[from May 1999 issue]

As readers of this issue's Around Our Community page will discover, the DC agency charged with some degree of oversight for the operations of District Cablevision want to know what we customers think about what we've been getting (or not getting) for the privilege of doing business with the hitherto city council-sanctioned monopoly. Originally, when cable was newish and the city wanted to be sure we could all have it, the council at the time awarded a franchise to an allegedly minority-owned firm to provide what we hoped would be a terrific service. But as time went on it appeared that the minority thing was kind of a fake, since the actual owner is the giant out-of-state TCI - now part of the Time-Warner conglomerate.

Like the vast majority of our readers, we are customers of DC Cablevision. We believe we share the same negative thoughts about the cable company as the majority of our readers. For the price we pay for what they call "Basic" and "Expanded Basic," we feel we are not getting our money's worth. Until very recently when the city council (spurred on by federal telecommunications deregulation legislation) allowed competitors to come into DC, we saw the whole thing as a giant rip-off.

For example, the reception quality as been spotty to poor from the get-go. Not only do images from the local broadcast channels frequently come across with double and triple ghosting and vertical lines and bars floating across the screen, but this same condition for which the cable company always blames the local broadcast channels has also been prevalent on the strictly cable channels as well. For about three years we even had to complain constantly about the Weather Channel coming in so badly that it was often hard to read what was showing.

Every time they would send people out to check on the problem we would be told the fault was with our set (although they never explained why the problem would show up on all our sets) or the fault was with the broadcast stations. It had been, apparently, our na´ve expectation that cable was supposed to overcome these kinds of things, just as it did in New York City after the World Trade Center towers were constructed causing large areas of Manhattan to effectively lose TV service.

Well, finally, we learned the real culprit, and - surprise - it's not really the broadcast stations and certainly not our own TV sets. The real culprit seems to be the low-tech, low-budget way District Cablevision installs the connections on the poles and then doesn't maintain them properly. Those outside connections are not properly protected from wind or rain, for example, so they corrode and that adversely affects the actual contact points, causing a degrading of the signal we receive in our houses.

But it's more than poor quality of reception. It's also an overall sloppiness associated with the whole installation and maintenance process which seems to be at work. For example, we discovered that when the technicians go up the poles to work on our line they really have no way of knowing which line is ours and which lines go to which of our neighbors. They end up relying on the old trial by error method. So, it's amateur city as far as we can figure.

Then there's the really aggravating issue of programming. Ever since they started with digital, there has been what appears to be a policy of running the more interesting feature channels, with few exceptions, on that premium service. They even moved one of the most popular channels, Home and Garden, off Expanded Basic to digital. And, notwithstanding that we and so many like us have been calling for the adding of the History Channel to the line-up, when they did do it, they put it on digital. In fact, when we see the list of program choices on digital and compare them to non-digital, those of us who don't feel we can afford to increase our monthly cablevision outlay another 25 percent or more really do feel like second-class customers.

We're told that they have to put these offerings on digital, because there are not enough of the regular channels. But we had been under the impression that when the city council had granted the franchise there had been assurances that more channels would be made available. Well, maybe this is the way they meet that obligation - by a form of bait and switch, to force us to pay considerably more to get the things we want and in some cases to keep on getting what we had been able to get beforehand. We think that's very sleazy.

On top of everything, prices continue to go up; we just received notice of an approximate seven percent increase. We are told that's because of increased expenses, etc. But we assume those are increased expenses incident to building up their digital service. And, then, when they do sucker one into digital, it's not just the extra $10 per month, but it's also the nearly $3 monthly connector box charge - and one needs that even if the TV is cable-ready and one needs a separate box for each set in the house connected to cable!

Now, maybe none of this flim-flam will matter when the new Starpower service is fully available. We have checked with them and been assured that when they begin to offer service to single-family homes in downtown residential neighborhoods (which may be sometime this year, although we could obtain no confirmation), we be able to get the equivalent of Basic and Expanded Basic service for about 25 percent less than we currently are charged by District Cablevision. Not only that, but we will also have a channel line-up that includes (at least for us) such goodies as Home and Garden and the History channel.

So, the bottom line here may just be that the answer is not so much that the city council worry about whether or not to renew the cable company's franchise, but rather maybe the council should just auction the whole thing off to the highest bidder who will then have to either do a bang-up job with programming, technical and customer services to recoup the investment and make a profit. With meaningful competition bursting forth (just look at all the fiber optic cable lines that are being put down every which way under our streets) it might just be that the jig is up for District Cablevision anyway.

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