Shutdown Irks Mississippi Officials

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Lee County, Miss., administrator Ronnie Bell sounds mad. He learned that one of his local operators, SouthTel Communications Inc., has switched off programming to its customers, but that knowledge came only when consumers started angrily calling the county to find out what was happening.

“We had no advanced warning. None,” he said.

Consumers reported hearing a notice from the operator notifying them that service is to be disconnected. The recording also referred customers to a number in Texas to obtain satellite service.

After a little sleuthing, officials determined that SouthTel had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on Aug. 5.

“And they still haven’t talked to us,” said Bell last week. In addition to leaving its customers in the lurch, the operator owes the county $7,100 in fines for bad customer service and poor pictures.

Although Comcast Corp. serves the majority of the county, in the northeast quadrant of the state, “99.999% of the complaint calls I get are about SouthTel,” Bell added. By contrast, he said he’s received two calls in 16 years about Comcast. SouthTel served 800 customers in the county.

According to a 2003 Federal Communications Commission filing, SouthTel serves 11 communities: Algood, La.; Snead, Crane Hill and Town Creek, La.; Amory, Blue Springs and Pontotoc, Miss.; and Argyle, Azle, Boyd and Ponder, Texas. That filing sought a 36-month waiver of the implementation of Emergency Alert Systems, citing the cost of the hardware. SouthTel includes former systems from what is now known as Galaxy Cable Inc. The latter company filed for bankruptcy, but kept systems running even as it reorganized and emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2002.

SouthTel’s systems range in size from 43 to 885 customers, with the average system serving fewer than 500 customers, according to a former attorney to the company.

At the time of its bankruptcy, the company listed about $175,000 in estimated assets and about $6.2 million in debts, including a default judgment against the operator for unpaid pole rental to the Tri-County Electric Co-op in Texas.

Calls to the operator’s bankruptcy attorney in Alabama were not returned.

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