L.A. Gripes Surge as Subs Dwindle

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Complaint calls to Los Angeles city officials soared 61 percent last year, and regulators called on cable operators recently to explain why.

According to a complaint summary by the Information Technology Agency, 641,201 consumers made 21,233 calls to the agency last year. Of those, 6,410 calls were handled as formal complaints requiring municipal intercession.

The biggest complaint category was "technical services," including outages, digital upgrades or downgrades and picture quality. Next came consumer services, including busy or unanswered telephones and missed appointments. Then came billing issues.

The report also noted that the cable customer count in the city's 14 franchises actually dropped 0.78 percent in 2001, at a time when operators were aggressively marketing new products, including digital TV.

Until 2001, operators had seen modest penetration growth annually. Overall, cable penetration stands at 44.3 percent.

The Board of Information Technology Commissioners specifically targeted AT&T Broadband and Adelphia Communications Corp. because their systems accounted for 89.7 percent of all complaints. AT&T Broadband has six franchises; Adelphia has five.

In 2000, when Adelphia had not yet fully upgraded the old, trapped plant it bought from Century Communications Corp., Adelphia's complaints comprised only 25.4 percent of the total. Last year, with upgrades under way, the number of grievances rose to 43.7 percent of the total.

Larry Windsor, regional director of government relations for Adelphia, cited the shift to digital encryption, which began even before systems were fully upgraded. Some franchises took eight channels out of basic and replaced them with 30 digital signals to add capacity, and customers had to pay extra to get a set-top to see the formerly analog signals.

The resulting call volume swamped the local center, and company officials didn't immediately realize an errant switch was dropping calls, rather than forwarding them to Colorado Springs, Colo. That problem has been rectified with new switching, Windsor said.

Adelphia also doubled the number of customer service agents — including in Colorado Springs — to 395.

AT&T Broadband cited a billing vendor switch-out, from DST Innovis (formerly CableData) to CSG Systems Inc. "The execution did not go perfectly and problems did occur," said Perry Parks, AT&T Broadband vice president of public and government affairs.

Most complaints came in the fourth quarter, when 1.4 million records had to be moved.

Operators said most of their problems have been resolved. But commissioners said they continue to hear about problems such as long on-hold times.

Regulators said they disagreed that a customer is served if he or she reaches a recorded message within 30 seconds.

To stave off complaints, city officials recommended spending more money on better training and customer education and hiring more government liaisons.

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