Charter Gets a 15-Year Renewal in Reno

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Turning aside the recommendation of a citizen’s committee that advised only an eight-year renewal, the Reno (Nevada) City Council on April 6 approved a 15-year refranchise for Charter Communications Inc.

Two weeks ago, the citizen’s panel roundly criticized Charter, citing a consultant’s report commissioned by the city early in the negotiations. That report, conducted by Action Audits, recorded pricing complaints, multiple outage reports and reports of underinformed and rude customer-service representatives.

Auditor Robert Sepe recommended the city seek a five- to eight-year renewal term while monitoring Charter to assure improved performance.

Charter countered that the report, conducted during a system upgrade, did not measure traditional performance. Upgrades are typically a time of high consumer complaints.

Complaints have dropped off recently, according to city staff members, with the most calls addressing the price of expanded cable service, an aspect of the business over which Reno has no authority. But some resentment apparently lingers.

As the cable commission mulled its recommendation to the City Council, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran a poll asking readers if they supported a 15-year renewal for Charter. In the unscientific poll, 288 readers logged onto the paper’s Web site to vote “no.” Only 29 voters approved the longer term.

The city council was widely split on the issue, with opponents of the longer term stating that a 15-year renewal would reward Charter for poor customer service.

Proponents noted there’s no alternative provider waiting in the wings, and Charter pledged larger grant payments to the city, but only if the council approved a long renewal.

Ultimately, the council approved the 15-year term on a 4-2 vote.

The agreement includes more frequent reporting on customer-service standards. The franchise calls for quarterly reports, but the city can request them more often if there appears to be a spike in calls.

To earn the longer term, Charter agreed to concessions, such as a $2.8 million payment for grants to help support public-access channels. The company will dedicate two analog slots to government access and public access, respectively, and three digital slots, one each for government and educational use and the third reserved for future use. Reno can also now originate telecasts from seven city locations, including the new City Hall.

Charter will provide free basic and expanded basic service to government buildings, and offer service at a 20% discount to seniors aged 65 or older and the disabled.