Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Cable policy change needs airing

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Comcast is a well-regarded business on Wall Street and has a positive track record in bringing first-rate technology — cable, broadband, telephone — to our marketplace and public service to communities throughout Maryland.

The challenge for the cable industry and Comcast is customer service, and we find the company’s request that cable subscribers forfeit their right to take legal action against the company to be yet another action designed to protect its interests over those of its customers.

The cable company has been notifying subscribers that they are subject to an arbitration agreement, which prevents them from filing a lawsuit against Comcast, or they can opt out of the agreement by contacting the cable provider within 30 days.

Controversy is nothing new to Comcast, which has come under fire for years from local leaders because of large numbers of customer complaints. Despite the criticism of its record, the company recently requested the policy change that critics say unfairly stacks the rules against subscribers.

The arbitration warning arrived in homes as a ‘‘bill stuffer,” a notice added in monthly bills amid other cable service information — items routinely overlooked by customers. Subscribers are required to contact the company to opt out or are automatically considered in favor of arbitration.

The agreement’s details revealed an even greater disservice. While subscribers must go through arbitration to resolve problems with the company, Comcast retains its own right to sue customers.

A major change such as this should have been well publicized, yet company officials also neglected to mention it in a performance review with the Montgomery County Council. Council members were not alerted to the change until a day or two after the meeting.

We believe customers should have been better alerted to the change and given more time to understand their options. Making the agreement part of a new customer contract or phasing in the change over a longer period of time would have gone a long way toward goodwill.

Arbitration agreements, in themselves, often come with a lot of drawbacks. While companies say arbitration provides faster, less expensive and less formal problem resolution than a lawsuit, it has its disadvantages.

For example, Comcast selects which arbitration firm to use, and critics have speculated that the arbitrators would settle disputes in favor of the company to stay on its good side and receive future business.

We believe Comcast is well served to rethink its policy and, at a minimum, deserves a better airing. A request that customers forfeit their right to legal action is significant enough, but compounding it with a short timeline, obscure notification and a lopsided agreement adds to the criticism that customer service has suffered at the hands of Comcast as the company looks out for its business interests.