day trigger,” Williams said.

Christy Lipscomb, press information officer for Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, said concerns about the notices might be referred to the state's attorney. Johnson's staff also has asked Comcast to extend the 30-day window for action, giving consumers more time to research their rights.