Glitches hit cable switch

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Time Warner, swamped with complaints, tries to mollify former Adelphia and Comcast customers.

Los Angeles Times

Time Warner Cable has been so inundated with complaints as it has taken over neighborhoods formerly served by Comcast and Adelphia that the company is slowing its rollout and offering discounts and freebies to mollify customers.

Viewers swamped Time Warner call centers after engineers started three weeks ago to integrate Southern California systems acquired from Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

Complaints abound of canceled channels, digital TV forced on customers, Internet connections lost, e-mail accounts botched and arrogant service — once, that is, a live person finally answers the phone.

Although he’s endured a number of cable TV transitions in a decade of industry consolidation, Hancock Park recording engineer Phil Braen said, “the transition to Time Warner has been, by far, the rockiest.”

Recognizing that, Time Warner decided to take a few more weeks — until early January — to complete its channel lineup changes and Internet service conversion, spokeswoman Patti Rockenwagner said. The second wave of standardizing the channel lineups, which was to have begun last Wednesday, will begin a week later instead.

“I would urge customers to consider this like remodeling the kitchen,” Rockenwagner said. “You pull down cupboards and move everything out, but when you put it all back, you have the kitchen of your dreams. This is not a convenient process, but with the changes, we can offer better service down the road.”

The company will offer thank-you gifts over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend of 1-cent movies on demand and free viewing of subscription-only National Basketball Assn. games. Separately, the company is offering its Southern California customers lower-cost Internet and digital TV service for a year.

Time Warner joined with Comcast in July to buy properties from bankrupt Adelphia. The two companies then swapped territories to give each other larger shares of different metropolitan areas. Time Warner ended up with 1.9 million customers from Ventura to Newport Beach to Hemet — covering nearly all of the city of Los Angeles.

In exchange, Comcast took over Time Warner’s customers in Northern California.

Complaints erupted Oct. 21, when Time Warner began realigning channels as it started switching 220,000 Comcast Internet customers from Comcast’s system to its own. Many turned on their home computers and found they couldn’t get to their e-mail accounts.

A software program was supposed to help customers reconfigure their modems to work with Time Warner equipment, but it didn’t always succeed. Many customers who didn’t use Comcast e-mail frequently had forgotten their passwords or had older modems that needed more attention.

Jeff Guga, a Mar Vista architect, said he was on the phone for more than five hours, frantically trying to get his new e-mail system working so he could retrieve plane and hotel confirmation numbers for a trip.

“I told the guy, ‘This isn’t my problem. I shouldn’t have to spend five or six hours of my time just because you bought my account,’ ” Guga said. “The guy hung up on me.”

Los Angeles officials, who monitor complaints about cable TV service, said calls surged last month. In October 2005, Adelphia customers filed 118 complaints with the city. This year, the number shot up to 206. In Comcast areas, complaints more than doubled, from 41 to 87.

Patrick David Campbell, a deputy Los Angeles County district attorney in Santa Clarita, was upset that Time Warner moved 10 channels, including Turner Classic Movies and Hallmark, from the basic tier to the digital tier, typically a higher-priced service that requires a set-top box.

“Then to add insult to injury, when you go to those channels, the screen says, ‘Missing channels?’ and tells you to call Time Warner Cable for digital service,” Campbell said. “I’ve had Time Warner for 10 years, and that’s the most blatant thing I’ve ever seen them do to get you to buy digital TV.”

The digital TV offer that Campbell saw, Rockenwagner said, amounted to an increase of 5 cents to $2 a month. A yearlong promotional rate announced this week shaved $5 a month off the basic digital TV package.

Digital service is a key growth area for all cable companies because it is the platform for a host of new products, including telephone service and video on demand.

Calls to Time Warner about changes in its offerings, aimed at making channels uniform throughout the area, came mainly from customers who hadn’t read mail the company had sent and didn’t know the change was coming, Rockenwagner said. Typically, customers wanted to know where to find their favorite programs.

The company acknowledged that the more serious problems involved lost Internet connections and e-mail issues.

David Levinson, a screenwriter in Hancock Park, still is dealing with erratic e-mail service.

One day, friends and colleagues can’t get messages through to him. Another day, he gets 200 e-mails from a local store. Then the e-mail server goes down completely. His fall-back has been his company e-mail system, which doesn’t rely on Time Warner.

“I haven’t called their computer tech people because I’ve been too busy and too lazy to do it,” Levinson said. “But I also know I can’t reach anybody anyway. Reaching a person is not possible. Everybody has been telling me that.”

Rockenwagner said the e-mail changes were inconvenient but necessary.

“We see this as a one-time problem that doesn’t spill over to customer service issues down the road,” she said.

Based on the glitches, the company sent notices to about 400,000 former Adelphia Internet customers in recent days saying that the e-mail transition scheduled for this week would occur sometime in December.

Time Warner expects that transition to be somewhat easier than the Comcast changeover, even though twice as many customers are involved. That’s because the company bought Adelphia’s servers as well, so customers won’t be moved to other hardware.

Time Warner also plans to send e-mail notices with user names and passwords along with other information to help navigate the switch. And it’s beefing up its five Southern California customer service centers and one in Colorado Springs, Colo., to handle more complaints and help requests. The company recently added 350 agents to its force of 1,200 and plans to add 150 more.

The company has improved its once-poor customer service. A customer satisfaction survey by J.D. Power & Associates in August showed that Time Warner ranked above average in three regions of the country but below average in California and 15 other Western states.

Industry analyst Charles Golvin of Forrester Research Inc., also a Time Warner customer who has had service problems, said customer service agents simply weren’t tuned in to individual problems. They often suggest, for instance, that customers check out the company’s online help — even after being told that they can’t get online.

“Not a very good start,” Golvin said, “considering that [Time Warner] has been pitching high-quality customer care.”

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