Comcast Corp., under fire from local officials, will spend
$50 million to correct service-related problems at its 126,000-subscriber Detroit system.
Plans call for replacing outdated microwave-transmission
technology with fiber optics, replacing antiquated set-top boxes with new General
Instrument Corp. CFT-2200 advanced-analog converters and replacing almost 600
"temporary" lines that have been in place for years.
Whether the improvements will come in time to satisfy
consumers and some local regulators remains to be seen.
With Comcast's franchise set to expire in 2000, the
city has scheduled a June 9 hearing to take public comment on the company's cable
At that meeting, local officials expect to hear a litany of
grievances concerning poor picture quality, service outages, unanswered phones at the
company's service centers and a recent rate hike that added $2.60 to monthly bills.
"We get a lot of complaints," said City
Councilwoman Kay Everett, a critic of the MSO's service. "I got one as recently
as last night."
A recent compliance audit by the Detroit Cable
Communications Commission found that Comcast receives some 7,000 calls per day. It was not
clear how many of those calls were complaints, however.
In the meantime, Comcast general manager George Booth said
enough fiber has already been deployed to allow 25,000 new converter boxes to "hit
the streets" beginning next month.
The system's remaining subscribers will receive new
converters as the rebuild is completed, he said.
Also, 443 of the 582 "temporary" lines have been
identified and replaced, Booth said.
The stopgap lines were strung years ago by the
system's previous owner, Barden Cable, after storms and fallen trees had damaged the
"But the problem is that they were never meant to be
in place for more than 24 to 48 hours," Booth said, adding that the remaining 139
offending lines will be removed by July 15.
Everett admitted that Comcast's service woes will not
be enough to convince the Federal Communications Commission to order a rollback in the
rate hike that went into effect earlier this month.
"It's not going to happen, because they're
below the FCC ceiling," she said.
Instead, Everett said, council members are looking at
bringing in competition for Comcast.
Predictably, the city has approached Ameritech Corp.'s
cable arm, Ameritech New Media, which has franchises in more than 30 Detroit suburbs,
giving it an area cluster of more than 500,000 households.
However, ANM sources said a move into Detroit is unlikely
due to cable's low penetration and high churn rate there.