Complaints about cable continue

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 2, 2000

The cable television at Highpoint bed and breakfast on Linton Avenue goes out so routinely that owner John N. Davis Jr. doesn’t complain about it anymore. &uot;It goes off and will stay off sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for 30 or 40 minutes, and this is about once or twice a month,&uot; Davis said. &uot;It’s very frustrating.&uot;

Davis is like many area residents who said they are unhappy with their cable service, but haven’t complained to Cable One — the area’s cable provider — because they believe nothing will be done.

But, dissatisfied cable customers do call city officials like Joyce Arceneaux, Natchez alderwoman and chairperson of the public utilities committee.

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&uot;I get calls at home, I get calls late at night, I get calls at 7 o’clock on Sunday morning,&uot; Arceneaux said.

But after meeting with cable representatives and reviewing the city’s franchise agreement earlier this year, Arceneaux said customers may be right — not much can be done.

&uot;From what I’d gotten legally from the city attorney, we can’t do anything because we’re in the middle of a contract,&uot; she said.

Under Federal Communications Commission law, municipalities can require a franchise agreement from cable providers. The franchise allows the city to choose which provider it wants and charge a franchise fee of up to 5 percent of the provider’s earnings for one year.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway said the city received about $103,000 from Cable One last year in franchise fees.

The city’s agreement with Cable One expires in July 2001, but Arceneaux said and other aldermen plan to begin inviting other cable providers to Natchez beginning in March.

By sending out requests for proposals (RFPs) early, Arceneaux hopes aldermen will be able to choose from a more competitive base of several providers. &uot;I’m not trying to run Cable One out of here,&uot; she said. &uot;But at least the (utilities committee) will know what’s out there. Right now we don’t even know what’s out there.&uot;

Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith said he has not received any calls or complaints personally about problems with cable service, but agrees with Arceneaux that increased competition will benefit customers.

&uot;That’s the way we ought to do just about anything is put it out there for competition,&uot; he said.

But customers may not have to wait until next summer before seeing an improvement in their existing cable service, say Cable One representatives.

Bobby McCool, general manager, said his company has been continually upgrading the area’s system since it bought Marcus Cable in August 1998.

In fact, equipment arrived Wednesday to begin upgrading the system from 450 to 550 megahertz, he said.

Along with the installation of 40 miles of fiber optic cable, the improvement will allow expansion of channels, fewer outages and exchange of high-definition digital signals once they become available in the local market.

&uot;Cable One has made a big investment since they took over two years ago,&uot; McCool said. &uot;We have determined what is needed and now we can begin to make it happen.&uot;

But no amount of local upgrades will improve reception of local broadcast stations, such as affiliates in Jackson and Baton Rouge.

McCool explained that those channels, usually 2 through 13, are sent to Cable One via radio signal, not by satellite like other channels. Because the closest tower is more than 50 miles away in Alexandria, the signal from those stations are weak and can become weaker during certain times of the year and even the day, McCool said.

&uot;That’s something that’s out of our control,&uot; he said. &uot;If there was anything we could do, we would have already done it.&uot;

McCool said most of the outages are caused by acts of nature, such as bad weather, or problems with individual service like a faulty cable or a problem with a customer’s television set.

For this reason, McCool encourages customers to call Cable One when they experience problems.

McCool said Cable One’s rates in Natchez and Vidalia, where they serve about 10,700 customers, are among the lowest in the state.

A formula, derived in the early 1990s when cable was still under federal regulation, is used to determine a reasonable rate for service, McCool said.

When cable first became available in the 1960s, customers paid about $10 a handful of channels, McCool said.

&uot;If you look at it in terms of cost per channel, you’re paying less now than in the 1960s,&uot; he said.

While no rate increases are planned at this time, customers should expect to pay more for upgraded service and expanded channels.

&uot;If we add more basic programming, the rates will have to go up,&uot; McCool said.

At the same time, cable stations such as ESPN and Disney continue to charge cable providers more to carry their programming.

&uot;That’s something we’re going to have to look at with our programming,&uot; McCool said. &uot;We’re going to have to make some choices.&uot;