Local residents voice complaints at Comcast public forum

Regular Philadelphia residents aren’t privy to negotiations between the Nutter administration and Comcast over the terms of the hometown media conglomerate’s next 15-year license to sell cable TV services in the city.

But a bunch of Northeast folks got the chance to say what they think of and want from Comcast during a public hearing organized by the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology at MaST Community Charter School on April 29.

For the most part, the feedback wasn’t flattering.

Existing Comcast customers complained of high prices, poor customer service, excessive TV channel bundling, poor Internet service and what they view as the company’s shortfall of support for the city’s schools and low-income communities, among other more-specific issues.

A sparse crowd showed up for the third of six hearings — all of which were held last week at various locations around the city — with several OIT administrators, a couple of news reporters, some plain-clothes Philadelphia police, at least one consumer advocate and a Comcast spokesman joining about 10 citizen speakers.

The hearing was scheduled to last two hours, with each speaker allowed five minutes at the microphone. Some people spoke longer than five minutes, but the hearing still ended about a half-hour early after the list of speakers had been exhausted.

“I can’t wait for FiOS to get here,” said one woman, a senior who doesn’t have the option of Verizon cable TV service in her neighborhood. “My biggest problem with Comcast is the nilly willy raising of bills. There needs to be some kind of cap on that.”

Prices were a common theme.

Another senior, Anthony, said he’s had Comcast service “since they walked around knocking on doors saying, ‘We’ll install it for eighteen dollars.’ ”

But now, he said, his bill seems to change every few months.

A speaker named John noted that there are a lot of seniors on fixed incomes in the Northeast and they can’t afford to pay for a lot of the channels that they want to watch, especially sports channels.

“If we want to add the sports, it’s an additional sixty dollars per month, 75 percent more (than the basic bill),” said John, who correlated rising cable costs to rising sports player salaries and rising network broadcast fees.

“We as consumers are nuts,” he concluded.

Marlene Joseph, the legal counsel for the Somerton Civic Association, described the hearing as “David fighting Goliath” and opined, “I hope this is not a dog and pony show.”

She claimed that in the early 1980s, when the city first awarded cable TV franchises to four different companies each with its own geographic territory, that seniors were “promised” discounted rates.

“Why is there not a senior discount instead of rising premiums?” she asked.

Another face familiar to folks who regularly attend civic association meetings in the Northeast, Myles Gordon, combined the rates, seniors and sports themes, imploring Comcast to allow traditional broadcast stations to show some Phillies games so that seniors who can’t afford cable might be able to watch them.

“It’s important to have Phillies games on Sundays,” Gordon said.

Some speakers testified of horror encounters with Comcast customer service representatives, both on the telephone and in person.

Anthony, the senior man, alleged that he has spent hours on the phone trying to address service and billing issues. He insists that during one call, a company rep referred to him insultingly as a certain human body part. During another phone call, he bounced among several customer service reps before someone on the other end of the line told him he’d be transferred to the “final resolution” department. The designation evoked thoughts of World War II in his mind.

Several of the speakers further complained about Comcast using foreign-based customer service reps.

“Why are you out-sourcing? Why don’t you give an American a job?” Joseph said.

A man named Jose, who said he commuted directly to the late afternoon hearing from his work, suggested that Comcast should do more for the local community financially.

“Pay your fair share in taxes, property taxes to the school district,” Jose said.

He and other speakers said they’d like Comcast to offer more varied and affordable channel packages allowing customers to pay only for the channels they want to watch while dropping unwanted channels.

“My father watches five channels and my mother watches seven,” he said. “They have 900 in those bundles.”

Jose further called upon the company to make Internet service more affordable and available to low-income families because “information is a right, not a privilege.” ••