D.C. Suburb Eyes Standards for HSI

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Montgomery County, Md., is considering new customer-service standards on behalf of cable-modem customers in this affluent Washington, D.C., suburb.

Local-government actions to regulate cable-modem service have been stymied since the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that high-speed Internet over cable was an information service, and not a cable service that falls under the governance of local franchisors.

A county committee was formed a year ago to look at local regulations, and members really wanted speed-performance standards. “After all, the reason people pay two or three times more for modems over dial-up service is for speed,” cable administrator Jane Lawton said.

But given the court rulings, the committee remained focused on customer-service regulation, she said.

Montgomery’s franchise language specifically charges local authorities with establishing cable-modem service levels.

In 2003, only billing issues caused more complaint calls to the county than cable-modem issues, Lawton said.

This year, 16% of complaints from the county’s 220,000 cable customers are about modems.

As precedent for local regulation, she cites policies presented in Seattle and Chicago as a customers’ bill of rights.

“People are a lot more incensed when they lose [Internet] service as opposed to losing video, which is an entertainment service,” Lawton said. “The companies here would do well to embrace these standards, and brag to their customers that they do.”

Proposed county standards address help desk telephone-answering times, repair response and billing issues.

Other standards address appropriate installation and repair wait times. The county wants requests for installation by consumers with homes within 400 feet of the right-of-way to be installed within seven days of ordering.

The cable companies would have 36 hours to complete repairs under normal operating conditions. Consumers would be allowed to request prorated rebates after the first 36 hours. Planned outages, such as maintenance, would be limited to two hours, between midnight and 6 a.m.

The standards, which would affect Comcast Corp. and Starpower Communications LLC, would carry a $200 per-violation penalty. Operators would receive written notice and 10 days to cure before incurring such a penalty.

The council should vote on the service regulations July 13, but amendments are considered likely, bumping the final vote to July 27.