Fed up with Adelphia Cable's inability to improve its customer service, Carroll County's cable commission will begin fining the company this month.
Adelphia has been Carroll's dominant cable provider since last year, when it bought the county franchise from Prestige Cable. Carroll is the only county in the Baltimore area that doesn't have a contract with Comcast Cable.
County residents faced technical and customer-service problems with Prestige, local officials said, but they expected better from Adelphia, one of the nation's largest cable providers.
"Instead, things have gotten even worse," said Hampstead Town Manager Ken Decker, who chairs the cable commission.
Adelphia has added services such as digital cable and cable Internet hookups but has been unable to deal with the spate of calls related to its new products, Decker and others said.
That's a fair assessment of the situation, said Mark Krider, general manager of Carroll's Adelphia franchise. "What happened is the public has really been asking for our products, and we were overwhelmed by it," Krider said.
Demand for cable modem hookups, especially, has been higher than expected. Almost 10 percent of Adelphia customers in Carroll have the hookups, Krider said, as opposed to about 3 percent of Adelphia's customers nationwide. The company is aware it hasn't answered calls as quickly as it should, "But we've taken strides to get it fixed," Krider said.
Adelphia routes Carroll customer-service calls to a regional center in Georgia.
That center also deals with customers from Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
According to Adelphia's contract with Carroll, customers should get a busy signal no more than 3 percent of the time and should have to wait no more than 30 seconds before being connected with a staff member. The company hasn't been meeting either standard, cable commission members said.
Hard to get through
Linda Jenne, who has been charting the contract violations for the county, called 165 times between June 1 and June 15 and reached a customer service representative three times, Decker said. Adelphia has done slightly better since mid-June and now seems to answer about 50 percent of its calls, he said, but that still falls well short of the contract requirement.
Krider said he's well aware of the service problems but has little control over the call center, which he said needs more phone lines. Adelphia will soon set up a more advanced call center in either Buffalo, N.Y., or Pennsylvania, and that should alleviate some of the problems, he said.
Commission representatives agreed that Adelphia's problems seem to run deeper than anything Krider and his franchise can fix.
Whatever the reasons for service problems, customers such as Doug Harrell of Hampstead are steamed.
At Tuesday's Town Council meeting, Harrell related his woes with Adelphia.
On a recent morning, he said, he waited on the phone two hours before reaching a customer-service representative. Then, he faced a procession of utility workers, each of whom seemed to mess up his television in a different way and blame someone else, he said.
After all that, his television reception remains fuzzy and the sound continues to go in and out, he said.
Hampstead seems to produce the most complaints about reception and sound, but complaints about customer service come from across the county, said Decker. "I'd say the word `endemic' fits," he said.
Mount Airy council members cheered at their meeting last month when they heard sanctions might be coming. Mayor Gerald Johnson related his fruitless yearlong battle to get a promised Internet hookup in the Town Hall.
Adelphia has faced immense customer backlash in Cleveland and Los Angeles.
In each city, Adelphia switched the majority of customers from analog to digital service in a short period and had problems handling the subsequent flood of calls.
The Town Council in the Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights has, like Carroll County, explored the possibility of sanctions against the cable giant.
Will company notice?
Carroll cable commission members could not specify how much they might fine Adelphia, but said the figure would likely be $200 to $300 a day. The money would come from the $100,000 performance bond that is a part of Adelphia's contract with the county.
Some county officials were skeptical that fines would hurt Adelphia or gain much attention from the company's headquarters. "I don't know, maybe they just see this as the cost of doing business," Decker said.
Krider, who would not discuss the fines directly, said that is not the case. "Adelphia is a service company, so of course we care about our customers," he said.
Said Sykesville Town Manager Matthew Candland: "I hope we can get their attention, because the customers out here deserve better than this."