Cable Commission transmits clear signal to Comcast

Ramsey and Washington County Comcast customers who subscribe to more than just basic cable channels may have noticed an increase in their cable bills recently, as the company has added some additional fees to several of its services.

At a Ramsey/Washington Counties Suburban Cable Commission meeting March 14, commissioners from 12 suburbs met to discuss the validity of the new charges.

The charges in question include $5.99 and $1.99 “convenience fees” for paying a bill over the phone with customer service or in person at a local Comcast service center, respectively. The other charges were a monthly $10 “high definition technology fee,” a $16.95 monthly “HD DVR service fee” and a $1.99 per month “digital adapter additional outlet service fee.”

The HD technology fee is charged monthly to customers who order a HD converter box to receive HD channels. The monthly HD DVR fee is charged to those who wish to record their favorite TV shows on a DVR box and watch them later.

The digital adapter additional outlet service fee is exactly what it sounds like-for each additional TV connected to Comcast cable, customers must pay $1.99 a month in order to receive service on those televisions.

The R/WSCC covers the municipalities of Birchwood Village, Dellwood, Grant, Lake Elmo, Mahtomedi, Maplewood, North St. Paul, Oakdale, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township and Willernie.

Discrepancy in fee categorization

One of the commissioners’ main objections is Comcast categorizing the charges as “services” instead of “equipment.” They contend that Comcast is “purposefully” calling the new fees “services,” because the company can charge more for them.

“Instead of charging an equipment fee, they’re charging a service fee, which is more expensive,” R/WSCC attorney Mike Bradley said at the March 14 meeting.

One clarification made by commissioner Ginny Holder of Lake Elmo is that the commission can only influence the rates charged to subscribers who receive the most basic level of cable TV. Any charges to customers who order additional channels or services are unregulated by the R/WSCC.

The commission does have the ability to influence equipment charges, however. The R/WSCC sees these “service” fees as actually being “equipment” fees since the cable equipment could not function without them. The commission would thus be entitled to regulate those new charges.

Since higher-level subscribers must pay these fees to access even basic cable, the R/WSCC may take action to approve or reject the rates provided by Comcast, according to Bradley.

Additionally, the commission contended that the special convenience fees for paying bills over the phone or in person were “double recovery,” since the fees for paying bills were built into programming rates in the 1990s when cable companies first began unbundling their services and equipment.

Comcast senior manager of government affairs Karly Werner explained that Comcast has never charged the $1.99 convenience fee for paying at a local Comcast service center, and that the $5.99 charge for paying over the phone only applied to those calling customer service to pay a bill.

“The $5.99 charge is a discouragement from people calling customer service to pay their bills,” Werner said at the meeting. “There are four or five other ways for customers to pay their bills without a charge that doesn’t involve calling customer service.

“Our customer service representatives are highly trained for problem-solving technical issues, and we don’t want to waste their time with bills.”

Residents “upset and concerned”

R/WSCC executive director Timothy Finnerty initiated an email conversation with Comcast in mid-February voicing his concerns about the new charges.

After several exchanges, Finnerty said he concluded there was “insufficient justification of the charges.” He decided to take official action by drafting a resolution to make Comcast drop the fees.

Finnerty said he has received dozens of complaints from Comcast customers regarding the new fees.

“Constituents have been just as vocal about this (digital adapter additional outlet service fee) as they ever have been about anything,” Finnerty said.

“The idea that the rental of a box isn’t sufficient and that they also have to pay a monthly fee for the outlet, there’s some confusion and anger there. They’re wondering why that’s justified.”

“They’re really upset and concerned,” Finnerty added.

Moving forward

Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to reject the fees in question. Comcast now has 30 days to remove these charges in compliance with the resolution passed by the R/WSCC or appeal to the Federal Communications Commission.

The North Suburban Communications Commission, which covers Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Mounds View, New Brighton, North Oaks, Roseville, St. Anthony and Shoreview, recently approved a similar resolution.

Werner responded that the company offers a competitive rate to its customers, and Comcast could be forced to disrupt service or even raise prices for its customers as it works to comply with the commission’s regulations.

“We are highly aware of our competition,” Werner said at the meeting. “We are in competition with other cable companies, the Internet, Netflix, even the movies.

“We offer the lowest rates possible because we love our customers. We want more customers. We take our competition very seriously. This (resolution) could force our hand to charge more for services we had been charging less for,” Werner said.

But the commission appeared skeptical.

“For Comcast to allege that the commission’s actions will raise rates is very choice,” Bradley said at the meeting. “Comcast raises rates very well on their own.”

“It’s our job to keep (Comcast) from overcharging customers,” Finnerty said. “All this commission wants is for Comcast to play by the rules.”

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814.

 

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