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California

L.A. Cable-Service Gripes Jump 246% in 1st Quarter

Media: City regulators say 63% of 1,817 complaints were aimed at Adelphia for switching to digital channels. Its customers in seven O.C. cities were equally irked.

April 20, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Complaints about cable service in the city of Los Angeles rose an alarming 246% in the first quarter of 2001 over the same period a year earlier, according to figures released Thursday by the Information Technology Agency, which regulates telecommunications services.

Adelphia Communications Corp., the largest cable operator in Southern California with 1.2 million customers, accounted for 63% of the 1,817 complaints in the first quarter. In the corresponding period in 2000, Adelphia accounted for only 24% of all complaints.

City regulators attributed the increase to Adelphia's roll-out of digital services in three of its four city franchise areas. As a result of the roll-out, about 140,000 Adelphia customers in West Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks and the Hollywood hills east to Eagle Rock lost a handful of channels, including HBO, Showtime, the Movie Channel and ESPN Classic. To continue receiving those channels, subscribers must now buy a digital package of channels that costs many of them more money.

Orange County residents also were miffed about changes in their service. Adelphia provides cable service to Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Orange, Anaheim, Brea and Fullerton.

Newport Beach officials fielded about twice the usual number of calls after the switch, while Fullerton's calls quadrupled.

Fullerton residents "have been much more emotional about this particular issue," said Ed Paul, Fullerton's utilities services manager. Customers were especially irked about missing popular HBO shows "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City," Paul said.

The bulk of the complaints against Adelphia in Los Angeles involved customers' inability to get through on the company's customer service lines to order the digital service, according to the Information Technology Agency.

Similar complaints surfaced in Orange County as well.

In Fullerton, some residents said they had been calling Adelphia all day but couldn't get through, Paul said.

"When I checked with [Adelphia], they said their switchboards were on overload," he said. "They're not geared to have thousands of people calling all at the same time."

Customers also complained about Adelphia's monopoly over cable service and the shuffling of their channel lineups.

"We are looking further into what happened at their call center," said Paul Janis, assistant general manager of the Information Technology Agency.

Adelphia says that in response to a call volume in the last month greater than any in the company's history, it is expanding the capacity of its call center. A new switch should be installed by the end of the month that will enable Adelphia to handle as many as 170 calls at a time, up from 115 today.

"The combination of our finishing the digital program in March and the bigger switch is going to have a dramatic impact on customer satisfaction levels," said Lee Perron, Adelphia's vice president of corporate affairs for Southern California.

Though Adelphia had notified customers in advance of the changes, city regulators said the letter sent to subscribers was vague and difficult to understand. The letter has been the subject of discussion at four previous commission meetings.

City regulators said Adelphia complaints have subsided over the last two weeks as the company has entered the last phase of its transition to digital. Phase one, which involved Showtime and other channels, occurred in October, and Phase two, which shifted HBO from analog to digital, was completed at the end of March. The company is shifting the Sundance Channel to digital-only service in June.

The first-quarter rise in Adelphia complaints reverses a year of improvement for the company. Adelphia's complaint rate dropped by an average 25% in 2000 from 1999, according to year-end figures also released Thursday by the agency. Last year was Adelphia's first full year of operating in the city after its acquisition of Century Communications Corp. in late 1999.

Adelphia's rate of complaints per thousand customers in 2000 was the lowest of any cable operator in the city.

Times staff writers Leslie Earnest and Marc Ballon contributed to this report.

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