Cox Could Face Competition in La.

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Officials in Southeast Louisiana's St. Charles Parish are irked enough about changes in the cable lineup there to consider seeking competition for Cox Communications.

Reacting to consumer complaints that subscribers in the community of 48,000 residents are getting less programming for higher rates, the parish council voted Feb. 26 to form a committee to examine Cox's actions and consider competitive options.

Recently, Cox dropped the TV Guide Channel and moved Eternal Word Television Network from the analog tier into a digital one. Then, on Feb. 1, the company increased the cost of expanded basic to $46.99 from $42.99. Cox had not raised the cost of expanded basic since 2003, and basic cable is still $11.50.

Steve Sirmon, public information officer for the parish, said people there “don't approve of being snookered” by paying more for fewer channels. Consumers said they were told that TV Guide Channel no longer exists.

The employee who offered misinformation about TV Guide Channel is no longer with the company, said Cox director or media relations David Grabert. More than half the parish's customers subscribe to digital service, so they still have an on-screen programming guide, he added.

Grabert said the channel changes were necessary to reclaim bandwidth to accommodate high-definition channels and to prepare for the upcoming transition to all-digital television transmission. After Hurricane Katrina, many residents in St. Charles and surrounding parishes replaced their television sets and upgraded to HD service, adding to demand for that programming, he noted.

Cox blamed the rate hike on increased cost of programming.

Sirmon said subscribers see a post-Katrina economic motive. Consumers “see the strategy for what it is,” he said. “If [Cox] had been straightforward and said, 'We lost a ton of revenue due to Katrina,' everyone would understand that. It's business. They sowed some seeds of ill will. All we want is the best package for constituents.”

Cox's current agreement expires this year, Sirmon said. The parish will consider all options, including building a municipal broadband plant. A recent Louisiana Supreme Court ruling means “we control our destiny,” he added.

A consumer lawsuit had challenged use of $125 million in bonds in Lafayette, La., to fund a planned broadband project there. The state's high court upheld the right of communities to utilize that funding method.

The Lafayette project, which was approved in 2005, has been snarled in red tape.

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