Latest cable charge draws council questions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 6, 2013

By Richard Meek
Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – A decision by cable provided Comcast to require all customers to pay for a new digital box has drawn the ire of St. John the Baptist Parish Councilman Lennix Madere.
During a council meeting last week Madere grilled Comcast representative Frances Smith about the rationale of requiring the box and also vehemently objected to the $1.99 additional monthly fee.
“Having to pay for that little device, I don’t see where it benefits us to pay $2,” Madere said.
Smith said the box, which has been required since the company switched to all digital earlier this year, is multi-functional, providing a better signal and an improved picture quality. She added the box also provides a built-in security check, allowing the company to prevent customers from pirating premium channels or tiers, a practice that some customers have been able to take advantage of in the past.
Madere, who admitted he has previously worked for a cable provider, took issue with the security element of the box, saying Comcast should be picking up the $2 tab.
“It provides protection for you,” he said. “If this device is to keep customers from stealing signals, personally I think that’s a fee the company should pay. I’m paying the fee to protect you.”
Smith said the built-in security feature also protects the parish, since it is not receiving franchise fees from customers who are pirating premium channels. She cited a fairness issue as well, saying she would not want her neighbor to have the same service for free that she is paying a fee to receive.
Smith added that pirated channels mean fewer sales tax dollars for the state.
“I understand that but I mean mainly it’s on the behalf of the company because you lose most of the money if someone is getting channels they’re not supposed to get,” Madere said.
“I understand it benefits everybody but I think it benefits your company a little more.  Everything you told me is toward the benefit of the compan,” Madere added.
Madere and Smith engaged in a lengthy dialogue, with each rehashing the same points several times over before an exasperated Council Chairperson Jaclyn Howard intervened in what had become an obvious stalemate and steered the discussion in a different direction.
At that point Councilman Lucien Gauff III queried Smith about complaints that had been brought to his attention, most importantly response time at the call center, which has been at the center of controversy for several months.
He suggested one reason he believes the complaint rate is not particularly high, as Smith noted, is because customers get frustrated being put on hold for so long that they simply hang up.
Smith said the office in LaPlace is now open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and daily hours have been extended to 6 p.m. in an effort to better serve customers.
She said the national call center is also adding personnel to meet the increased demand as the company goes through expansion.
“We want our customers to like Comcast Cable,” she said. “If we know about a problem we’re going to fix it.
“We’ve heard the comments about people hanging up, but that’s going to be peaks and valleys, like anything else. (When there are) spikes in the calls to get in will take a little longer.”
Smith said phone and Internet are now available on the west bank and the channels on both sides of the river match up.
“What would really be helpful is if one your constituents has a problem give them my number and email,” she said. “It helps us with the processes and patterns that need to be changed, but at this point our system is telling us the system is basically stable.”
In other council news, Director of Planning and Zoning Angelic Sutherland said the district attorney’s office is reviewing procedures neighboring parishes have used regarding gutted houses that have been abandoned.
Parish councilmen said they are also concerned about houses that have gone untouched since Hurricane Isaac.
Sutherland said her department is keeping an updated list of those homes, and once the DA’s office has advised an appropriate course of action the parish will react.
“If we need to pass any new ordinances then we can proceed with the list that we have,” she said. “However, the mortgage companies are requesting information, like can we prove these houses are abandoned.”
“We’ve talked with (parish attorneys) about some issues,” she added. “You say there’s mold in there. How do we get in there to inspect the property? Once we decide to do what to the houses how do we get in there to assess the damage?
“Every week we find new houses that were gutted. It’s still a work in progress.”