R.I. Seniors Get Mad as Heck at Cox

When Cox Communications Inc. executives in Lincoln, R.I., looked out their windows last month and saw geriatrics walking a picket line, they realized that the operator hadn't done quite enough to publicize its senior-citizen discounts.

The picketers showed in August after Cox-which serves about 96 percent of the state's cable market-announced that it would increase standard rates an average of 6.2 percent. Standard is Cox's term for broadcast basic plus a tier.

"Grey Panthers say Cox is robbing us" and "Cox Cable stinks" read the picket signs, borne by about 15 elderly consumers who were angry enough to come out on a very hot day.

Picketer Charles Desmarais of Woonsocket told Multichannel News that the recent hike caused him to return the converter from one of the two sets he had connected to cable.

"Cable should be working with us," he said, also complaining about the plethora of commercials and "trash" on basic. "I'm tired of seeing the same alligator wrestled again and again."

Cox is attempting to unify service levels and pricing throughout the state in several systems it recently acquired. As a result, some systems have seen large hikes in recent years. The seniors complained that some northern communities have seen their rates go up 66 percent since 1995.

The protest resulted in a two-hour meeting with local Cox representatives.

"We did our best to explain the reasoning behind the hikes. Our programming costs have gone up 17 percent," said Leigh Ann Woisard, Cox's spokeswoman for the region.

It became clear that the seniors did not understand that the hike did not apply to broadcast basic, nor were all of the protesters aware of Cox's 10 percent discount for qualified, low-income senior citizens.

Cox will publicize the discount in its next customer newsletter, Woisard said. Further, the operator sent press releases on the policy to senior-targeted publications.

"As unfortunate as increases are, cable still improves signals and provides local programming they can't get elsewhere," she noted, adding that a recent Federal Communications Commission study showed that Rhode Island residents pay a lower cost-per-channel rate than comparable systems. Cox's standard service averages $35.99 per month in the state.

The operator also stressed to the seniors that buying bundled services brings them discounts-10 percent on each product. Cox offers digital video, telephony and high-speed data in the state.

In fact, the Grey Panthers coordinator lauded Cox for bringing competitive telephony to the state. Richard Bidwell, state coordinator for the senior group, noted that Cox telephony averages $5 cheaper per month than its competitor, Verizon Communications, "and that's great."

The cable company also pleased seniors by becoming the first telephone provider to drop toll charges throughout the state for anyone calling the capital, Providence. Recent legislation requires toll-free calls to the government seat.

But the seniors still have complaints about the cable service, and further protests could be sprung on Cox, Bidwell said.

"We're concerned with the rate structure overall. Their prices continue to go up in excess of the rate of inflation," he said. Since the picket, more seniors have called the organization, concerned about cost, he added.

The Panthers may protest again, Bidwell noted, to stress to the operator seniors' anger at being forced to downgrade to basic only. That level has so few satellite services that subscribers feel like they've lost the benefits of cable subscription, he said.

Cox needs to poll users more frequently to determine programming choices for that tier, he added.