Mass. Eyes Tough Cable-Service Standards


Massachusetts cable operators are protesting a plan to
impose tough statewide customer-service standards, some of which exceed those set by the
Federal Communications Commission.

Operators argued that the standards will increase
subscribers' costs and that they are overly burdensome.

The rules would also exceed those that cable systems
observe voluntarily.

Among the state's new standards are requirements that
operators' phones are answered within 30 seconds by a live person -- rather than an
automatic-response unit, which is all that is required now -- at least 90 percent of the
time. Consumers should be able to call their operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
and get a trained employee, the standards said.

The state regulatory office, the Department of
Telecommunications and Energy, said it received complaints last year from consumers in
rebuilt analog systems who alleged that operators did not make it clear that they did not
need high-end, interactive guide-equipped set-tops to continue the level of service that
they had previously enjoyed.

Because of those complaints, said state cable TV director
John Patrone, the state wants operators to send out written marketing materials starting
with the phrase, "While you're not required to buy ..." before leading into
the pitch.

At a public hearing last week, cable executives complained
that the standards, as written, subject them to a level of scrutiny unheard of by
telephone, gas, water or other utilities.

Compliance will cost franchisees -- and, therefore,
consumers -- money. Nick Leuci, vice president of government and community relations for
Time Warner Cable's Greater Boston division, said staffing around-the-clock would
cost his cluster $900,000 per year. Other requirements could cost between $7,500 and
$69,000 he added.

Leuci said Time Warner has already responded to service
needs by increasing staffing, expanding training to subcontractors and adding a
customer-liaison position.

Further, he said, the state could end up penalizing
operators twice for the same infractions because many cities can already fine operators
for poor service.

Susan Eid, vice president and corporate counsel for
MediaOne, the state's dominant operator, said MediaOne quickly and voluntarily
responded to service problems a year ago, showing that the new standards are unnecessary.

Patrone said after the hearing that new services deployed
by operators are a benefit to the state's economy, and the department will examine
costs involved in the standards because Massachusetts does not want to inhibit the
marketing of technological advances.