Baltimore's crackdown on cable firm came after long prodding on service

March 04, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

A blunt order telling United Artists Cable of Baltimore to shape up or else came after a year of frustration in the city's efforts to resolve a persistent shortage of the basic equipment to provide service, officials said yesterday.

This week the city cable oversight agency notified United Artists that it had fallen out of compliance with provisions of its franchise agreement requiring it to install connections to customers within seven days of an initial request. The city gave the company 45 days to come into compliance or face fines or other penalties, including possible revocation of the franchise.

Cedric Crump, program compliance officer in the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, said City Hall first raised the issue of service delays caused by a shortage of cable converter boxes in January of 1994. He added that United Artists' corporate parent, Tele-Communications Inc., must shoulder some of the blame for its subsidiary's service problems.

"I wish TCI would come in and drop off a million converter boxes or however many they need to get this thing over overnight," said Mr. Crump.

Mr. Crump said the city held off action last year because the company seemed to be making progress during the summer. But the company's performance started to falter last November, and the city took action after concluding that United Artists was no longer making a good-faith effort to deal with the issue, he said.

Yesterday, United Artists General Manager Coles Ruff said that next week United Artists is scheduled to receive all the converters it needs to pull itself into compliance. The company ,, and its new installation subcontractor are also adding staff to work off the backlog, he said.

Mr. Ruff declined to shift responsibility for the problems to TCI, saying the local company has to do a better job of recovering used cable boxes from customers who cancel service or are cut off for nonpayment. But he also pointed a finger at the city Police Department, saying United Artists hasn't received the level of help it needed to recover unreturned boxes or to stop the illegal resale and reprogramming of the converters.

Tom Barberini, division vice president for TCI, said that the company is "totally committed" to its Baltimore franchise.

"We're buying the boxes as fast as they can ship them," he said, adding that TCI had bought 20,000 boxes for the Baltimore system last year, even though the system added only 3,000 subscribers.

Stephen Burch, regional vice president for Comcast Corp., said the entire cable industry has been affected by a shortage in the number of converter boxes, especially those from United Artists' supplier. "We've had troubles ourselves having converters delivered," he said.

The installation problem was the only one directly cited in the city's warning letter, but Mr. Crump said yesterday that it was far from the only deficiency in United Artists' service.

The city watchdog estimated that the company was missing between 10 percent and 15 percent of its service and installation appointments, which are scheduled within four-hour time blocks. And when it misses an appointment, United Artists often reschedules the service at its own convenience rather than the customer's, as the franchise agreement requires, Mr. Crump said.

Mr. Crump traced many of United Artists' service problems to a )) lack of a "customer-first attitude."

As if to illustrate his point, Mr. Crump broke away from the interview to take a complaint call from a cable customer.

"They told you you have to put up with it?" he asked incredulously, promising to call the company on her behalf.

"There's people just passing the buck, not completing the job as assigned," he said after the call ended.

Despite the problems, Mr. Crump said United Artists service is better than it used to be. He said the number of outages had dropped sharply over the last 12 months as a result of the company's recent system upgrades.

Mr. Crump also said his spot calls showed that call-answering was not a big problem.

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