WORCESTER — At-large City Councilor Gary Rosen’s statement to open the Public Service and Transportation Committee’s hearing this week on the state of Charter/Spectrum’s cable and internet offerings in the city turned out to be a safe bet.
“I don’t think too many of these folks here are going to say anything positive,” Rosen said.
And that’s how it played out over the next hour-and-a-half. Rosen said the committee wanted public input as the three-year “ascertainment” period starts when the city looks back at the previous contract with the city’s lone cable and internet provider, and looks forward to negotiations for a new contract.
Rosen said he predicted the city will ink a new contract with Charter/Spectrum when the contract comes up for renewal in two years, but residents who packed City Hall’s Esther Howland chamber Monday night and jammed the call-in lines virtually pushed for the city to rethink the business-as-usual approach.
Residents complained about inconsistent pricing, difficulty navigating customer service, the lack of a senior discount and spotty internet and cable reliability. They railed against rising costs for mostly unwanted cable channels, and conversely, some residents said they pay for higher-tier internet connections that don’t perform as advertised. There was universal condemnation of the customer service experience at the company’s Grafton Street storefront.
Residents said they wanted more options; one of those options could be in the form of municipal broadband. A task force has been exploring the idea of taking the city’s cable and internet service in-house, and City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. has committed to setting aside $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to study an implementation of broadband improvements. Several residents said Monday that may be the best way forward.
Resident: Municipal broadband will give city control over pricing
Jason Flanagan said he moved to Worcester in 2002, and described himself as an original “cord-cutter” who ditched cable but relies on Charter/Spectrum for internet.
He said when he first signed up, internet cost him $30 per month. It’s now up to $80. Other bills haven’t gone up by such a drastic percentage, Flanagan said. He said municipal broadband would bring with it the control over pricing that would allow poorer residents to have internet at home.
“You would grow the city even more by taking the bottom up,” Flanagan said, adding that cheaper, more reliable service would also keep more young people from leaving the city.
Several residents said they rely on internet to work from home, but have lost productivity to outages. Other residents said they were frustrated to pay for cable boxes they don’t use, and said it was unfair that longtime customers couldn’t get discounts when newer customers were getting great deals to sign up.
A few residents said more competition would make Charter/Spectrum more accountable, but others were skeptical, saying that most cable companies are within range of each other on price and customer service.
Phil Jackson said he believes there’s enough of a customer base in the city to support competition. He said Charter/Spectrum used to be more willing to offer discounts, but has since stopped. He said though he doesn’t have internet, he would like to, but he’s paying $107 a month for basic cable, when he only watches three or four channels.
“Words like extortion come to mind,” he said.
Resident: Two terrible options not better than one
But Ashley Rogers said having two terrible options would not be better than having one. She said the city needs to find a solution, and she said the idea of municipal broadband has undeniable benefits.
Mauro DiPasquale, chief operations and executive director at WCCA-TV, said the city’s public, educational and government cable television channels rely on funding from a percentage of Charter/Spectrum’s gross annual revenues to operate. He said community voices need to be at the table if the municipal broadband conversation keeps progressing. Just saying municipal broadband will be great is one thing, but the city has to show people it’s actually going to be better.
Charter/Spectrum: ‘Ideally we want every customer happy’
John Maher, director of government affairs at Charter/Spectrum, attended the meeting Monday, and said he took diligent notes.
“We like Worcester as well,” Maher said. “We like doing business here.”
He said the company’s two facilities on Barber Avenue and Higgins Street employ about 200 employees at each site. He said he has heard the complaints about the Grafton Street customer service location, and said there is a plan in the works “to relieve stress on that store.”
He said Charter/Spectrum is a for-profit company, and wants its customers to be happy. He said the best thing customers can do is call and voice their frustration. He said overall, the network infrastructure works well in the city. He said there are individual issues at homes, caused by everything from deteriorating “drops” — the cable that goes from the utility pole to a house — to rodent-caused issues.
Maher acknowledged that cost is an issue, but it’s an issue for the company, too— -the cost of programming is going up. The fees broadcast networks and sports channels charge have increased exponentially; Charter/Spectrum is forced to pass those increases on to the customer.
Rosen, who said the committee will continue the hearing with another session in December, asked Maher if he got the message Monday that people are not satisfied with their service, and Maher agreed that the people who testified made that clear.
“We want to improve service to all customers,” Maher said. “Ideally we want every customer happy.”