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LA to MSOs: Cut Subscribers' Complaints

Los Angeles officials contemplate issuing customer-complaint reduction standards which vary by operator, saving the most stringent standards for some of the systems operated by Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

Cable regulators had considered an across-the-board 50% complaint-cut request, but have determined that's not fair to companies that have reduced complaints of their own volition. Officials haven't said how operators that fall below benchmarks might be sanctioned.

City staff members developed a new methodology to quantify complaints, determining the number of calls per 1,000 customers.

Systems with high ratios, such as Adelphia's suburban Sherman Oaks and Eagle Rock systems, could be required to reduce complaints by 60%. Adelphia executives have already pledged to cut complaints in half this calendar year.

L.A. regulators have stepped up attention to customer service this year. Officials hoped competitive pressure from overbuilders would improve incumbents' complaint resolution, but each of the competitive franchisees (Western Integrated Networks, RCN Corp. and Altrio Communications Inc.) have run into financial problems. Thus, no competitive systems have been built.

The new analysis spotlighted areas in which operators have improved since 2000, but revealed specific problem areas that need to be rectified.

Research showed the Comcast franchise in Sunland/Tujunga — a former AT&T Broadband system — generated 5.54 complaints per 1,000 subscribers in 2002, but improved to 1.65 per 1,000 in 2003. Still, the city would like the 2003 figure cut by 40%.

Even top-performing operators have room to or improve, city staff members recently told the Board of Information Technology. Time Warner Cable's West San Fernando Valley operation generated just .47 complaints per thousand last year, but the analysis showed many questions arise about billing, according to the city. Officials would like its complaint level trimmed by at least 20%.

Other operators also got suggestions for specific area improvements.

Adelphia has too many complaints by consumers who say they get different answers to problems depending on who they talk to at the system. The city wants Adelphia to improve customer-service training.

Even operators with little or no complaints won't escape the city's scrutiny. Charter Communications Inc. serves fewer than 100 customers in Area E in beachside Malibu and rarely are complaints called in to the city. But staffers said the operator still needs to file periodic data and should be more responsive with that reporting, staff members said.

The board is considering determining a franchise's best performance during the last four years, and requiring a double-digit improvement below that benchmark.