Va. County Calls Cox on the Carpet

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Cox Communications Inc. officials have been invited to Fairfax County, Va., to explain why its rebuilds have generated relatively high numbers of consumer complaints.

At a county board of supervisors meeting tonight (Jan. 7), county staffers will present a report analyzing cable-subscriber complaints by subscribers in other areas in the year prior to a rebuild and during three years of construction.

The study shows "something is failing in Fairfax," said Ron Mallard, director of the county's department of cable communications and consumer protection.

Cox, which bought the system from Media General Cable, in 1998 committed to a rebuild with specific four-year construction deadlines, expanded customer-service standards and new liquidated-damages provisions to enforce requirements.

The MSO started the upgrade in 2000, but has violated franchise terms 23 times and been fined $35,600, county officials said. Of that, $31,400 was for customer-service shortfalls.

In the first year of Cox's ownership, the 236,765-subscriber system generated 113 complaints. Two years into the rebuild, in 2001, the county recorded 1,976 complaints.

Along with rebuild-related woes, complaints also are high in unimproved service areas, Mallard said.

Most complaints concern missed service appointments and poor telephone response.

Fairfax officials checked with other communities to find out whether complaints were common during system rebuilds. It turned out that in Comcast Corp.'s nearby Reston, Va., system, the complaint level of 0.5 per 1,000 subscribers remained constant over a four-year rebuild period.

The county also examined Cox rebuilds in Los Angeles; Las Vegas; and Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz. In those systems, which range in size from 10,000 to 360,000, the average of complaints per 1,000 customers was higher than that of Fairfax in the first year of the rebuild, peaked slightly during the second year and declined in the third.

In the third year, complaints in those cities averaged 0.84 per thousand, compared with 8.34 per thousand in Fairfax.

Cox local officials called the county's analysis "seriously flawed and inaccurate."

"It's not an apples-to-apples comparison with regard to system upgrade construction, service complaints or the very unique nature of Northern Virginia's dual-cable, scrambled programming system," said Cox Northern Virginia vice president of public and government affairs Scott Broyles.

"While we agree that some of our customer experiences have fallen short, we have done much to improve our customer service operation," Broyles added.

Mallard said Cox has improved telephone response recently.

Cox apparently plans to send senior vice president of operations Claus Kroeger to the county meeting.

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