Council may decide Charter’s fate this week

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 20, 2002

The City Council could decide this week whether to continue pulling the plug on Charter Communications’ cable franchise in Suffolk.

Although it isn’t on the agenda, the City Council, which meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday, will at least discuss Charter’s future serving more than 9,000 cable viewers in the city, said Mayor E. Dana Dickens III. Dickens said the issue might be addressed in executive session because of potential legal action involving a broken contract.

In June, the council initiated the revocation process, citing the cable company had not lived up to standards set forth in its settlement agreement with the city. The only way the revocation would be rescinded would be if council determines that Charter has &uot;met or substantially met&uot; the provisions agreed to in the settlement agreement, Dickens said.

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The June 2000 agreement called for a $10 million, digital rebuild of the system to be finished by June 30, 2002. Also, Charter was to meet specific benchmarks throughout the rebuild.

The council’s action to revoke the franchise gave Charter 60 days to fulfill all its obligations with the city, including payment of $340,000 in fines. That 60-day period ended Monday.

Charter has offered to pay the city $145,000 for missing several deadlines for the cable upgrade, said Matt Favre, general manager in Charter’s Suffolk office.

The company is challenging the rest of the fine. Favre said Charter met and documented the issues in question on time and consequently, doesn’t believe it owes the fine.

Although the company didn’t meet many of the periodic benchmarks, Charter did complete the 1,600-mile fiber optic rebuild more than 30 days before the July 30, 2002 deadline, he said.

&uot;The intent of the settlement agreement has been met … and the bottom line is the system is working,&uot; said Favre. &uot;…I think it is to the benefit of their (city council members’) constituents and city management to let us continue progressing.&uot;

Additionally, Charter’s customer service – another problem area identified in the settlement agreement – made marked improvements in recent months, he said. The company has recently renovated its Moore Avenue facilities, adding an 18-person call center where employees receive only local calls only. In the past, calls were routed to call centers outside the region.

&uot;Callers are now talking to someone who local, someone who knows the city,&uot; said Favre. Also, Charter has hired more representatives and revamped its customer service training over the past two years.

&uot;Most calls are answered within seven seconds,&uot; he said. &uot;We are far more efficient at customer service than we were two or three years ago.&uot;

Favre is optimistic that Charter and the city can reach a mutually satisfactory arrangement that would accomplish the common ultimate goal of providing state-of-the-art cable and digital Internet service for Suffolk subscribers.

Not all council members share his positive outlook.

&uot;My thoughts have not changed,&uot; said Councilman Charles F. Brown. &uot;My vote is to go full steam ahead and revoke the company’s franchise. My commitment to that is not negotiable.&uot;

Both Brown and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett say they are still receiving complaints about Charter from their constituents.

&uot;We will get a report Wednesday, but I’m sure we’ll proceed on with the revocation,&uot; Bennett said. &uot;People are still calling me regularly.&uot;

Most of the recent calls are about the cable provider’s rate hike last month, he said.

&uot;The bill is one of the big things right now. People don’t feel like they are getting anything extra for the money.&uot;

Brown agreed.

&uot;I get calls often and people are upset. Folks have been patient for years because they pay monthly bills but don’t receive the same quality services that other people receive in Hampton Roads,&uot; he said. &uot;I have got to look out for the needs of my constituents.&uot;

Charter also serves Franklin and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton, but does not handle cable service for the rest of Hampton Roads.

Dickens said he could elaborate on the cable issue until after council receives an update from Assistant City Manager Cindy Rohlf, who is handling the cable negotiations.

&uot;There were agreements made between the city and Charter and I would expect them to be fulfilled,&uot; he said. Efforts to reach Rohlf on Monday were unsuccessful.

Councilman Bobby Ralph was reluctant to discuss the matter for similar reasons.

Councilman Curtis Milteer – who voted against initiating the revocation in June – said he believes the city should continue working with the cable company.

He is supportive of Charter’s proposal to establish a task force of citizens and city personnel to meet regularly to address problems with the cable provider.

&uot;I think the city should continue to work with the cable company,&uot; Milteer said. &uot;Time has elapsed;…some improvements have been made but we need to continue moving forward.

&uot;Maybe the citizens committee could meet once a month to measure progress and see what needs to be done to bring the company into full compliance.&uot;