Chicago OKs Cable Subs' Rights Play

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Chicago's City Council has approved a wide-ranging "bill of rights" for cable customers that holds the city's operators to such standards as three-hour service windows, and sets a list of penalties for offenses such as damage to shrubbery.

Aldermen passed the measure unanimously, even though the city's largest operator — AT&T Broadband — protested that the terms were too onerous.

The rules will also apply to overbuilder RCN Corp., although aldermen at that same meeting opted to suspend that cash-strapped company's build in two of its three franchises.

Cable administrator Joyce Gallagher said officials thought competition would "keep everybody honest" and eliminate the need for strict service standards.

RCN has halted work on its Chicago overbuild, citing financial woes. But the city still expects that company to complete its franchise from The Loop to Hyde Park, although its other two franchises might not be built out for at least a year.

The new customer-service standards will become effective in 30 days, except for a requirement that the call-center and bill-payment locations be sited within city limits. Cable operators will have until 2004 to comply with that demand.

AT&T is still examining how Chicago plans to implement the bill. Spokeswoman Pat Keenan said the company agrees that customer service is a paramount concern, adding that the MSO has made improvements in the city.

But the operator has questions about how the ordinance will be implemented and whether it will add costs that will be passed through to consumers, according to Keenan.

Some rights

Other issues addressed in the bill of rights include:

  • Standard installation requests will be honored within seven days. "Standard" connections are defined as links within 125 feet of existing plant. Customers get a free installation if the provider fails to meet that standard. If the installation was already to be free, the penalty is a free month of basic service.
  • Service appointments will be offered in three-hour windows, six days a week, so consumers won't have to take a whole day off to fix problems, according to Gallagher.
  • Phones will be answered within 30 seconds, including on-hold time. If a transfer is necessary, that will take 30 seconds. This standard must be maintained 95 percent of the time. Busy signals are allowed only 3 percent of the time, except in extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the operator. The city specifies that peaks in call volume due to special promotions, pay-per-view events and rate increases do not meet the "extraordinary circumstance" exception.
  • Consumers will get automatic credits for outages. "Outages" are defined as service interruptions that affect 500 or more homes. At present, customers must call and request a credit.

Data provisions

Though the Federal Communications Commission has issued a declaratory ruling to define cable modems as an information service, and not a cable service, the Chicago bill of rights addresses the high-speed data product as well. Operators will meet all specifications advertised for Internet services, according to the standards.

Customers will get one free day of service for each day performance is found to be lacking. The companies are allowed to interrupt service only for "good cause" and only for 24 hours or less.

Besides the list of consumer payments for lapses, the bill of rights gives the cable administrator authority to fine the operator up to $750 a day for failure to meet the standards. Consumers may also individually sue the cable providers for violating municipal code.

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