Costa Mesa delays action on cable service

Lolita Harper

COSTA MESA -- Cable giant AT&T; Broadband on Monday escaped a $100 per

day fine for poor customer service when City Council members narrowly

decided to delay action until they receive more data.

The council voted 3 to 1 to postpone the issue until AT&T; Broadband

officials could provide more information but required cable officials to

hold monthly community meetings to address Costa Mesa residents' needs

until customer service levels are up to par. Councilwoman Karen Robinson

dissented.

"Our residents have dealt with this long enough," she said. "I know

$100 a day won't make a dent in their pocketbooks, but it will send a

message to our residents."

Robinson suggested fining AT&T; Broadband -- a move that Councilman

Chris Steel supported -- but her motion failed. Councilman Gary Monahan

did not attend the meeting, and Mayor Linda Dixon and Councilwoman Libby

Cowan did not support the fine.

Del Heintz, AT&T; Broadband's director of local government affairs for

Southern California, started his presentation by "personally apologizing"

for the poor cable service city residents and city officials have

encountered.

City officials "have had to deal with issues that we should have been

implementing ourselves," Heintz said.

Jerry Verwolf, telecommunications manager for the city, said customer

complaints have bombarded his office. The number of calls have increased

dramatically in the past six years. In 1996, four people complained to

the city about poor service from AT&T; Broadband. By 2001, the number

climbed to 103, and officials have taken 43 complaints this year, he

said.

Heintz said major changes in technology, billing and leadership caused

high levels of customer service calls, which could not all be handled in

a timely fashion. Since November, AT&T; Broadband has increased the call

center work force -- a team of customer service representatives who serve

all of Southern California -- by 18%.

He added that the cable company will reroute billing calls to a

specific billing center -- so as not to tie up the line for

service-related calls -- as well as direct sales people to call

delinquent account holders before they are disconnected.

Cowan said Heintz proved the company underwent a "corporate mind-set

change," she said. Tracking the customer service until the second quarter

would give the City Council a better understanding of what improvements

are being made. At that time, council members may decide what action to

take.

Robinson, who is an AT&T; Broadband subscriber, said she was concerned

that "Costa Mesa was just a little blip on AT&T;'s screen" and worried the

specific needs of customers were being ignored. Robinson said she was

kept on hold for 20 minutes before she could talk to anyone and could not

get service for a week and a half. Five of her neighbors switched to a

satellite service in one day because they, too, encountered unacceptable

customer service.

"I stayed because I need [Channel] 74," Robinson said about the

channel that broadcasts City Council meetings that satellite systems do

not carry.

AT&T; Broadband has a 15-year, nonexclusive contract with the city that

authorizes the construction, operation and maintenance of a cable system

throughout the city.

Although other cable companies are free to compete for service in

Costa Mesa, they are discouraged by AT&T; Broadband's strong presence and

that there is no guaranteed customer base. It is also expensive to

install the hardware needed to provide cable service in a city, officials

said.

* Lolita Harper covers Costa Mesa. She may be reached at (949)

574-4275 or by e-mail at o7 lolita.harper@latimes.comf7 .

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