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Comcast cuts the static



A long-awaited settlement between Comcast Cable and Detroit suggests a sea change in the conglomerate’s attitude toward the city, and at least one city official gives Metro Times partial credit. Following years of foot-dragging, Comcast agreed to settle a 1998-1999 equipment and service-rate dispute for nearly $5 million (most of which will be paid in services, not cash). Still, that’s much more than the $2.8 million city officials originally sought and the $1 million Comcast said it owed. The deal includes $8 cash payments to Comcast customers (we can buy a beer at Ford Field!); free digital upgrades; 1,000 free computers for city recreation centers and libraries and free digital Internet service to those facilities. “I would say it’s a victory for the city and its citizens, all around,” says Paula Gentius-Harris, deputy director of the Detroit Cable Communications Commission. Recently, Comcast completed rewiring the city with fiber-optic cable, she adds.

It’s a shift from earlier this year, when Metro Times outlined problems that officials, including Gentius-Harris, had with Comcast, including shoddy customer service and an allegedly low-grade cable system. Our story (“Mega hurts” Jan. 9-15, 2002), along with hardball political pressure from new Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, helped the commission seal last week’s deal, says Gentius-Harris.

“That story helped push them [Comcast]. And the story precipitated other stories. [Comcast] didn’t want to be in the bad graces of the new administration or City Council,” she says. “The mayor’s representatives pretty much told them they didn’t want to be on the mayor’s bad side.”

Now, the city is angling for senior-citizen discounts and a bare-bones $9 basic package (the cheapest now is $27, though Comcast phone agents often won’t sell it). A new franchise agreement with the cable monopoly is set for adoption by Nov. 30. In addition, Gentius-Harris is drafting a “customer bill of rights” ordinance to beef up Detroit service requirements, making them stricter than FCC guidelines.

Lest anyone feel sorry for the nation’s largest cable company, Gentius-Harris reminds us the company reaps $100 million a year in Detroit. “They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

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