Comcast Accused of California Scheming

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First one confused consumer called, then another. Each had the same complaint, explaining that they’d attempted to log on their high-speed-data account with the municipal power and telecommunications company in Alameda, Calif., only to find that their account had been switched to competitor Comcast Corp.

Comcast explained that the switches were in error, a simple clerical mistake, but representatives of Alameda Power & Telecom have not been mollified by the MSO’s explanation of how 35 municipal customers ended up having their cable and data connections switched recently.

Alameda is the only municipality in the San Francisco Bay area that provides competitive video and data services. A commercial provider competes with Comcast in nearby Walnut Creek and Concord. About 45,000 customers in those communities will be served by WaveDivision Holdings LLC, which earlier this year bought the overbuilds from Seren Innovations Inc.

AP&T launched its telecommunications business in 2001 over a hybrid fiber-coaxial plant, and it is now fully built out, passing 29,000 residential units. The utility currently has 15,000 telecommunications customers, most of whom buy a data-video bundle, according to spokesman M.T. McCabe.

Most cable customers (more than 50%) take the expanded-basic tier, which includes 86 channels for $39.99. Although Comcast’s expanded-basic tier in most of the Bay area includes 72 channels for $44.99, in Alameda, that tier is 77 channels for $41.99, McCabe added.

“We’ve captured a significant market share. We’re fighting the good fight as well as we can,” he said.

In addition to competitive pricing, Comcast has been very aggressive in its attempts to gain access to multiple-dwelling units in the East Bay city. McCabe said the utility has been told that Comcast pays a bounty of $100 for each door passed, plus Apple Computer Inc. “iPods” for building employees, in order to entice building owners to switch telecommunications services to Comcast.

A new access deal was at the center of the mistaken switching that raised the ire of Alameda executives.

Andrew Johnson, the operator’s vice president of communications for the Bay area, explained that the company recently negotiated nonexclusive access deals for six of eight MDUs owned by the same property company. As Comcast began to market and serve those buildings, errors were made, he said. For instance, the print on a technician’s multicopy work order may have become so light by the worker’s copy that an “8” in an account number looked like a “3.”

The unauthorized switches were limited to those MDUs and reconnected to the subscribers’ chosen vendor by July 29, Johnson said.

But McCabe said Comcast’s explanations were to the media, who were alerted to the problem by advisories sent out by AP&T. He added that the utility called Comcast when the first 11 disconnections surfaced, July 27.

“We called on Wednesday and basically said, ‘If you’re doing this, knock it off.’ One or two [mistakes], I could understand, but 35?” McCabe added. The inaccurate switches are “really an affront to the citizen-owners of Alameda Power & Telecom,” he said.

By the end of last week, McCabe said calls by the utility to Comcast’s local government-affairs director had still not been returned. The utility had gotten no formal or informal response from Comcast to utility complaints.

AP&T executives had informal talks with local franchising authorities about the consumer switches, he added, but the power company’s executives have not decided whether to take any other steps against the MSO.

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