The baseball season may be over, but Boston Red Sox fans were out in force Thursday night.
Their opponent: Comcast Cable, the area’s sole traditional cable service provider, with 74,000 customers in New Haven, West Haven and Hamden.
Comcast Cable is pushing for a regional franchise renewal this year, and the state Department of Public Utility Control, which will determine the company’s fate in the area, held its first public hearing on the matter Thursday night at the Hamden Town Hall. Nearly 70 Comcast customers, many disgruntled, appeared at the hearing with a litany of complaints including accusations of exorbitant and unfair cable fees, poor customer service, and the failure of the company to include the New England Sports Network in their service.
“I am a Comcast customer because I have no choice,” area resident Wendy Hamilton said at the hearing. “The smartest people I know stick to the radio. Comcast is greedy — they are being greedy.”
Tom Coughlin, a vice president and the general manager of Comcast, said nothing prevents another cable company from moving into the area and setting up its own wires. He said SNET, the local telephone company, attempted to compete for the area’s cable customers but found little success and ceased operations earlier this year.
Comcast officials said the accusations of poor customer service were merely a front for the residents’ true aim: to bring NESN, and the Red Sox, into their homes.
“I think it’s unfair to try to depict us as a bad company just because they have a hidden agenda,” Coughlin said.
Comcast representatives said the company understands the demands for NESN but that NESN does not allow the channel to be available as an optional service, thus forcing customers who do not want it to pay more for their cable packages.
Mere mention of the Red Sox at the meeting prompted vigorous nodding and clapping. Sister Barbra DeCrosta, a resident of Hamden, wants NESN in her home and professed her love for the Red Sox before at the hearing.
“I am here for one reason: I want to see my Red Sox play,” DeCrosta said. “The Red Sox fans are ardent fans — and we do want to see them play.”
But Coughlin said surveys done in the area have shown that 53 percent of Comcast’s customers did not want further programming, and of the remaining customers, only 5 percent wanted additional sports channels.
“We’re not looking for a Purple Heart here, but sometimes the interests of our company and the interests of our customers come together, and that’s the case here,” said Bob Smith, Comcast’s vice president of public affairs.
The Board of Aldermen decided on Nov. 19 to come before the Department of Public Utility Control to oppose the renewal request. The board also intends to ask state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to examine allegations that the cable company’s rates varied in different New Haven neighborhoods. The aldermen say that residents of the East Shore paid less than residents in other neighborhoods for the same service.
According to information compiled by the Department of Public Utility Control, as of July 1, 2001, Comcast’s fee for basic cable in the New Haven area was $10.58 for 27 channels. The department also has numbers showing that the fees for basic cable throughout the state are at about the same level, contrary to allegations from residents that Comcast’s pricing is not in step with comparable areas in the state.
But a November 2000 memo from New Haven’s Office of Legislative Services said comparing cable company rates is difficult and that it is “easy to fall into the trap of comparing apples with oranges.” The memo also said the number of channels provided in service packages can be misleading because it often includes what it called “junk channels,” such as home shopping networks.
The final decision on the franchise renewal will be made some time early next year. If the state department approves, Comcast will remain in the area for another 15 years.